The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America

Society gives a smile and gentle pat on the head to the volunteer who reads a book to a child, clears trash from a park, or delivers meals to senior citizens. The nice guy or gal lending a helping hand through national service also gets a grateful thumbs up, though some scoff at the notion of being paid to do good.

But to Shirley Sagawa, service isn't nice; it's necessary. Strategically focused volunteering goes way beyond doing a good deed, she believes, and those performing national service are well worth the modest amounts we pay them to boost the impact of volunteers many times over and provide services that volunteers can't. Together, she argues in her new book, The American Way to Change: How National Service & Volunteers Are Transforming America, they're a powerful force that can help solve challenges in childhood development, education, health, aging, poverty, natural disasters, the environment, and other critical areas.

A presidential appointee in both the first Bush and Clinton administrations and leader of the Obama transition team at the Corporation for National and Community Service, Sagawa has picked an opportune moment to promote her call to service. The federal government is in the nascent stages of implementing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will expand the size of AmeriCorps from 75,000 members to 250,000 by 2017. So it comes as no surprise that her book could serve as a dissertation proving President Obama's assertion that "service isn't separate from our national priorities or secondary to our national priorities — it's integral to achieving [them]. It's how we will meet the challenges of our time."

To that end, the first section of The American Way to Change examines the impact of service on those who perform it, with an emphasis on the sense of purpose it brings to people facing major life transitions (the onset of one's teenage years, retirement, recovery from a health crisis), as well as the job skills, networking opportunities, and improved mental and physical health it can provide. Sagawa puts flesh on her points with concise, touching anecdotes — about a high school dropout and drug dealer whose involvement in the YouthBuild program gave him the motivation to get off the streets and finish school, a recent college grad who switched careers from business to teaching after helping a child dramatically improve her reading skills, and an Army veteran whose service helped her overcome disease, among others.

She then argues that service strengthens civic engagement and has the potential — as President Bill Clinton put it when signing the legislation that created AmeriCorps — "to rebuild the American community." Despite such lofty sentiments, increases in civic participation don't typically lend themselves to dramatic stories of personal transformation, so Sagawa relies more on academic studies, history, and common sense to make her points. Those inclined to serve, she writes, are more likely to stay involved by joining the PTA, voting, volunteering for a political campaign, or starting a nonprofit of their own. Moreover, in an era when cable news networks stake out positions on the right or left as a matter of routine and negative headlines dominate, it makes sense that first-hand experience with a tough social problem — and sticking around to see the good that can result when a group of committed people come together to make a difference — is crucial in overcoming our individual and collective cynicism about public and private institutions.

Even more convincing are chapters that reveal how effective volunteering and national service are in tackling specific problems. If the heart isn't moved by the individual stories she relates, one's head is likely to be convinced by the concrete results Sagawa presents in support of her argument. For example, there's Experience Corps, a group of 50-something volunteers who helped children in low-income urban schools achieve "60 percent greater gains in sounding out new words and reading comprehension than similar students not served by the program." Or Give an Hour, whose volunteer medical professionals have provided more than $1.7 million in free services to U.S. military personnel and their families. Or the AmeriCorps members in Michigan who helped raise the productivity of Habitat for Humanities affiliates in the state from completing one new house a year each to a total of 2,000 homes in 20009.

Moreover, because Sagawa avoids moral arguments — her tone is practical, not preachy — her book is likely to strike a chord with readers across the political spectrum. Indeed, toward the end of the book she separately addresses individuals, businesses, nonprofits, educators, philanthropists, elected officials, those in the media and entertainment industries, and policy makers, laying out what each can do to make a difference and maximize their effectiveness, discussing the importance of measuring results and making service intentional, and reminding readers how service can benefit those who engage in it. Even for readers unmoved by the plight of the less fortunate, her arguments are likely to be compelling.

Sagawa is a big believer in AmeriCorps and its expansion, but she doesn't argue for one particular strategy over others when it comes to making organized service a bigger part of American society. She notes that many high schools now make service-learning a requirement for graduation, but with school districts answerable to local and state officials, she understands that there are limits to how much the federal government can do to spread the movement. And she treads carefully when mentioning the possibility of mandating service for those receiving welfare or unemployment benefits.

Consistent with the policy acumen she put to good use in helping draft the legislation that created the Corporation for National and Community Service, Sagawa argues calmly but forcefully that we can't afford to neglect service in our arsenal of problem-solving strategies. Whether it's helping low-achieving kids do better in school, reducing recidivism among parolees, helping the unemployed secure stable employment, or reducing the risk of disease and infirmity among the elderly, service should be viewed as a cost-effective tool in our social toolkit, and we can either invest in the infrastructure needed to put it to good use now — or pay a bigger price down the road. Whether you're a deficit hawk or a believer in "big" government, it seems like an easy choice to make.

Dave Block
Associate Director, Web Content/Social Media
Lafayette College
Easton, Pennsylvania