A group of mayors from around the country, including New York City's Michael Bloomberg, are awarding a new set of grants on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The grants will go to ten cities, and are designed to encourage service in urban areas.
Part of the Edward M. Kennedy Service America Act, the grants will be awarded by the Cities of Service Coalition – a bipartisan group which Mayor Bloomberg helped found – and the Rockefeller Foundation. Among other things, they will fund ten Chief Service Officers, who will help develop and implement citywide plans to increase volunteerism. In advance of the announcement in Chicago later today, we talk with Mayor Bloomberg about these new grants and how they may help encourage more service in our cities.
John Hockenberry: In these tough economic times, what is the challenge to boost volunteerism in a city like New York? Here to talk about that is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, good morning Mr. Mayor.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg: Good morning John, Miles, thank you for having me. I can't think of a better time to boost volunteerism than when the economic times are tough. That's when people need help, and that's when those who want to help are focussed on it, so it's a natural time to pull together and to harness one of the great resources that we have, and that's the drive and creativity and dedication of the average American.
HOCKENBERRY: And I guess we're seeing that resource mobilized in the response to the earthquake in Haiti and I think some have said that more needs to be done because of the level of devastation. But how do you avoid the message that the last thing people who are out of work need now are calls to go volunteer; that the actual work is what people really need, not short-term volunteerism. How do you supplant that message?
BLOOMBERG: Well more than one person out of work said to me 'you know, I'm out of work, I'm looking for a job, but I have the time to volunteer. I don't want to waste the time. I'd rather be working, obviously, but while I'm waiting to find a job, what better way to spend the time than spend my time making a better city, state, country, world?'
HOCKENBERRY: Well let's hold on to that for a second. So you're hearing from people who are unemployed, who do have the time, and want to make the most of this transitional moment. What is the infrastructure that you and some other mayors around the country are putting in place to boost this?
BLOOMBERG: Well back in last September we started a coalition of cities, with 17 mayors, and I'm going out to Chicago right after we finish this interview, to be with 80 of them. And these 80 city mayors have gotten together and said 'the president asked us to have a new era of service, the president pointed out we face great challenges, but that people want to help, and what we've got to do is pull things together.' The cities are very different from private organizations in that cities represent an enormous number of people, they have resources at their disposal, they have the bully pulpit. But what we've got to do is make sure we can connect those who do want to volunteer with those who run the organizations that provide the services, and make sure that the volunteers' time is well spent. And whether you want to go and knock on the doors of the senior citizens and say 'get your flu shot,' or whether you want to help paint the roofs of your buildings white to reflect energy and reduce the amount of energy consumption and our carbon footprint and dependence on foreign oil, whether you want to teach people how to do CPR, or mentor a child in school, or plant trees, you know, there are thousands of things you can do. And lots and lots of people who want to help. But the problem has always been they don't know where to go. So what we've done here in New York is we've hired a person to run our-Diahann Billings-Burford who is our Chief Service Officer, as far as I know the first in the country-and then thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation we're going to announce today ten cities out of the 50 who have applied, who will be getting a couple hundred thousand dollars grant so that they can go and hire their own. And this person's job is to pull together those who want to reach out and those who want to be reached out to. And you can also do things like common vetting and helping volunteer organizations buy in bulk to reduce their expenses. There are a whole bunch of things we can do, and I don't think there's a better day to kick it off than Marin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday.
HOCKENBERRY: Let's step back for a second and talk about that Chief Service Officer. That's really a management model that's been one of your successes here as you are beginning your third term as New York Mayor. The 311 model, where you consolidate the help lines of a variety of government agencies under one roof and under one sort of symbolic address where you go to get help. Is that really the model here, to consolidate a number of volunteer opportunities at one location so that people can quickly find out what they want to do?
BLOOMBERG: Well I think the question is what is your objective? If you really want to help people, you have to make sure that with whatever resources we have, whether they are human resources, or monetary resources, or the power of legislators to enact laws, you have to make sure they're focused on where they can really make a difference. Not just where you really feel good, where it's fun to be, or where you get good articles in the paper. And so concentrating the expertise of the professionals who know what is needed with the enthusiasm of those who can actually make a difference really will in the end help society a lot more than if you just do it helter skelter. So sure, we're trying to instill a re-countability and responsibility model which is exactly what you do in your house, or your school, or your city.