Creating a Legacy of Service: How to Engage Citizens

This is a guest post by Mayor Dayne Walling, Flint, Mi. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 1 - flint, miWith the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, Mayor Dayne Walling and the city of Flint, Mi., were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint. (image courtesy of

The city of Flint is making great strides in transforming the city block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Our Cities of Service Love Your Block initiative is a critical component of our strategy to harness the power of service and citizens to make a real, measurable impact on the ground as we aim to win the fight against urban blight. As an AmeriCorps alumnus, I believe in the power of citizen service and understand the significant impact of people working together toward a common goal. In Flint, we aren’t only engaging community members to volunteer, but also asking them to help us plan. We want to make sure the things we do are answering the needs of our citizens. The more time and effort we invest up front, the more invested our community members will be for the long term.

Flint became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2009, when I signed the Declaration of Service and committed to using impact volunteering to tackle the challenges of neighborhood blight and emergency preparedness. I joined the coalition because I value the role that Cities of Service plays in helping mayors engage citizen volunteers, forge connections across cities, and bring awareness to the issues that cities are facing.

To accelerate neighborhood revitalization efforts and address the massive challenges related to urban blight in Flint, I launched the Love Your City campaign in 2012. With the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, we were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint all over the city.

We are sustaining and advancing Love Your City through new partnerships with businesses, as well as community and faith-based organizations. Because of our demonstrated success in the first year, we received a second round of funding from Cities of Service and the latest outcomes speak for themselves: to date, citizen volunteers in Flint – in partnership with city agencies and local nonprofits – have revitalized 95 city blocks, cleaned and maintained nearly 300 blighted properties, hauled away more than 2 million pounds of yard waste and trash, and created 116 green spaces and community gardens. Love Your City is truly a movement that is making long-lasting change in the livability of our city and in how citizens feel about their blocks and neighborhoods.

Love Your City is now part of implementing Flint’s new master plan, Imagine Flint, the city’s first comprehensive, long-range plan in over 50 years, developed with input from a diverse group of more than 5,000 Flint residents and community stakeholders. With Imagine Flint as our guide, we will continue to address challenges across our city, including improving public safety, emergency preparedness, opportunities for youth, health, and reducing blight with service-fueled solutions like Love Your Block.

We continue to face significant challenges and our road to recovery will not be easy. However, I am confident that with engaged citizens, targeted opportunities, and dedicated community leaders, Flint will emerge stronger than ever before.

Love Your Block: How Birmingham Citizens are Transforming Their City, One Block at a Time

This is a guest post by Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., Birmingham, Ala. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 2 - birmingham, ala.The office of Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with various local organizations in order to revitalize communities in Birmingham, Ala. (image courtesy of

In Birmingham, implementing Love Your Block is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. Love Your Block gives my residents the opportunity to create projects that will have a deep impact on their neighborhood and ultimately improve the health, safety, and well being of the whole city.

Birmingham became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2012 – and committed to making an impact by revitalizing neighborhoods one block at a time. I was proud to receive a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant so we could tackle neighborhood blight in a collaborative and actionable way. As recommended in the Cities of Service Love Your Block blueprint, my office engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with organizations such as HandsOn Birmingham, Home Depot, and the Alabama Power Foundation in order to make a significant impact.

In the first year of Love Your Block Birmingham, we exceeded all of our impact metrics and goals. Thousands of Birmingham volunteers cleaned more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, disposed of more than 70,000 pounds of trash and debris, planted over 500 trees and revitalized 40 blocks. We were able to identify 15 future neighborhoods for ongoing revitalization projects and leveraged 13 additional funding sources to support neighborhood revitalization projects. We also realized that we didn’t just make the streets cleaner – we brought people together to work alongside one another and empowered our citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and make a real and measurable impact.

After we completed the first round of our Love Your Block initiatives, I recognized that there was still a lot more work to do. Building on our early success, I pledged to make Love Your Block a part of my citywide strategy to make Birmingham a healthier and safer city through my RISE Birmingham program. With the support of an additional Impact Volunteering Fund grant from Cities of Service, we were able to distribute 20 mini-grants to support neighborhood groups in new and continued revitalization projects. RISE Birmingham has now become a movement across the city – we plan to revitalize 60 blocks, remove 90,000 pounds of trash and debris, clean 35,000 square feet of graffiti, plant 300 new trees, and conduct 7 neighborhood clean sweeps. We have also added a community policing component and are forming neighborhood watch groups to promote a sense of pride and community for neighborhood residents.

Like so many cities in America today, Birmingham has faced and continues to face many challenges. As mayor of this great city, it is my duty, privilege, and honor to bring people and organizations together to solve our challenges. I want every resident to know that I will continue to work on the issues about which they care most deeply and I am constantly focused on moving Birmingham forward in the best way I know how: through citizen engagement and collaboration among nonprofit, public, and private partners. Love Your Block has become an essential piece in the puzzle for a brighter future for Birmingham and I look forward to continuing to find out what it really means for residents to love their blocks by deepening our impact across the city.

