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Empowering Cities Through Service

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Henry David Thoreau wrote that, "City life is millions of people being lonesome together." Viewed from afar, city life can indeed appear impersonal and isolated. But that view, to turn a rural cliché on its head, misses the trees for the forest. Most cities are really a collection of local neighborhoods, with their own identity, their own traditions, their own sense of community. And the values that are traditionally associated with small towns -- looking out for your neighbors, pitching in at local events, supporting civic causes -- are finding new footing in America's cities, thanks in part to President Obama's call for "a new era of service."

In 2009, New York launched NYC Service, a program designed not merely to increase volunteering, but also to direct volunteers to the city's toughest problems -- and measure our success in addressing them. In just over a year NYC Service helped the city train over 50,000 New Yorkers in CPR, administer 160,000 H1N1 vaccinations, educate 4,400 students on emergency preparedness, send 3,500 care packages to New Yorkers in the Armed Forces serving overseas, and paint over 225,000 square feet of roof tops with reflective paint to help buildings reduce their carbon footprint. And our team of 175 specially trained AmeriCorps VISTA members -- the NYC Civic Corps -- mobilized more than 50,000 volunteers who served more than 700,000 of their neighbors.

New York City was able to do more, better, and faster thanks to the help of volunteers, who often worked alongside city personnel to extend the reach and impact of city government. And especially during these tough budget times, having extra sets of hands is enormously valuable.

Mayors from communities around the country see the same benefit. To support them in their efforts and encourage others to join in, we created Cities of Service, a national coalition that now includes 100 mayors dedicated to using service as a serious strategy to address local challenges. In January, the Rockefeller Foundation, with its longstanding support for urban innovation, partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch the Cities of Service Leadership Grants program, which awarded grants to ten of those cities, with each winner hiring a full-time Chief Service Officer.

These Cities of Service, from Seattle to Savannah, are establishing innovative citizen-service strategies to address challenges from public safety to homelessness to struggling schools. They're engaging local funders, small businesses, and universities in coordinated efforts to address these longtime problems -- while developing plans to bring critical federal Americorps resources into their cities. They are also using service to address emerging issues. In Nashville, for example, Mayor Karl Dean is crafting service strategies to help his city recover from the recent historic floods.

This week, at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, we will announce grants to place Chief Service Officers in ten additional cities. These men and women will help mayors develop innovative new approaches to old problems -- and, in doing so, strengthen the foundation of our democratic society. Since the days of de Tocqueville nearly 200 years back, America has been a nation of joiners. But never before have citizens -- especially in big cities -- had such opportunities to have an impact on their communities.

In fact, just as the internet and social networking sites have helped democratize the news media by drawing in more voices, Cities of Service is helping to democratize governance, by drawing in more citizens and empowering them to get more involved in their cities' civic lives. And if he could see this transformation happening, Thoreau might even trade Walden Pond for Central Park.