From Service Nation: Conference on Volunteering and Service: Reclaiming the American Dream

By LIFT on June 14, 2011

Categories: Events, News, Our Work

Elizabeth Clay Roy, Deputy Director, OpportunityNation


The National Conference on Volunteering and Service is the major event for the leaders in volunteering and service around the country- from AmeriCorps members to elected officials. This was the first year they included a track on economic opportunity, with a focus on how volunteers can make a constructive impact. There is simply no better place in America for that discussion than New Orleans. Even staunch Democrat James Carville and ardent Republican Mary Matalin (who recently returned to the city) agreed New Orleans would not be where it is today without many volunteers filling in to build houses and neighbors banding together to clean up their communities.

I had the chance to moderate a panel discussion “Reclaiming the American Dream: How we can Recommit to Being a Nation of Opportunity Through Service”, organized by Kirsten Lodal, founder of ON Steering Committee member LIFT. LIFT reduces poverty by assisting low-income families to get the supportive services they need and find jobs and training. Eric Schwartz of Citizen Schools authored a paper “Realizing the American Dream” in 2005 that served as a brilliant jump off point for our discussion. One of my favorite points that he makes is: “The biggest thing holding us back from creating a Great Society is that we already created a Good Society”. In 2011, given this anxious post-recession moment, when the “Good Society” doesn’t feel so good for many middle-income Americans, this may be a particularly fertile time for taking stock and setting a new course ahead.

Kristy Teskey, Senior Vice President at the Bank of American Charitable Foundation talked about their Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, the signature philanthropic program to expand opportunity at the community level.

At the Citizen Solutions for Economic Opportunity discussion, Zack Rosenburg of coalition member St. Bernard Project spoke about the city he found after Hurricane Katrina and why he and his partner Liz upended their lives to build houses for those in need. As important as each of the 371 houses are to the families who reside in them, there is opportunity in how they were built as well. The construction company they created to build these houses created dozens of good jobs for unemployed residents and veterans.

This event was a powerful reminder that OpportunityNation seeks to increase mobility and access to economic security with a strong role for the civic sector and individual volunteers, as well as through government policy and private sector commitments. ServiceNation’s new Service as a Strategy effort will help cities across the country implement high-impact service efforts to expand opportunity, and we will highlight work individuals and institutions can do to improve education and help families and neighborhoods thrive.