Impact-Volunteering Improves Literacy, Youth Success and Safety

This is a guest blog post by Marcia Hope Goodwin, and the second post in a multi-part series from NLC, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Cities of Service on the national and community service movement and its impact on cities and towns nationwide.

Orlando-ChildrenOrlando Mayor Buddy Dyer reads to children.

“I believe our plan is a progressive, resourceful and collaborative approach to impact-volunteering, helping address our pressing city needs through citizen service, while expanding volunteer opportunities in Orlando and increasing the spirit of volunteerism across our Central Florida region.” -Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

In 2010, the City of Orlando was awarded a Cities of Service Leadership Grant, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, which enabled Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city’s first Chief Service Officer, Marcia Hope Goodwin, to coordinate a collaborative community engagement process to develop the city’s first high-impact service plan: Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Cities of Service: ORLANDO CARES.

Through stakeholder meetings and nonprofit partner feedback, Mayor Dyer and Ms. Hope Goodwin identified youth literacy, improved education, youth crime reduction, and community safety as the major challenges facing the city that could be addressed by engaging community members in impact-volunteering initiatives. More than 800 stakeholders and partners from all sectors of the community helped to create ORLANDO CARES and its initiatives. Since the plan’s launch in March 2011, Orlando has added programming based on Cities of Service Third Grade Reads  and Volunteer CPR blueprints to their initiative.

Orlando-GardenThe City of Orlando’s partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has been an integral part of ORLANDO CARES’ success. CNCS has provided AmeriCorps VISTA members that have increased outcomes, built capacity and increased sustainability in all of our programs. To date, 25 National Service members, including AmeriCorps VISTAs and Public Allies, have served in ORLANDO CARES, giving their year of national service to our country through city government and our community partner organizations. Our current Cities of Service Coordinator, Hiba George, is an AmeriCorps VISTA alumnus who, completed a year of national service with ORLANDO CARES, and was subsequently hired by the city to coordinate the program.

The six ORLANDO CARES initiatives serve many age groups, ranging from preschool students to high-school students. These programs allow for a wide range of volunteer opportunities for citizens, businesses, corporations and organizations. Volunteers who have a green thumb may enjoy mentoring upper elementary students in The Garden, a program that provides a safe and constructive opportunity for youth to connect with nature. Professionals may choose to volunteer for PathFinders as career coaches for middle school students. If a volunteer prefers a one-on-one mentorship instead of a group dynamic, 3rd Grade Reads powered by Read2Succeed offers an opportunity to tutor 1st or 2nd graders in vocabulary and/or reading fluency during an academic/school year.

Providing a variety of opportunities for volunteers enables us to engage more members of the Orlando community in meaningful ways. The volunteers who have given their time and dedication to ORLANDO CARES have a fantastic time doing so, as they build their social networks and increase their skill set, while making a tremendous impact! Each year the city hosts volunteer appreciation receptions, giving the Mayor, Chief Service Officer and staff a chance to thank the valued volunteers.


Since 2011, more than 6,310 youth have been served in all of the programs and over 2,200 volunteers have been engaged. Through the Mayor’s leadership, the ORLANDO CARES initiative has engaged over 35 community partners and has been offered in 29 schools and 13 community centers. Specific program details include:

  • Through the Preschool Ambassadors program, volunteers read aloud weekly to preschool students and engage families in early literacy activities. To date, more than 1,500 students and families have participated in reading more than 4,500 stories. 85% of participating families have enrolled their children in pre-kindergarten programs.
  • More than 1,800 youth have joined Mayor Buddy’s Book Club for middle school youth, committing to read one book every six weeks and complete book activities with encouragement from volunteers. 98% of participating students report that they have increased their leisure reading as a result of the program.
  • Youth participants in The Garden program have planted more than 550 container gardens. Participants also maintain outdoor garden plots, learn about healthy foods and explore careers in agriculture. 95% of the student participants report understanding the importance of fresh produce in their diets.
  • Volunteers that work in a variety of professional fields help middle school students in the PathFinders program to identify their interests, explore career options and create academic plans to support their goals. 100% of participating students have avoided school suspensions and have GPAs higher than 2.5.
  • 3rd Grade Reads powered by Read2Succeed volunteers tutor first and second graders to improve their vocabulary and reading fluency. The weekly activities make reading fun and improve students’ academic performance through practice, encouragement and praise. Last school year, 100% of participating students increased their reading fluency and significantly improved their vocabulary.
  • Take Heart Orlando (Volunteer CPR), our community-wide Hands-Only CPR/AED initiative led by our partner, the Orlando Fire Department, provides a 30-minute training to city residents, businesses and organizations. Volunteers take action and save lives by registering and getting this lifesaving training. Volunteers assist as CPR trainers and pledge to train at least five others in Hands-Only CPR. More than 3,900 volunteers have already been trained since 2013.

As the City of Orlando continues to grow, service-involved citizens have become a significant part of the landscape of the city. Our ORLANDO CARES volunteers are positively impacting the education and safety of Orlando’s youth, their families and our entire community.

