Thursday, April 23, 2009

Obama's "Serve America Act": A Focus on Volunteering and Mentoring

This week President Obama signed the Serve America Act into law. The Washington Post reports that the $5.7 billion bill is “designed to strengthen national community service efforts by boosting federal funding for thousands of volunteers in fields ranging from clean energy to health care and education.”

To highlight this legislation's potential benefits for students living in high poverty urban conditions, Obama, along with former President Clinton and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, chose to sign the bill into law on location at the SEED School in Washington D.C. R&B star Usher was even in attendance. SEED teachers beamed with pride. And rightly so. What SEED students have overcome in just over a decade is nothing short of amazing.

Washington Post Reporter Hamil R. Harris recalls that the corner where the SEED School operates "used to be a perilous intersection filled with the gunfire of drug dealers roaming in old sedans." My maps (such as the one above) have explored similar high-crime neighborhoods in Chicago. Who knows how many students live in these conditions in urban settings coast to coast.

Today, eleven years after SEED opened its doors, its students in the same D.C. neighborhood graduate at a whopping 98% rate. Compare that to the national average of 56%. Pretty impressive, huh?

So what's SEED's secret?

Similar to Tutor/Mentor Connection and mixed tutor/mentor programs throughout Chicago, SEED operates on a nonprofit budget, partnering with community leaders "to prepare underserved students for success in college and beyond." They do this via an ambitious "boarding program, which teaches life skills and provides a safe and secure environment." Make no mistake, this is awesome, and SEED deserves plenty of attention, accolades, and funding from donors who have been waiting to learn about a great non profit to support.

But is this truly a volunteer/service-oriented setting?

I wonder after perusing their website, why the government chose a single school (whose website as far as I can tell gives little indication they work with volunteers at all) to launch a service-oriented bill? Is what SEED doing important and worthy of praise? Of course. Not taking away from the great work they do. But do they need the volunteers this bill is supposed to inspire? Apart from the one reference to a staff member who is in charge of "volunteer recruitment," and with no mention of volunteering on their employment page at all, I can’t help but wonder, after the fuzzy feeling generated by this photo op dissipates, if there will be an effort by government or media to guide the new army of volunteers to tutor/mentor programs - programs that rely exclusively on "volunteer service."

So I'm concerned.

I'm worried this "photo op" with SEED students and Usher today will be the end of the media's attention span on the issue. I fear this will mark the beginning and end of the government's exploration of how academics plus volunteer mentoring – the very thing the money is supposed to support – combine to help students. I worry that the public will be left with a misguided perception that our tax money is helping guide new volunteers to volunteer-reliant programs across the spectrum, when in reality it might only help the high-profile nonprofits. I worry that the $5.7 billion will be picked clean before it gets anywhere near the volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs that are reaching the hundreds of thousands of students SEED cannot – in D.C. and beyond.

Am I whining? Hell no... again, nothing against SEED, but I’m here to advocate on behalf of the rest of the students. I'm screaming for media and political attention to help volunteer-based tutoring and mentoring programs.

So I implore President Obama, whose barbers from the now-legendary Hyde Park Hair Salon visited Tutor/Mentor Connection yesterday and went home with my maps (!!!) to use as tools, as social and media leaders, to build awareness among potential volunteers and donors for nonprofit tutor/mentor programs... barbers taking the lead for overlooked and underserved students in high poverty conditions on the periphery of Obama's old Hyde Park stomping grounds:

Mister President, please work with the media to help us raise visibility and support for important volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs as well. Don't walk away from SEED thinking "Mission Accomplished."

... I also plead with community-minded businesses, politicians, media outlets, and volunteers to follow our President's lead and buy into the new national spirit of "service" ...

... and do something to invest in sustaining and developing volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs everywhere, to help the millions of students who don't have the resources offered by a "SEED" yet.

Please browse the links at the right of my blog to find examples of how you and your colleagues can help....

Or if you prefer, please contact Tutor/Mentor Connection or myself with questions of how to get started.

You might also want to take another look at the cool NEW IMPROVED Program Locator to find a program near you.

And don't forget to spend some time at the Tutor/Mentor Institute, which is chock full of resources that will help you get started forming partnerships and strategies in support of tutoring and mentoring.

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