Our Common Call to Service

Earlier this month, proponents from across New York came together at the inaugural New York City Service Summit to issue a renewed push for citywide volunteerism. As I stood surrounded by these leaders in Hunter College's historic Roosevelt House -- the location President Franklin D. Roosevelt called home when he developed revolutionary programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Food Stamp program (now known as SNAP) -- I couldn't help but reflect on the importance of this historic site for advancing social support and engaging citizens as a way to propel our country forward. Service creates citizens, and service solves problems. Across the nation, there are ambitious efforts to expand the notion of service -- especially a service year -- as a formative, binding experience and a means to unleash human capital. This vision is more achievable than ever. People want to serve, institutions of all kinds have the capacity to host them, and the technology exists to connect young people, institutions, and funders.

The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund made service one of our flagship initiatives in 2008. Over a five-year period, we've invested more than $3 million in service-related strategies including the development of national policy with Be The Change and ServiceNation, creation of a service infrastructure in New York with NYC Service and the NYC Civic Corps, support for targeted volunteer capacity-building initiatives at nonprofit organizations, and the expansion of social entrepreneurship and mission-driven careers with Echoing Green and Ashoka US.

The NYC Civic Corps, a public-private partnership with City government, shows what a service year can achieve. NYC Civic Corps members, a diverse set of young professionals, spend ten months working full-time with nonprofit organizations and units of municipal government to recruit and manage volunteers. To date, more than 650 Civic Corps members have been in the program, serving with 113 nonprofit organizations and 17 city agencies. We applaud Mayor de Blasio for participating at the New York City Service Summit and conveying his support for this important program.

Last year we joined the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project to establish a year of full-time national service as a cultural expectation, common opportunity and rite of passage. Creating new pathways to service years has the potential to generate a catalytic opportunity both in helping young adults move forward in education and employment as well as build experiential knowledge to help impact communities.

Service also fits into our broader mission to improve access and opportunity for all New Yorkers. By channeling human capital to address pressing societal issues, service can help address problems including reducing school dropouts, re-integrating veterans into society, and an issue we at the Illumination Fund care deeply about: alleviating hunger.

Just over a year ago in February, we launched the Illumination Fund's Healthy Food & Community Change initiative, which supports innovative programs to expand availability of healthy foods and promote healthy choices in New York City. By adding in a service component, two of our healthy food grantees -- LISC NYC and City Harvest -- are even more successful.

Shatia Jackson is one of four AmeriCorps members through LISC NYC, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. LISC partners with neighborhood-based community development corporations (CDCs) to integrate access to healthy and affordable food into every aspect of their work to revitalize these communities.

Shatia is based at a LISC partner, the Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation (NEBHDCo) in Bed-Stuy. A lifelong Bed-Stuy resident, last year she joined NEBHDCo as their first AmeriCorps fellow, specifically to work on the new Communities for Healthy Food Initiative, a LISC NYC project we are supporting. And today, she leads on-the-ground outreach to engage community members in healthy food initiatives, including nutrition education and cooking classes to increase demand for healthier foods.

Similarly, Vikki Campos and Lyna Armendariz are NYC Civic Corps members working at City Harvest, an organization we support through its Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. As Civic Corps members, they're identifying and testing the best ways to recruit community volunteers from within City Harvest's five target Healthy Neighborhoods. Vikki and Lyna are also the coordinators for all volunteers at City Harvest's Mobile Markets, strengthening the organization's presence and connection to the communities that they serve. These two individuals in turn leverage hundreds of volunteers, all committed to fighting hunger and shaping healthier communities.

I think FDR would be proud.

If there's ever been a time to make a service year a common experience of citizenship and an effective means to address issues, here in New York City and across the country, now is that time.