Through ORLANDO CARES, we are engaging volunteers in programs that help youth improve their academic success, increase their literacy skills, plan viable career choices and avoid the juvenile justice system, while improving the overall safety of our city. In our plan, we have created volunteer opportunities that impact educational outcomes and contribute to the safety of our community.  – Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

For more information about ORLANDO CARES, please read our Orlando Cares service plan or visit our website.

Marcia-Goodwin-BlogAbout the author: Marcia Hope Goodwin is the City of Orlando’s Chief Service Officer and Director of the Office of Community Affairs and Human Relations. In 2010, when Orlando was awarded a Cities of Service Leadership Grant by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer appointed Marcia to lead Orlando’s Cities of Service, Impact-Volunteering Plan, development and implementation. ORLANDO CARES, has successfully increased youth literacy and improved community safety.

How Cities Address Tough Challenges Through the Power of Service

This is the first article in a multi-part series from the National League of Cities (NLC), the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Cities of Service on the national and community service movement and its impact on cities and towns nationwide.


By Kathryn Rotondo (cityyear), via Wikimedia Commons

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the U.S., we like to bemoan the civic disengagement we see all around us: the people who don’t vote, volunteer, or take an avid interest in current events. And by we, I really mean me, as I wrote a blog post on this topic less than a month ago. But like most things, the state of Americans’ engagement in the community is truly a matter of perspective.

You can fret over the just under 2/3 of Minnesotans who don’t volunteer, or you can rejoice over the 37.7% of Minnesotans who choose to devote a portion (or more) of their free time to serving others. Whereas last month I chose to focus on engaging those who have not been active in traditional forms of civic participation, today I want to celebrate that latter group, the people of all ages, regions, and walks of life who have chosen to serve their communities.

As NLC’s members know, local communities are stepping up to the plate to make tangible improvements in people’s lives. In many ways, the national service movement has stemmed from a similar place. People, including many young people, have an intense desire to take matters into our own hands, to put our boots on the ground in our own cities and towns in order to address everything from climate change to the high school dropout crisis.

This passion for problem-solving is seen everywhere from the church that holds a food bank for community members in need, to the local businesswoman who clears her calendar every week to make time to read with children at the neighborhood elementary school. And, increasingly, it is being seen in the form of organized volunteering through both federal programs including Senior Corps and AmeriCorps, and local programs such as mayoral offices of civic engagement or service.


By Liz Roll (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.), via Wikimedia Commons

This more coordinated approach to volunteerism has given rise to “impact volunteering” – the idea that regular citizens are capable of making measurable differences in our communities in response to focused goals. It more fully incorporates volunteers into the operations of cities and towns, making them not just individual actors, but a part of a concrete vision for community improvement.

By including volunteers in an overall strategy, impact volunteering acknowledges their power, recognizing the vital, but often underappreciated role they play. It also allows city leaders to determine which needs are most acute in their communities, and gives cities a low-cost, high-impact tool to address those needs.

National service is another vital resource that city leaders are increasingly using to address critical challenges in a focused, strategic way.  More than 400,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members serve at 60,000 locations in 8,500 cities across the country, tackling pressing challenges including tutoring and mentoring underserved youth, removing blight and increasing public safety, and helping communities recover from natural disasters. AmeriCorps members multiply their impact by recruiting and managing other community volunteers – more than four million last year alone.

In Baltimore, Md., the significant number of individuals suffering from substance addictions was identified as a critical issue facing the community by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Recognizing the key role that volunteers can play, and with support from Cities of Service, the mayor launched the “Recovery Corps initiative,” in which 100 volunteers, themselves recovering from addictions, are placed in recovery centers in order to help guide others through sustained sobriety.

In existence only since 2011, the Recovery Corps volunteers have already worked with 603 individuals to help them “enter, stay in, complete, and/or manage recovery after treatment,” in addition to having “provided support services or linked individuals to support services in 1180 instances.” Despite being a low-cost, volunteer-based program, the Recovery Corps is having a measurable impact in the city of Baltimore.


By vastateparksstaff, via Wikimedia Commons

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has worked to strategically engage citizens in addressing local challenges, particularly in the areas of education, food security, community revitalization, and youth engagement.  Mayor Nutter has made extensive use of AmeriCorps VISTA and other AmeriCorps resources to increase citizen engagement and volunteer impact.

In 2013, the City of Philadelphia launched PowerCorpsPHL, a workforce development initiative for Philadelphia’s young adults that uses AmeriCorps as a vehicle for job training and skills development.  While serving as AmeriCorps members, participants support Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department in planting trees, revitalizing public land and preserving the City’s watersheds.

Given the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers and the emergence of the Millennials, there has never been a better time for cities to embrace community and national service. These two populations, not to mention those in between, are an incredibly rich resource for our communities; by making strategic decisions now, cities will be able to harness the service movement like never before, leading to truly transformative change in our nation.

Over the next few months, CitiesSpeak will feature blog posts from NLC, Cities of Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service and city leaders as we showcase the power of service and the concrete steps that can be taken in order to ensure that your community benefits from this movement.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University and an AmeriCorps alum who served with City Year New York from 2010 – 2011.