Shirley Sagawa ’83 is sipping a cup of chai tea at the Bombay Club, a luxurious, but comfortable, restaurant a block from the White House. Fresh from publicizing her recent book, The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Changing America, she’s looking forward to taking some time to help her oldest son with his college search and catch up on, well, housework. “I can clean up for a party,” she laughs, “but don’t open a closet.”
It’s reassuring to hear this from the woman who seemingly can do it all. Consider her life so far: She has advised two presidents on public service; she regularly speaks to nonprofits around the country; she volunteers on boards, teaches Sunday school, and is co-secretary for her Smith class; and she’s mother to Jack, 18, Matt, 16, and Thomas, 11, proudly asserting that she has attended every game, meet, match, and performance each has had since 1992. Even listening to her plan the family’s vacation, it’s easy to see that Sagawa is a doer and a problem solver. And, as it turns out, we’ve all benefited from her experience.
In the nearly two decades she’s been working in Washington, Sagawa has tackled the issue of work-life balance for women, ensuring that mothers have the support they need to get back to work. But she’s probably best known as the “founding mother of the modern service movement,” as she was dubbed by journalist Steven Waldman in his book The Bill. While in the Clinton White House, Sagawa created AmeriCorps, the federal program that put millions of volunteers to work, painting schools and libraries, rebuilding houses in poverty-stricken communities, and supporting food banks and anti-homelessness initiatives across the country. In the past eighteen years, AmeriCorps has received consistent bipartisan support and has been called one of the country’s most successful federal programs, enabling Americans to undertake public service in exchange for a modest stipend that many use to further their education. “We’ve put hundreds of thousands of people to work and gotten real, tangible results from their service,” Sagawa says. “I’m incredibly proud of it.”
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Sagawa—probably the country’s foremost authority on voluntarism—isn’t particularly interested in the sort of resume-building, feel-good boosterism that often shapes politicians’ rhetoric on the subject. For her, public service has a much more profound meaning. She sees it as an important strategy in fighting—and, ultimately, ending—some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“Many people look to government to solve these problems, but while government has an important role, none of these problems can be solved by government alone,” she writes in The American Way to Change. “Service is the way to change America.”
This idea is not new to the nation’s capital—think the Peace Corps and VISTA—but in the past few years Sagawa has turned the concept of national service into a compelling contemporary movement. Whether it’s elder care, transitional housing for the poor, or restoring crumbling state parks, Sagawa believes solutions start with the army of volunteers, nonprofits, and public servants she extols in speeches and her writing. “We need to think creatively [about solving problems],” she says.
Sagawa’s own focus on public service began early. Growing up in western New York, the daughter of a doctor, she saw her rural neighbors regularly help one another out. Her father sometimes treated people for free, and she often recounts the story of how one winter her siblings got stranded at school during a blizzard and a neighbor brought them home in a snowplow. Her mother ran the local 4-H chapter and was head of the Sunday school program, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were integral to the landscape. “These things that people do, not because they are required to but because they choose to, are essential to a strong community,” she writes in the preface to The American Way to Change.
At Smith, Sagawa plunged into student government and was elected first-year class secretary and sophomore president, believing that the best way to bring about change was by affecting policy decisions. “I’ve since developed a broader view,” she says.
Outside her student government experience, the American studies major found a champion in one of her professors. “I actually credit everything to [Professor Emeritus of Government] Don Robinson, my adviser, who wanted me to do my internship on the Hill,” she says.
For the summer before her junior year, she had lined up a job with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, but Robinson insisted that she get experience in the legislative branch, so he put her in touch with staff on the Senate labor committee, where she wound up working for Senator Ted Kennedy. Though she spent much of her time “carrying memos and typing,” she got to see how legislation was made. “I could see people making a difference,” she says, “and it made a huge impression on me.”
So much so that Sagawa made it her career goal to become a policymaker who could make things better, especially for poor children. After graduating from Smith, she attended the London School of Economics and Harvard. Then, as an idealistic young lawyer, she returned to DC eager to put her talents—and sense of justice—to good use. As staff counsel to Senate committees working on social issues, she dove into the minutiae of family leave, health care, and education policy, with her most significant accomplishment being the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the first comprehensive child-care legislation ever enacted.
Despite these early successes, Sagawa quickly discovered that changing the world, even a little bit at a time, was going to take more than youthful optimism. The partisan bickering so common to politics can be discouraging, but, thankfully, Sagawa remembered a valuable lesson she picked up from Senator Kennedy. “I believe in compromise,” she says, “and from working with Ted Kennedy, I learned that cooperation and compromise work.”
One problem that she believed needed immediate fixing was the hostile environment faced by mothers of young children who were entering the full-time workforce in record numbers yet encountered expensive child care, few provisions for family leave to care for sick children, and a generally unforgiving attitude from employers. Turns out, her own experience fueled her desire to make things easier for other women. In 1993, she was on maternity leave from the National Women’s Law Center, where she was senior counsel. She had expected to stay at home for a few months to care for newborn Jack and take her time researching child-care options for when she did return to work. But then she got an unexpected call. Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, was on the line, asking Sagawa to join the administration as a domestic policy aide. And could she start work at the White House in two weeks? “This changed everything,” Sagawa says. “I had this little baby. I had no child care. What was I going to do?”
What she did was accept the job and pack up month-old Jack’s baby gear to take him with her to the office. He was a White House regular until Sagawa and her husband, Greg Baer, found day care nearby. How unusual was this at the time? The Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Washington’s new family-friendliness and used Sagawa and baby Jack as its lead. “Everybody takes their personal experience into their job,” she told the Journal. “It can’t help but form your view of what’s best for families.”
Later, when she drafted the 1993 bill that created AmeriCorps, she wrote into it a child-care benefit for the program’s volunteers. It remains one of her proudest moments.
These days, the issues that keep Sagawa awake at night in this struggling economy are how to reach people in need who may not know where to turn, and also how to help people find service opportunities in their communities. “We’re tired—all of us,” she says. “And there’s so much going on, so much media, that it’s hard to find out where we are needed or even what is needed, or what could help.”
An avid social networker, Sagawa, who now heads up her own consulting firm that provides strategic counsel to nonprofits, believes there’s a potential solution in the vast web of personal connections enabled by social media. Her next “dream job,” she says, is to figure out how to use the model established by her favorite sites, like Groupon and LivingSocial, to build something similar, only with a community service focus that would link people to organizations in need. “What if it were easy for people to find a nonprofit doing great work in their own communities?” she muses.
Does the pressure of juggling these big questions with a busy personal life ever get to her? “Fortunately, I like to keep busy,” she says. She unwinds by playing tennis and golf or reading a good book. She also readily admits to getting sucked in by reruns of Law & Order and M*A*S*H.
Her consulting partner, Deb Jospin, says there’s a richness to Sagawa’s life. “Kids, work, she’s on a million boards, but she’s chosen this, chosen what it means to her to have it all,” Jospin says. “Sure, she gets tired. But there’s never a despondency about something. She gets a weekend of sleep and gets on with it.”
For her part, Sagawa is living the life she dreamed about, and even though things have improved in the workplace for women with families—thanks in part to her own example—she still has advice for the next generation of women who might want to emulate her life. “Think about how you’re going to make it work,” she says. “Stay interested, ask a lot of questions, and make a plan. I always wanted to have a family, always. It wasn’t a question. And I wanted to make a difference.”
Kate Carlisle ’83 is managing editor of the Washington Post news service at the Washington Post.
SAQ Fall 2010. Photo: Brooks Kraft