The Power of One Person to Transform and Unite
In honor of National Volunteer Month
by Debra J. Berg
America is polarized over the Economic Stimulus package, health care, presidential candidates and what is and isn’t politically correct. But there’s hope for unity long-term thanks to an army called volunteers. How so? A new breed of volunteer has been fueling an emerging and growing movement for over two decades now and it’s transforming the nation’s cities and neighborhoods with a new twist. As individuals, they represent a myriad of political viewpoints but, collectively, they’re unified on the value of alleviating human suffering. Some, much like Bruce Wayne of Batman fame, swoop in and rescue the less fortunate with grassroots solutions they’ve invented to address chronic poverty, housing shortages, crime, youth issues, or other social ills. In the process, they engage volunteers of other races, ethnicities, and religions. The shining result is a united citizenry rallying against the “bad guys” by coming up with social cures that are confounding the experts!
Why the lack of a celebration? Partly, there’s low-level acclaim for these efforts because grassroots innovations have only recently received serious review by academia and the government. It’s also because these humble heroes tend to avoid the media spotlight and focus on those they serve. But grassroots solutions or any social cure for that matter, seldom draws mass media attention like social crises do. This is highly unfortunate because all of this new citizen creativity is unprecedented in American history and sparks real hope for our country’s destiny and unity.
Who are these innovative superheroes? Five of them founded the nationwide Amber Alert child abduction prevention program in 1996, which replicated nationwide in only seven years without one piece of government paperwork. Hundreds of children have been rescued and lives saved. A businessman and a pastor designed a jobs-training program on a napkin during lunch one day. That 9-month program, Jobs for Life, is now operating in over 240 cities and touts an 85%,
1-year job retention rate for the previously unemployable. Yet another heroin, Brenda Eheart, has engineered Generations of Hope, a unique community comprised of unrelated “grandparents”, kids, and parents (built on a retired military base) that boasts an unheard-of 89% adoption rate of difficult-to-place special needs foster children. These three social inventions represent just a fraction of the many dazzling examples invented by everyday citizens. Individually, they can engage thousands of volunteers of all ages, races, and. persuasions. Collectively, they’re transforming the nation’s civic landscape.
This trend, I call the “New Civic America”, shines ever brighter because citizen cures are now replicating into hundreds of towns and cities, even other countries. Spurred on even more by the troubled economy, it’s a trend that has brought Americans out of the woodwork to go well beyond volunteering motivating them to sacrifice personal lives, 401ks, and six-figure incomes to rescue those they don’t even know. And it has thousands more tweeting ideas informally on social media as to what’s working and what isn’t. Other democracies even benefit as they hear about these new tried and tested, highly compassionate solutions. All the while, the humble civic superhero remains oblivious to their larger impact. They haven’t fully grasped how they’re breathing new life into what some consider a floundering democracy and civic culture while they unite people of otherwise disparate views and backgrounds. One might think of their efforts as “civic glue” for the nation.
In what is predicted to be a brutal battle for the presidency this fall, the pundits surmise that the U.S. will remain divided into red and blue states for decades, but maybe not. This new confederation of volunteers, a colorful political mix of heroes shouldn’t be underestimated as to their long-term impact. Years of both formal and informal interviews with them tell me that they rally on topics of helping others over their political opinions. The underlying message to policymakers is that American citizens are simply unwilling to hang-on forever for politicians and big institutions to hash out their trivial differences over fundamental needs. The process is too slow when there are lives at stake. As Mother Theresa so succinctly put it, “Don’t wait for leaders. Do is person to person.” Yet, isn’t that what democracy is all about?
The bonus to each of us is twofold; real answers for those struggling with self-reliance and a healing balm to advance national unity and democracy. The new volunteers are challenging us to participate, to rally around what’s really important; bringing self-reliance to those who are struggling once-and-for-all. As they grow the bridge of volunteerism, they lay the groundwork of hope for agreement in more areas. Scandals, trials, and politics divide us in everyday conversation. But during National Volunteer Month we’re challenged to emulate the example of the new volunteer and wave the white flag for those less fortunate. Thanks to many nameless citizen-heroes, volunteerism remains the one institution of American culture where we can, for good reason, still all agree.
Debra J. Berg, M.P.A., is the author of The Power of One: The Unsung Everyday Heroes Rescuing America’s Cities and co-author of Living in Abundance, a BarnesandNoble.com bestseller. She holds several nonprofit certifications in addition to Volunteer Management and is a nonprofit coach and trainer with the National Development Institute. She is also the founder of the National Institute for Civic Enterprise (NICE), a nonprofit project which “cause-partners” human service initiatives with business. NICE also fosters the replication of successful citizen innovations. Access her book and subscribe to Debra’s monthly newsletter, HEROES, at www.NICENetwork.org.