09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NYC's Most Active Citizens

There is a movement sweeping our city this week rooted in a commitment to a common cause: active citizenship. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg's launch of "NYC Service," our city has set out to change the standard for how cities can invigorate people to address their greatest challenges. It is the Mayor's way of answering President Obama's nationwide call to service primarily by using volunteerism to address the capacity gap at the local level. According to the Mayor, the NYC Service charge is to oversee more than 40 different initiatives that will aim to achieve three goals: "making our city the easiest place in the world to volunteer, targeting volunteers to address the city's greatest needs and promoting service as a core part of what it means to be a citizen of the greatest city in the world." The NYC Civic Corps, the largest initiative of NYC Service, plans to drive volunteer activity to NYC's most pressing needs: strengthening communities, helping neighbors in need, education, environment, health, and emergency preparedness.

You might be thinking, how is this possible? In a city of millions, unified civic engagement across this wide spectrum sounds like an ambitious task. Even at the urging of President Obama, does a city as vast and diverse as New York have a common cause among its citizens and if so, how would we be united under such a cause? I can think of one example.

Remember for a moment our nation in the early 1950s when volunteerism legislation was deemed silly by some in Congress but was actually later passed in 1961. The legislation proposed that young volunteers act as missionaries overseas--something we all know now as the Peace Corps. There was doubt that American unification to improve foreign relations through volunteerism would ever work, but it did. Today, the Peace Corps is an established program run by the U.S. Government that has American citizens working overseas in areas ranging from education to the environment. This unified cause was identified in a public-private partnership nearly 50 years ago and still thrives today.

So active citizenship does work and has for many years. But very often, we forget that we have more in common than not and when we come together for a shared cause and set aside individual differences, we as a city and a nation can accomplish that much more.

In today's complex world, we no longer have the option of existing in isolation. No single person, organization or government is capable alone of mobilizing all the resources required to meet the challenges we face. Through what I call 'the power of we', each one of us has the responsibility to work together to create the kind of partnerships that underlies our dream of a truly civil society, a society in which all people have the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential and contribute to their communities.

One of the most eloquent spokesmen for this philosophy of life was the late John W. Gardner, who served our nation as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Johnson, and was the founding chairman of Common Cause. In his essay The American Experiment, Gardner wrote about the opportunity created by times of trial and challenge:

When the American spirit awakens it transforms worlds. But it does not awaken without a challenge. Citizens need to understand that this moment in history does in fact present a challenge that demands the best that is in them.

Most Americans welcome the voice that lifts them out of themselves. They want to be better people. They want to help make this a better country. Awaken them to what they can do for their country, the country of their children and their children's children.

These stirring words are as meaningful today as they were when Gardner first penned them. And here's another quotation from Gardner that's a special favorite of mine--nine words he used to sum up what he called the Democratic Compact:

Freedom and responsibility,

Liberty and duty,

That's the deal.

No matter what our field of endeavor--whether we are business people or politicians, educators or homemakers, health care workers or artists, scientists or clergy--bringing this world a little closer to the realization of that vision should be the ultimate goal of all our efforts. Regardless of the business or enterprise you are in, everyone has a responsibility to be a good citizen and has a responsibility to the communities around them.

Higher education, I believe, is among the most effective means to instill the sense of opportunity, responsibility and community. I am both honored and proud of the groundbreaking work of Tufts University (my alma mater and home of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service) in the field of active citizenship and civic engagement. Its model and research are setting the standard for higher education's role in civic engagement. Every student, on three Tufts' campuses, is served by Tisch College and each student leaves Tufts better prepared to be a lifelong active citizen. If you graduate from the dental school, you leave thinking of yourself not simply as a dentist but as a "Citizen Dentist," the veterinary school, a "Citizen Veterinarian," an undergraduate degree in economics, a "Citizen Economist," and so on. Everyone has something to contribute.

Active citizenship is not an option. It is our duty. NYC Service is currently providing the blueprint for civic engagement and allows New Yorkers to engage in their role as citizens. Ask yourself what you have to offer and go to to get involved and be part of our city's exciting active citizenship history.


Jonathan Tisch is Chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, Co-Chairman of the Board for Loews Corp. and host of television's Beyond the Boardroom with Jonathan Tisch. He is currently writing his third book entitled "Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World."