National Service Agency CEO Keynote at Conference Town Hall

Jun 29, 2010

Patrick A. Corvington, CEO

Corporation for National and Community Service

2010 National Conference Town Hall Keynote

New York City

June 29, 2010

Thank you, Mark for that gracious introduction and for agreeing to serve as the new chair of the Corporation’s board of directors. And I also want to thank Eric Tanneblatt, who has agreed to serve as vice chair. You both demonstrate extraordinary leadership and always provide me with sound advice.

That was a fantastic tribute to Steve Goldsmith. I want to personally thank Steve for his outstanding leadership as chair of the Corporation’s board of directors for nearly a decade. Steve has literally written the book on service and social innovation in America. He has always insisted that the Corporation be judged on one simple measure – did we make a difference.

Steve, I will miss your wise counsel and blunt honesty. And I know I speak for everyone in the Corporation family when I say thank you, not only for what you have done for us, but for what you continue to do for our country.

You know, with all the problems facing our nation I want to take this opportunity to have an honest and candid conversation with you. I know a good host is supposed to make his guests feel comfortable. But I think I would be doing you, this meeting and our movement a disservice if I did not take this opportunity to engage in a frank and open dialogue about where we have been and where we need to go. This moment calls for both congratulations and a challenge. It calls for an admiring look at the past as well as the courage when necessary, to change.

I want to begin with a personal admission that may be shared by some of the people in this room. We’ve all talked for years about how what we do makes a difference in the lives of our fellow citizens. How we are agents of change. I would like to believe that – I want to believe that.

Maybe it’s because I’ve grown older, but I feel a sense of urgency to look back in order to look forward. To look at the last twenty years of work and gaze honestly at my accomplishments, the difference I’ve made, the lives I’ve changed.

And for me, looking back takes me to the small towns around Lake Ochechobee in South Central Florida. Twenty years ago, I worked those towns as an organizer and advocate for migrant farmworkers.

I left those towns and headed north carrying with me the smell of sugarcane and citrus.

I made my way to the streets of Baltimore where I worked on HIV/AIDS issues, ran a shelter for kids, and then onward to national policy jobs and to the Obama administration. But the feel of those towns – Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahockee, has stayed with me over the years.

A couple of years ago, I was attending a meeting in Florida, a meeting of like minded nonprofit leaders- and I decided to drive out to those same small towns – a pilgrimage of sorts.

There where it all started for me, I was struck by how little had changed since I first walked those streets. There was the same poverty. The same desperation. The same despair. And that got me to thinking, for all my hard work and good intentions those many years ago, did I really make a difference. Sadly, the answer was staring right back at me – through the faces of the same boys hanging out on corners, the same houses in disrepair, the same communities struggling.

I am sure some of you have had the same experience. The experience of looking at the past and feeling discouraged ….And that is really what I want to talk with you about today.

You see, we don’t just do this work because it makes us feel good. All of us, in this room, we do it because bit by bit, day by day, we want to add one more building block in the construction of our more perfect union.

You look around and you see kids dropping out of school, you see environmental disaster, you see poverty. And rather than turning away, you say No. Not on my watch. And, you choose not to be a bystander. You choose to embrace the challenge with the courage and conviction to be part of the solution rather than witness to the problem.

These issues we face everyday are too big to be left to one leader, one organization or even one government. But more than that, they are too big and their success too critical to be left to the chance of good intentions. These problems will be solved only with the courage to stand for something that matters – to stand for results.

In order to step up to this challenge, we need to reconnect with that part of our souls that drives us to make a difference no matter what the odds. It’s this passion that inspires me and you to take our work to the next level so that instead of saying “I hope I made a difference” we can say “I know I made a difference.” But what does that mean? I could list10 things that we all need to do, but instead I am only going to name one:

Focus on a narrow set of outcomes and drive relentlessly toward those results.

It’s easier said than done. Take a well-known example from right here in New York City – Harlem Children’s Zone. I know, I know, it’s a story with which we are all familiar. A story we’ve heard many times. But it resonates because is touches us. When HCZ was still called Rheedlen Centers, it ran a number of successful programs – youth-development services, family support networks, a senior center and a homelessness prevention initiative. Under the leadership of Geoff Canada, HCZ decided to narrow its focus to equipping the greatest possible number of children in a 100-block area of Central Harlem to stay on track through college and go on to the job market. In the process, HCZ made some difficult choices. It wasn’t easy to spin off or shut down worthy programs that were outside its core mission. Imagine what it must have been like to say to staff, donors and more importantly the clients that benefited from these programs that the elimination of one worthy program was needed so that another could achieve more. But these difficult choices are paying off – more kids are starting school ready to learn, more kids are reading at or above grade level, more young adults are graduating high school and pursuing higher education, and more are entering the workforce and giving back to their community… like those who serve at HCZ as AmeriCorps members.

