Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama issued a call to service urging Americans to serve their communities and country in whatever way possible. Charged with helping citizens answer that call is Patrick Corvington, the newly appointed head of the federal agency known as the Corporation for National and Community Service. The agency oversees all of the volunteering programs in the nation, including AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, and helps nonprofits recruit, train, and manage volunteers. Corvington has devoted his life to serving and empowering communities. He began his career as a social worker, traveling the East Coast helping migrant workers. He has served as a patient advocate in a community HIV/AIDS clinic, conducted policy research at the Urban Institute, volunteered on the boards of several nonprofit agencies, and most recently was with the Annie Casey Foundation, where his responsibilities included training leaders of nonprofit organizations. Recently Corvington’s agency announced that the number of Americans who volunteered for an organization last year increased from 61.8 million to 63.4 million—the largest increase in volunteering since 2003.
How do you think about responsibility?
I fundamentally believe that people want to live lives that matter, that what people are searching for is something to hang on to that gives them meaning, and that volunteer service helps them find it. It’s very American. Past presidents have always had some version of a call to service. But I do think that President Obama especially believes that government should not and cannot do it alone; citizen service is a critical lynchpin to change.
How did your upbringing influence your commitment to civic engagement?
It was just the kind of family I grew up in. We were all about: you go to church, go to Sunday school, and just be generous with people in need. We always had people living in our house whom my mother invited in: a pregnant young woman, or someone who was kicked out by their family and had nowhere to go. That’s how I learned the value of making a difference, being part of an engaged, civic society. My family escaped with nothing when they were exiled from Haiti by Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963 ; you cannot escape how that influences you too.
You feel very connected to Haiti, yet you were actually born in Africa, correct?
Yes. I grew up in a Haitian household speaking French and Haitian-Creole in expatriate communities in Africa after my parents were exiled from Haiti. With the African independence movements, and the colonialists leaving, Africa needed French or English-speaking people who were civil servants or lawyers, as my father was. We lived in Congo, where I was born; then in Uganda, where I learned English in second grade; then Morocco. I became a U.S. citizen in 1993. We were not allowed to go back to Haiti until the Duvalier regime ended. I went in 1986 when I was 19 or 20 and met my family there for the first time—including some cousins we sadly just lost in the earthquake.
After the earthquake, American families donated millions of dollars to help Haiti. Is that generous, do you think?
I think the world has been generous and Americans extraordinarily so.
How do you get Americans interested in civic engagement on a global level?
If we connect on an individual level with people from elsewhere then from that grows a greater understanding of people and culture, which connects us to the rest of the world.
There’s a lot to be done here at home. New immigrants from around the world aren’t just coming to the big cites but also to exurbs, to small towns; they need friends and neighbors.
Look at me, for instance. You’d assume I’m an all-American guy, but I immigrated here as a teen. Only if you know my history and family do you start to understand where I’m from and who I am. American friends who know me know where I grew up, so they feel a connection and want to do something about Haiti or places in Africa where I lived. It becomes about “my friend Patrick and his family.”
Do Americans really walk the walk when it comes to volunteerism?
I think we do. The numbers are up dramatically. And too many people think of volunteerism too formally, as if by not filling soup bowls as part of an organization, then you aren’t really volunteering. My mother is a good example. If so-and-so is in the hospital and she’s making food for them or taking care of some kids because the parents are sick, that is service. But that goes unreported on many surveys.
Are there causes for which you find it especially challenging to rally people?
Certain areas just are not popular, like helping prisoners re-enter life outside. And then there are social problems that people genuinely care about, like health care or poverty, that are so big that people wonder how they can really make a difference. My agency helps people break it down and find ways for any individual to help.
You have two young daughters. How do you teach them about civic engagement and social responsibility?
The greatest social responsibility my younger daughter has right now is to sleep through the night! But with her older sister, we’re always doing things together with school, the community center, even neighborhood clean-ups. There are many kids who are not as fortunate as she is, so at Christmas and Easter we remind her that donating is important. We want her feeling responsible for those less fortunate so it becomes part of her a natural orientation.
How do you encourage that orientation in adults?
By creating ways for people to connect with others and with institutions that need help. We have to meet people where they are. That’s the role of the National Days of Service we organize on September 11, on Martin Luther King Day, and so on; we can get people engaged who wouldn’t normally be. They can paint a school, or plant trees. What we hope is that they will begin to think differently, look back at what they accomplished, feel good, and do more.
I strongly recommend SERVE.gov to anyone looking for a way to contribute. You can figure out what causes interest you, enter your zip code, and get a list of opportunities near you. You can also post your own projects and look for others to help you. It is a very informal, citizen-to-citizen process.
How do you stay inspired?
It’s a challenge to remain inspired and be inspiring when you are in the day-to-day grind. It sounds corny but I have two pictures in my office. In front of me is Dr. King and behind me is a picture of President Obama. Between those two is a whole history of service. The photos are strategically positioned so that I can see them when I am working but most visitors cannot see them. They remind me why I am here.
Laura van Straaten is a former television producer and journalist for NBC, CNN, and PBS, and a contributing editor to The Daily Beast.