Tufts Social Impact Network hosts lecture by Wendy Spencer

Wendy Spencer, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), spoke at the Tufts health sciences campus as part of the Tufts Social Impact Network’s annual kickoff event last night. Spencer discussed the role of national and local community service in U.S. politics and her own career in the field of service during the lecture, “Who’s Serving, Who’s Benefiting and What’s the Value?”

“My hope would be that Tufts students and other guests had a greater understanding of the impact of AmeriCorps on individuals and how it can help progress life careers,” Spencer said after the lecture.

Following an hour-long informal networking session held in the Sackler Building, Spencer was introduced by Alan Solomont, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, which sponsored the event. Solomont, a former CNCS board member, discussed his own involvement with AmeriCorps and JumpStart.

“I’m grateful to have seen first-hand the impact [the CNCS] has had on our young people and old people and on our country,” Solomont said.

The discussion with Spencer, which included a question-and-answer session, was moderated by Juanita Tolliver, manager of America Forward, who identify themselves as “a nonprofit policy initiative of New Profit, a national venture philanthropy fund that seeks to break down the barriers between all people and opportunity in America.”

The lecture touched upon Spencer’s appointment to CEO of the CNCS by President Barack Obama in 2012, a selection she did not expect after she was first solicited by the White House to provide a list of potential candidates. Spencer, a Republican, believed that the choice to appoint her was made to secure bipartisan support for the CNCS.

“It was very deliberate. We really needed bipartisan support,” Spencer said. ”I am the first woman in the CEO role, [which was] probably as important, if not more important, than being the first person in the field [of community service] to take the role … It was very strategic.”

Spencer also discussed the high level of support among Americans for federal spending on national service.

According to Spencer, the federal government recently sent a pollster to “purple” states to ask likely voters about how they would spend their tax dollars. Eighty-three percent of respondents wanted spending on national service either maintained at the current level or increased, Spencer said.

To Spencer, this hinted that service is a unifying issue among Americans.

“We should let service define us,” Spencer said. “Service may be the one thing we can all agree on, and we should do more of it.”

During the question-and-answer session, Spencer addressed concerns about improving the diversity among service members nationwide, attempts to grow public awareness of national service and the CNCS’s interest in bringing senior fellows into service as well as young people.

Spencer also noted that Tufts was a particularly appropriate location for a lecture on service.

“Boston is what we call the Silicon Valley of service and social innovation. The most innovative ideas come out of here to support nonprofits in the country. Many of [the CNCS’s] grantees are national headquartered here,” Spencer said.

For current and recently-graduated students, Spencer claimed that service offered advantages in the job market.

“We took 10 years of data to ascertain that if you are currently unemployed and looking for work, if you volunteer, you increase the likelihood of getting a job by 27 percent,” Spencer told the Daily. “Pick an organization or cause that you are passionate about because you are more likely to stick with it if it’s something that you have a connection to. You can use that as your new network. It gets you out of your college friend network and it gets you into a network outside of the university and that leads to connections, which gets jobs.”

Jessica Byrnes, special projects administrator for Tisch College, was enthusiastic about the turnout at the lecture and the energy among the audience. 

“Especially in such a divisive election cycle, I feel people needed to be reminded that there are certain things that everyone agrees on that are really important for everyone,” Byrnes said. “For me personally, I felt it was really a heartening event. I think it was well-attended and Wendy was fantastic and Juanita, we’re so lucky to have her. It almost seemed like they knew each other. They had a great dynamic.”

Tolliver (F’14) echoed Spencer’s feelings about bipartisan support for service.

“The fact that Wendy is a Republican who is heading an agency and was selected and nominated by a Democratic president … [is] testament to the huge amount of support for service programs and the fact that you need a visionary in that position to drive service programs home, increasing opportunities.”

Virginia-born Tolliver, who described the discussion between her and Spencer as between “one southern belle to another,” was grateful to have had the experience of moderating the lecture.

“Being with her, knowing her passion for service, knowing her early ties and lifelong dedication to it, was amazing,” Tolliver said. “Sharing the stage with a woman who is running a federal agency [for] the first time, a woman had been appointed to the position was just amazing. It definitely makes you elevate your life goals after sharing a space with Wendy.”