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Honoring Eli J. Segal – A True Entrepreneur

Divya Kumaraiah, Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, reflects on the life and work of Eli J. Segal in celebrating the two year anniversary of the Serve America Act.

Today marks the two year anniversary for the Serve America Act.  As we celebrate the progress we’ve made in looking to community solutions and innovation to address our nation’s greatest challenges, we also reflect on those who have paved the way for service.

Last month, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, had the honor of addressing students, faculty and community members at Brandeis University for the annual Eli J. Segal Memorial Lecture

Eli J. Segal was both a respected businessman and a dedicated public servant.  In the 2007 Inaugural Segal Memorial Lecture, President Clinton remembered his friend and colleague as a true entrepreneur – a man who saw problems as opportunities for new solutions.  He showed us that service could be an integral part of one’s life, not just something to squeeze into limited spare time.

Segal was a doer – someone who turned his visions into reality.  An aide to President Clinton, Segal was instrumental in driving several of the Clinton Administration’s most praised projects.  He helped create AmeriCorps – the national service program that today deploys 85,000 Americans to serve in communities across the country – and he went on to serve as the first CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency established to run the federal service programs.  Nelson Mandela turned to the “father of AmeriCorps” for uniting post-apartheid South Africa through service.  Segal and President Clinton helped realize Mandela’s vision of a black and white youth serving side by side through the creation of City Year-South Africa.  During the overhaul of the federal welfare system, Segal was the “chief implementer” – finding 20,000 companies to move 1 million Americans from welfare to work.

In her remarks highlighting Segal’s legacy, Barnes said:

"Coast to coast, country to country, Eli believed ordinary citizens could be change agents empowered to strengthen their communities, their country, and the world.  And at a time when our world is changing so quickly – when some are looking for what divides us rather than what brings us together – it is the best time to honor a person who believed in the humanity that exists in all of us – humanity that ultimately resists division and instead, brings us closer to work for the common good."

Barnes remembered past Presidents who had called on our nation to serve, and she relayed President Obama’s call for Americans to integrate service into their lives.

“…We have a real opportunity to position America to win the future.  This is the time to build new models of civic engagement – and if past is prologue, we will.  Historically, we’ve responded boldly in times of challenge by tapping into our creativity and ingenuity.  And, we’ve turned to community – rather than away from it – for solutions.”

The Administration understands that government does not and should not have all the answers.  Rather, solutions to the major challenges that we face are going to be overcome by ordinary citizens across the country taking action to improve their communities.

Tell us how you are integrating service into your life.

Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation