Posted on 01. Jul, 2009 in Social Innovation
I was sitting in the East Wing of the White House next to Bob Grimm, Director of Research and Policy Development for the Corporation for National and Community Service, waiting for the program to begin. I turned to him with my camera and camcorder in hand and asked, “Have you been here before?” He replied, “Yes, but it never gets old.”
It went all too fast – but yesterday was indeed a historic day in which President Obama set forth a Community Solutions Agenda. I like the way that sounds. It focuses the conversation on two core elements of this work: “community” and “solutions.”
But wait, let me back up. I arrived at the White House about 45 minutes early and waited outside the east entrance gate with one of the early pioneers in social enterprise, Ed Skloot, former President of the Surdna Foundation and now at Duke University. As guests slowly arrived, all waiting for the gates to open, I was impressed by how the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation had invited an excellent cross section of the field. Julius Walls of Greyston Bakery, Gara LaMarche, head of The Atlantic Philanthropies, J.B. Schramm from College Summit, the leadership from the America Forward coalition, David Gergen and his son Chris, Bill Drayton and Diana Wells from Ashoka, Zack Rosenburg from the St. Bernard Project, the author David Bornstein, and Kris Prendergast from the Social Enterprise Alliance. Though at the same time, I didn’t know half the people there. The only noticeable omission was the for-profit social venture field, but that’s a topic for a future blog. The White House press release listed all the attendees.
The gates opened as scheduled at 12:45. We walked our way through various corridors until we arrived in a grand room with portraits of presidents on the walls, including Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. Inside various rooms on each side were more portraits of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. Marble busts of Washington and Lincoln were also on display – you could feel the significance of the activities that had taken place inside these walls. Cameras flashed, camcorders rolled, and people who often don’t get to see each other were getting reacquainted while waiting for the program to begin.
As scheduled, we were ushered in at 1:30 to a long narrow room. At the front was a podium with the Presidential Seal. In the back were photographers, videographers, and reporters. It looked exactly like the press conference room we see on C-SPAN.
The program began with excellent remarks by Stephen Goldsmith, the former Chair and current Vice Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service and now at the Kennedy School. That was followed by four presentations by different people that have developed solutions to social problems: Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone; Robert Chambers, Bonnie CLAC; Pat Christen, HopeLab; and Vanessa Nunez, Genesys Works. Each presentation was unique and special in its own way. “Kudos” to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation once again – it was clear Sonal Shah, Michele Jolin, Charlie Anderson and Carlos Monje are working hard to cast a wide net as they selected speakers who represent a broad range of organizations and people, many of whom would not be considered “brand names.”
All of this was a great warm-up to the main attraction, the President’s arrival. His remarks, a little less than 15 minutes, were quite amazing. He set forth an agenda for a new way to work on the social issues we face today, which will indeed propel the dialogue to a whole new level.
I want to share a few quotes from the President’s remarks that I thought were of particular importance:
“So if anyone out there is waiting for government to solve all their problems, they’re going to be disappointed. Because ultimately, the best solutions don’t come from the top-down, not from Washington; they come from the bottom-up in each and every one of our communities.”
“The bottom line is clear: Solutions to America’s challenges are being developed every day at the grass roots – and government shouldn’t be supplanting those efforts, it should be supporting those efforts. Instead of wasting taxpayer money on programs that are obsolete or ineffective, government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs like the ones here today and helping them replicate their efforts across America.”
“And it’s absolutely possible if we’re willing to work together to give organizations like these the resources they need to reach their fullest potential and have their fullest impact, and if we’re able to ensure that best practices are shared all across the country, that we’ve set up a strong network of ideas. And that’s precisely the idea behind the $50 million innovation fund included in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act – an initiative designed to assist community solutions like these that we’re asking Congress to fund this year.”
“And today, I’m announcing that I’ll be asking Melody Barnes, who is our director of the Domestic Policy Council, and our innovation team to lead this process, traveling across the country to discover and evaluate the very best programs in our communities. And we won’t just be looking at the usual suspects in the usual places. We won’t just be seeking the programs that everybody already knows about, but we also want to find those hidden gems that haven’t yet gotten the attention they deserve. And we’ll be looking in all sorts of communities –- rural, urban, and suburban – in every region of this country, because we know that great ideas and outstanding programs are everywhere – and it’s up to us to find them.”
“We’re going to take this new approach, this new way of doing business, government-wide. So we’ve already set up a What Works Fund at the Department of Education – $650 million in the Recovery Act that we’ll be investing in the most successful, highest-impact initiatives in our school districts and communities.”
“Our non-profits can provide the solutions. Our government can rigorously evaluate these solutions and invest limited taxpayer dollars in ones that work. But we need those of you from the private sector to step up, as well.”
“If we work together – if we all go all-in here – think about the difference we can make.”
“In the end, that’s what this effort is about. It’s not about the old partisan lines in the sand. We know there’s nothing Democratic or Republican about just doing what works.”
Are we “ALL IN”?
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