Civic Spark in Portland

Aug 22, 2012

Michelle Nunn finds inspiration in Portland, Oregon.

I am fascinated by people’s stories of the sparks that ignite their passion to change the world. When I was in Portland, Emily Gilliland, executive director of Oregon's Campus Compact, laid three different matches on the table to illustrate the ignition points in her service journey.


  • A matchbook represented her high school’s 75-hour service requirement – a quick light to get her started. While serving at the Red Cross, she discovered that adults were interested in her ideas and were even willing to take direction from her.
  • A short box match signified her year with AmeriCorps – challenging, but enriching – a strong spark to further impel her commitment to service.
  • Finally, Emily pointed to a long, sturdy match – the kind that might sit on the hearth of your grandmother's fireplace and is guaranteed to start a fire. When Emily joined Hands On Baltimore's Serve-A-Thon, she quickly moved from volunteer to staff person. Hands On Baltimore was just beginning to define community challenges and galvanize the human capital and talent to help meet those needs. This was a powerful light for Emily.
portland winner

Emily's metaphorical description of the service sparks in her life called the question about how Points of Light and the larger nonprofit sector can create the strong, reliable, readily available matches every individual needs to kindle their civic leadership over a lifetime.

People come to Portland for its open, creative, generative spirit of community. Mayor Sam Adams is leveraging that spirit of collaboration to reverse the dropout rate by creating a ladder of support and engagement. Kali Thorne Ladd from the mayor's office told me about Portland’s Cradle to Career Framework, a civic coalition patterned on Cincinnati’s Strive model and focused on collective impact and equity in education for every student

In a roundtable with Oregon's Campus Compact service leaders, I learned how local universities and colleges are instilling citizenship as central to the experience of higher education. Pacific University requires every student to complete at least one civic engagement course or project to graduate. University of Portland is known for its extensive “plunge” program – service learning immersions exploring issues ranging from food security to environmental justice. For the Civil Rights immersion, students spend three weeks visiting major Civil Rights sites and a racial reconciliation farm community before participating in a Habitat for Humanity rebuilding project.


All of these higher education leaders were struggling to ensure high quality and depth in their offerings, while including the broadest possible spectrum of students. They were grappling with both the increasing costs of college and how to fully integrate national service resources into the community college or university experience. They raised the question of how we might include service as a way to reduce student debt.

When I met with our Hands On Portland team, I was reminded of the power of joining together to serve and how this can inspire and sustain the spark of service. TeamWorks is a program that I actually remember from my Hands On Atlanta Days. It has spread and now runs in cities ranging from Portland to Seattle to Boston. The basic idea is that diverse people come together to work on a series of projects over a period of time and reflect upon the projects together. Some teams work together on a thematic focus like education, others focus on a neighborhood. Some TeamWorks teams have opted to stay together for many years. Each TeamWorks team has a special chemistry and becomes an introduction to fellow citizens and an orientation to community needs. It was fun to see that magic still has power. Check out a Portland TeamWorks volunteer's amazing blog about his TeamWorks experience. It inspired one of his fellow volunteers to commit 10 percent of her waking hours to volunteering for one year. That adds up to 12 hours a week and 40 hours a month.


To light the “civic spark” in my children, we volunteered at The Children’s Book Bank. My kids did a terrific job of cleaning gently used books to be given to low-income preschool children. Children’s books are a luxury for many families – while the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is approximately 13 books to one child, the ratio in low-income neighborhoods is a mere one book to 300 children. Dani Swope, a former Teach for America math teacher and mother of four, wanted the books her children had outgrown to go directly to families and children who need them. Dani packed up her books, took them to local Head Start programs and soon started getting calls looking for the “book lady.”

Inside the Portland Book Bank

Dani began collecting books from friends and an organic effort was born that last year involved thousands of volunteers and distributed 96,000 books to kids – every Head Start preschooler in Multnomah County received a bag of 16 books to take home and keep. HandsOn volunteers account for about half of The Children’s Book Bank’s volunteer hours. More amazingly, HandsOn volunteers turn around and organize book drives and recruit their co-workers, Scout troops, faith groups, sports teams, families and friends to the effort.

For Dani, the civic spark was born out of an impulse to share her love of books and her own children's beloved library with other kids. The spark ignited a movement of caring families and volunteers. Portland is full of civic vitality and sparks that have been nurtured into bold flames of leadership and citizen engagement. How can we help provide the civic networks and support systems that form the sturdy matches of ignition and light to propel Emily, Eric and Dani?

P.S. We expanded our ice cream quest to include donuts and discovered Voodoo Donuts here in Portland, including the Bacon Maple special that is worthy of the 30-plus minute wait.