Monday, September 26, 2016

Redefining Volunteerism

Jonathan Tisch

“Young people today who are in college are sophisticated and knowledgeable about the challenges we face as a society,” says Jonathan Tisch. Photo: Donald Rockhead

A Tufts undergraduate who starts a group to bring music to local schools. An event organizer who founded charity: water to bring clean water to developing countries. A former IBM executive who switches careers to teach entrepreneurship to inner-city kids.

These are just a few of the people that Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, highlights in his new book, Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World (Crown Publishers), written with Karl Weber. Their efforts go way beyond a simple act of volunteerism, he says. They are trying to solve underlying problems that beset local and global communities and become active participants in an effort to bring about positive change.

Encouraging people to become active citizens engaged with their communities is important for Tisch. His naming gift of $40 million helped establish the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts in 2006, and now, with Citizen You, he is employing the lessons learned at Tufts and elsewhere to motivate others to follow suit.

Stories about Tufts students, faculty and alumni are woven throughout the book. Chris Swan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is featured prominently for his efforts to develop what he calls citizen engineers. Swan represents “the leading edge of engineering education in the United States—part of a growing movement to transform the professions from merely technical fields into avenues for social, economic and even political reform,” writes Tisch, a Tufts trustee who is chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels and co-chair of the board of Loews Corporation, the hotel chain’s parent company.

Even though Tisch highlights many people and organizations leading this transformation of volunteerism into something deeper and more sustainable, what he really wants is for his readers to get involved, too. Sprinkled throughout are what he calls “seeds for action”—ideas to spark reader involvement—and the book ends with a chapter on 52 ways “to join the movement.” A related website—www.citizenyou.org—has even more stories and ways to get involved.

Tufts Journal: There have always been charities around, and people doing good works. How is active citizenship different from that?

The mission of becoming an active citizen causes one to look inward and understand how important it is today to use a model of skills-based volunteering. So it takes the action of volunteering to the next level. It goes beyond doing the actual work, which is commendable, and it allows for a process where you get to the root causes of some of the challenges we face as a society. Then you can use your skills, which everybody possesses in some manner or form, to not only help in terms of volunteering, but also in trying to figure out how we can solve the problem forever.

Who is becoming active in this movement?

We’re seeing all sorts of examples of different entry points, of men and women who want to engage more in community-based activities. For example, the young people today who are in college are sophisticated and knowledgeable about the challenges we face as a society. They’ve grown up in a very different era, where they see our resources are not unlimited—in fact, they’re quite limited. They have also grown up in this digital age, where there is so much information available to them immediately about what the problems are and how they can help to ameliorate the problems.

There also are sadly millions of individuals who currently, due to the economic crisis, aren’t working, and they want to put their time to good use, and they can incorporate their skills and their knowledge base into community work. And then you’ve got people who have made a good living in the private sector like the example we used in the book [the IBM manager who teaches city kids], who look at themselves in the mirror and say, “I want to do more. I want to use the experience I’ve had over a long and prosperous career, and I want to try to solve some of the problems, not just volunteer for a day and think that I’ve focused on my responsibilities.”

A New Way of Looking at Volunteering

How does activism today compare with earlier efforts?

It’s more practical now. People understand there are others in the community they can work with, that you can start small and grow and accumulate scale, and as you grow some of these organizations, we can solve these problems. And once again, because of the times we live in, you can become what we call in a chapter in the book a digital citizen, sitting back in your kitchen or your den and trying to figure out how you can get things done. It’s very much a different world, where people know there are problems and they want to do something about them.

Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?

This book was written as a reaction to this movement, this groundswell of concern that we see in this country, where there is a sense of responsibility that is now matched up with great need. There always has been a great American proclivity toward volunteering, and now in President Obama we have a leader who embraces this kind of thinking. At a more local level, you’re starting to see engaged elected officials, such as we have here in New York City in Mayor Bloomberg. He has tasked all eight million New Yorkers to figure out a way to serve the city they call home with the organization NYC Service [link: http://www.nycservice.org]. So when you combine all of those factors, it seemed like a very appropriate time to publish a book like Citizen You.

You had advantages in life growing up—what inspired you to take this direction?

It was the ability to look at my father and my mother and my uncle and my aunt. When they were growing our business, every step of the way they acknowledged how they needed to support the communities where we were living and being raised. This was not something that was mandated in terms of doing some form of public service. It was just something that became part of our DNA—it was inculcated into us at a very early age, as we witnessed their good deeds by example, not by lecture. That was just how we were raised. I’ve been fortunate that through this, now my third book, to tell some stories. But this book is more personal, and it’s more hopeful because of the promise that I see in terms of people wanting to do something.

You devote a chapter to social entrepreneurship—providing social benefits through for-profit businesses. Is it a particularly good fit in America, where the entrepreneurial spirit is strong?

This whole notion of corporate social responsibility is now the topic of many conferences, and many big companies and small companies have put senior executives in charge of their CSR programs. They are realizing that the old saying—you can’t do well and do good at the same time—is not true anymore. You can focus on your bottom line and do what’s right. As you’re enhancing shareholder value you can do appropriate work in the community. That’s another reason why this movement is timely.

There are many Tufts connections in the book. Do you think Tufts’ approach to active citizenship should be used as a model for other universities?

Tufts University has been a standard-bearer in the effort to educate the young people in our colleges and universities about their responsibilities in the communities during their school years and after they graduate. So as we were looking for examples of active and engaged citizens, it was only natural to showcase Tufts, where people understand the philosophy behind how important it is to be active and engaged.

You must be proud of the work of the students who go through Tisch College and then go on to do really impressive things.

Very much so, and that’s why I was very clear in one of the early chapters to say that this discussion is close to me. I’m proud of my years of viewing the work being done at Tufts and understanding how that really ties into this discussion that has been so important in my life. It’s quite humbling to be able to simply point to the work being done at Tisch College and say this really is a template, this really is a roadmap for how we can get more done in the community.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.