Shirley Sagawa’s New Book Sees Citizen Engagement as a Solution

By Put Barber, editor of the Nonprofit FAQ on Idealist.org.

Shirley Sagawa has been a source of creative energy for the growing national service movement in the United States for 20 years – from serving on Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff when the first tentative steps towards AmeriCorps were accepted by President George H. W. Bush, to cheering on the day President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in Washington, DC last spring.

Her recent book, The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America, builds on this experience to document the reasons for the success of this idea. It offers accounts of the positive impacts service has had on participants. It shows the ways the rapid growth in their numbers has made possible both expansion of needed services and brave experiments with new ways to address enduring challenges facing individuals and communities. And it talks about a future in which the engagement of active citizens could—and, if she has anything to say about it, will—“solve the seemingly intractable problems holding back this country from achieving its full potential.”

I had a chance to catch a small glimpse of all this a few days ago when I represented Idealist.org at a job fair for participants hosted by the Northwest Community Programs of the Student Conservation Association. The energetic high school juniors and seniors were sharing stories about their work on trails and beaches and environmental awareness fairs while looking forward to college, summer jobs and continued connections to projects and organizations like the ones they had met during their service. Sagawa’s book spans the nation and the possibilities with statistics and stories that show, over and over again, the positive effects of these programs on participants and communities of every sort.

(Not everyone is convinced of the potential of national service, of course. For a strong contrary view, see this recent column on Blue Avocado.)

Sagawa ends her book with a chapter on what’s needed now. Her recommendations “focus largely on the ‘demand’ and ‘systems’ parts of the service equation….if they are done right,” she says,” the supply of volunteers will be there.” “Demand” refers to the ways organizations and communities plan their work so volunteers can made real contributions. “Systems” points to the channels of communication and exploration that bring volunteers and tasks together in productive ways. Creativity in both will indeed be needed alongside the anticipated expansion in the numbers of participants. For national and community service advocates like Shirley Sagawa, the need for creative energy isn’t over yet.

(You can order The American Way to Change from Amazon.com; a royalty will be paid that helps support Idealist.org.)


This article was originally posted on Idealist.org’s homepage blog. Books reviewed on Idealist.org previously:

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