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The Participation Problem Solver

Kyla Fullenwider | GOOD

March 22, 2010

SonalShah

The Obama Administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is charged with finding, amplifying, and scaling innovative solutions to social issues. The office’s five full time staff members are innovating where they can and asking others to fill in where they can’t. Not quite a year old, the office has written its job description on the fly, figuring out exactly what it can and cannot do legally, and where it can be most effective. The Kennedy Serve America Act, one of its largest efforts to date, passed with bipartisan support in April of 2009. Now the office is working to disburse a $50 million “social innovation fund,” a public-private investment vehicle meant to help bring the best ideas and practices from communities and nonprofits to scale.

Sonal Shah, the office’s head, is engaging and unflappable. Shah can type fast, talk faster, and still get it. She has an eye for economies of scale, and an entrepreneur’s stomach for experimenting. An economist by training, Shah founded a nonprofit, worked with the Clinton Administration, and helped conceive of the office while working on Obama’s transition team on leave from Google.org. GOOD talked to Shah about civic engagement after the Obama campaign, driving cross-country and growing up in Texas.

GOOD: For anybody who was around during the Obama campaign it would be hard to argue that civic participation is dying in America—there was this gusto, this momentum. But what’s happening now?

SONAL SHAH: The campaign taught us there was a goal: to elect Barack Obama. We’ve found a real thirst to solve problems. I’m an optimist by nature and my general sense is that when we have asked, people have participated. Our challenge is: How do we create opportunities that can have a real impact in communities?

G: The idea then is to find projects and models around the country that are working?

SS: Exactly.

G: And then scale them?

SS: Amplify them. Scale them. Exactly.

G: So many community initiatives are often just these one-off projects. Do you think there’s a way for your office to share lessons learned to scale the efforts?

SS: Absolutely. We need to find a way and that’s an aspiration for us– to find and share those solutions across communities so people know if something happened in Sacramento, maybe it could happen in L.A. Or something happened in the Bronx, maybe it could happen in the East Village.

How do we build the next generation of partnerships? It’s not a “you do this and I’ll do this and you know, we’ll call it a contract.” It’s a real partnership. There are some things that civil society just knows better. Community groups know communities, government knows how to do process, and business knows how to be efficient. How do you combine some of that expertise and bring those together?

G: Where did you grow up? In California?

SS: I grew up in Texas.

G: In Texas.

SS: In Houston.

G: What was one of your favorite neighborhoods in Houston?

SS: You know it’s so hard to say. When we were growing up it was a really suburban neighborhood and so basically it was getting up, going to school, playing tennis. Wherever you played sports was the neighborhood you lived in and so our neighborhood was probably our favorite place because we used to play kickball, basketball, baseball, tennis. The best place to be was wherever we could play a sport.

G: So most recently you moved from Northern California to Washington, D.C.?

SS: Yes. I joined in March of last year. I left on a Wednesday from California and drove cross-country and got there on a Sunday.

G: Driving cross-country? Had you done it before?

SS: I had only done Texas to California and Texas to the East Coast but I had never done the country, the whole stretch. So my dad flew out and drove with me. It was great.

G: I made that drive out on my way to California and it really gives you this scope…

SS: This perspective…

G: A total landscape change.

SS: Especially when you’re driving and you get from Utah and the next thing you know you’re in Kansas. And then you’re in Pennsylvania and everything’s so different, and you realize how big this country is.

G: With all your traveling in your new role, have you seen any projects you think have particularly stood out?

SS: I was in New Hampshire and saw a program called Families in Transition—somebody found a way for homeless people to come live in a place that’s dignified and also gives job training and has a business there, a second hand furniture store that funds the space. The person who started it had been homeless herself and realized, I don’t want other people to have to go through what I went through. It’s just amazing how people use their experiences. I was in New Mexico and met a young woman in Albuquerque who had started a charter school for her tribe. Different tribes had started different pieces, somebody had started a summer program, somebody started a scholarship program and started bringing them together. And so it’s just fascinating watching how these solutions have come from problems they have seen. In essence they’re entrepreneurs. Like business entrepreneurs they see a market gap and they fill it. And what they’re really getting is social return out of it, not a financial return. But it’s still productivity, it’s still a gain—all those grand economic terms. But in essence what it’s doing is helping a community. Because the government’s not doing it and the private sector is not doing it, so they are filling that gap.

G: It’s amazing what can be done with what seems like very little.

SS: Right. Scarcity brings invention. And it’s just amazing to see the number of inventions there are.



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