Some argue that focusing on a narrow set of results may stifle innovation. I disagree. In fact, I believe it opens up the possibility for innovation. As Alexander Graham Bell, one of America’s greatest innovators, put it, “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” We see evidence of it today, as HCZ’s approach is inspiring the creation of Promise Neighborhoods across the country. And we see it in countless communities where people and organizations are finding new and interesting ways to tackle the challenges they face. We must continue to foster that American spirit. We are part of a legacy of community solutions that compelled a French visitor to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, to describe us as “ a people who confronted their problems and addressed them.”

Earlier this year in a speech in College Station, Texas, President Obama echoed that sentiment by reminding us that “The history of America is the story of patriots who set forth the ideals that animate our democracy, and all those who fought and died for those ideals. It's the story of women who reached for the ballot; and people who stood up, and sat in, and marched for justice. It's the story of firefighters and police officers who rushed to those burning towers, and ordinary people who rushed to the aid of a flooded American city.”

Those movements were inspired by the relentless focus of visionaries who give their lives for a specific result – the right to vote, the aid of those in need. Though those movements have passed, today, right now, our moment has arrived. Our moment to make a difference, a difference that’s enduring.

Just as the freedom riders of the 1960s rode into the south to take a stand against the tyranny of segregation, we now must fan out across this country to defeat the tyranny of failing schools.

Just as the environmentalists of the 1970s took a stand to protect and guarantee clean air and clean water for future generations, we now must mobilize to help the victims of natural and man-made disasters rebuild their lives and their communities.

This is the transformative power of service that spans generations and circumstances of birth. Soon after VISTA was created, Jay Rockfeller – then 27 years young – left a comfortable life in New York to go to West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer serving in the small mining community of Emmons on the Boone-Kanawha County line. The experience of fighting poverty in a mining town changed his life, which he has since dedicated to serving the people of West Virginia, now as their Senator.

Forty years later, Dr. Allan Comp from the Office of Surface Mining at the Department of Interior created a VISTA program that fights poverty in mining towns like Emmons by recruiting volunteers to monitor water quality and educate the public about environmental issues. I was honored to present Dr. Comp with a Service to America Medal earlier this year, and he in turn honored who he considers the true heroes – “the local people who help their communities and the OSM/VISTA teams that help them do that.”

We cannot overestimate the transformative power of people in need becoming people who serve. Gwen Moore was an expectant mother on welfare and now she is the Congresswoman from Wisconsin’s Fourth District. She found her calling as a VISTA member. Her leadership in creating a community credit union earned her the VISTA Volunteer of the Decade award.

We can find stories like Congresswoman Moore’s all across this great country. When I was in Los Angeles last month, I visited Hope for the Homeless, an inspiring program that recruits AmeriCorps members who have lived the very lives they are trying to change. Sitting before me in their blue shirts, they talked about leading lives of purpose, leading lives of meaning, about what it means to have people depend on them, believe in them.

Some, like Gina Parnell, have spent the better part of their lives in prison, others on the streets. But, all of them – every single one of them – has been transformed by AmeriCorps, by service.

Transformation is not easy. It takes courage. The courage to cross boundaries, the courage to reach outside of our comfort zones, most of all the courage of humility.

But if the AmeriCorps members at Hope for the Homeless have the courage to change their lives, if young people have the courage to step into the current of history, to step towards challenges then surely we have the courage to ask more of service, to have both the transformational experience and the transformational results of a young person who graduates from high school and change their life. Or a single mother who finds a job and can fulfill every parent’s dream to make her children’s lives better.

At the end of the day, it won’t mean a thing if we increase the number of volunteers and a million kids are still dropping out of school. It won’t mean a thing if 15 million people are still out of work. It won’t mean a thing if our communities continue to decline.

For too long, too many of us have been satisfied with saying, “we tried.” That’s no longer good enough. We must not only try, we must succeed. But the only way we will be successful is if we have the courage to plant a stake in the ground, draw a line in the sand and say we are willing to be measured, to be judged, to be held to account.

This is our moment – what we have worked for, over the years has brought us to this moment:

We have a President who gets it. We have a First Lady who gets it. We have bipartisan support in Congress. More Americans are stepping up to serve. And we have a mandate to place service at the center of our response to big national problems.

And when I say this is OUR moment, I mean everyone… Whether you are Jay Rockefeller or Gina Parnell. Whether you are a kindergartener beginning a lifetime of service thanks to a service learning program at your school, or a Foster Grandparent enriching a child’s life. Whether you are responding to disasters as an NCCC member or fighting poverty as a VISTA member. Whether you are at a big national organization or a small community group. Whether you are Harlem children’s Zone or Hope for the Homeless. Whether you are in the public, private or nonprofit sector.

It is up to YOU. It is up to US. Together we can solve intractable problems. The President has said – we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. So it is up to us earn our rightful place in history. It is up to us to step boldly forward. The time is now.

Thank you.

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Samantha Jo Warfield
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