Remarks by Nicola Goren at the Congressional Black Caucus 2009 Annual Legislative Conference

Remarks by Nicola Goren at the Congressional Black Caucus 2009 Annual Legislative Conference
Sep 23, 2009

- As prepared for delivery -

Thank you for that kind introduction, and good morning everyone. I’d particularly like to thank Chairwoman Barbara Lee for her leadership, along with the rest of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the foundation, for all your work in pursuit of a more perfect union.

It’s an honor to be here today, and I’m very excited by your Pathways Out of Poverty agenda, because I believe national service has an important role to play.

But first, a little background. I am the acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve programs. Our roots go back to the 1960s, when Attorney General Bobby Kennedy started a task force on national service that led to the creation of VISTA as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

VISTA, which has since become part of AmeriCorps, is focused exclusively on poverty reduction, and indeed virtually all of our programs at the Corporation support service as a strategy to help the disadvantaged and most vulnerable members of our society.

The President and First Lady come from service backgrounds, and they have made it a high priority in office. Both lead by example as frequent volunteers, and the White House put a lot of effort into winning passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which authorizes the largest expansion of national service in a generation, and encourages new levels of innovation and cooperation in the non-profit sector more broadly.

This is a very exciting time for the service community. Leaders from all across our society increasingly recognize that service is not just a nice thing to do. It is an essential part of the solution to our most pressing national problems, including alleviating poverty.

President Obama has called on all Americans to serve, and Americans have answered the call. This year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service was by far our largest ever, and the United We Serve initiative brought nearly 650,000 visitors to our web site,, where they can search by zip code from more than a quarter of a million service opportunities across America.

We at the Corporation take pride in having quickly distributed our Recovery Act resources into communities like the ones many of you represent – helping, among other things, to prevent mortgage foreclosures and teach financial literacy. But our real challenge has been keeping up with the surge of interest in volunteering. Applications to AmeriCorps alone have nearly tripled this year compared to last.

We all know that these are tough economic times, and the economy has hit some communities harder than others. Our job at the Corporation is to put volunteers on the ground with the mission of helping to bridge these gaps, meet unmet needs, build pathways out of poverty and strengthen communities for long-term prosperity.

We have proven the power of national service and volunteering time and again – and here are a couple of examples:

· In the late 1990s, African American students across the city of Madison were 6 times as likely as white students to fail third grade literacy tests. So about 36 percent of black students were illiterate in 3rd grade, compared to only 6 percent of white students. Enter 15 AmeriCorps VISTA members. These VISTAs recruited 600 volunteers – university students and citizens – to stand up and say “I care.” By 2007, that performance gap was erased. Less than 3 percent of both black and white third-graders failed the literacy test.

  • More than 15,000 members of our Senior Companions program help 57,000 frail, elderly Americans keep living independently in their homes – and out of expensive institutions – by assisting with simple chores, providing transportation, and simply being a friend.

Our challenge now is to take these individual success stories and target our resources toward affecting that kind of impact nationally. This is what the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which you passed earlier this year, envisions.

Specifically, the new law prioritizes five major areas of service: Education, Health, Clean Energy, Veterans, and Economic Opportunity and Community Renewal. The Act also creates a focus on social innovation, authorizing the Corporation to identify and support innovative models for meeting social challenges in communities. All of these efforts affect your constituents, and we are very excited at the prospect of a partnership between the Corporation and the CBC to help get the word out about funding opportunities and new initiatives.

In addition to creating this kind of impact in communities, we have substantial evidence and research that shows that the impact of volunteering goes so far beyond the blessings received by its beneficiaries. Engaging in service changes the volunteer, too – sometimes even more than the recipient. It helps people feel more of a part of their communities, and more vested in improving them. Perhaps most of all, service improves a person’s self-confidence and feelings of self worth, improving the volunteer’s life and prosperity in the process. It’s the ultimate win-win.

And so the more we continue to engage all of our citizens in their communities and our country, the more invested our citizens will be, and the more likely they will be to find their own paths out of difficult circumstances.

This is at the heart of the President’s belief that the sense of collective purpose that was the foundation of civil rights movement can also be a driving force for a new generation to carry forth the service banner and help rebuild our communities, block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood.

Service unites people in common purpose. It is profoundly egalitarian, because, as Dr. King said, anybody can serve. Today we have an opportunity to build on his vision of an even greater nation, with new resources, new leadership, and a renewed commitment to moving forward.

Thank you again for having me here today. I’m looking forward to building a partnership with the CBC as we work toward our common goal of ending poverty.

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