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White House Council for Community Solutions: Q&A with Judith Rodin

by CNCS Staff

Judith Rodin, Ph.D, 12th President of the Rockefeller FoundationThere are people working every day at all levels – and across all sectors – to improve our communities and find lasting and sustainable solutions to expand opportunity for young people. We spoke with Judith Rodin, a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, who has shown a commitment throughout her professional career for community solutions that support and cultivate the next generation.

Question: Your most recent book The University & Urban Renewal: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, discusses the importance of community engagement and addressing the problems in your own backyard. What lessons did you learn from this experience and how does it inform your work on the Council?

Rodin: Growing up in Philadelphia, I always wanted to give back to the city. I am a product of Philadelphia public schools, and I was very fortunate to earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.

By the time I had the great privilege of leading Penn, the University City neighborhood on the western edge of campus was in dreadful shape. Crime and poverty had soared, shops and businesses had closed, and middle class families had moved out. Some of us believed that the campus and community could not coexist poles apart: either the neighborhood would improve – or the university would deteriorate, but many felt that the university would thrive regardless of what happened outside its gates.

I was strongly advised that I should not focus on this problem as President of Penn. But I believe that urban universities have an important obligation to be stakeholders in their communities and to help drive positive change. They must feel responsible to serve a greater social good – at the same time as they do well for their students, faculty, employees, and institutional mission. This lesson has stayed with me: good citizenship means taking responsibility at the level of the community.

Question: How has your participation on the Council deepened your view of “collective responsibility” to help Opportunity Youth?

Rodin: From our research, we learned that one in six youth (16-24) is out of school and work. These young people are disconnected from the pathways offering the greatest hope for a secure future. Every Council member feels a deep obligation to find ways to support and lift up these young people – they are the next generation of problem solvers and leaders.

As leaders, we can earn promotions or appointments, win election to high office, solve intractable global problems, and carve new paths. But the greatest contribution any of us can make – the greatest satisfaction any of us can enjoy – comes from nurturing, inspiring, and challenging the young men and women who will follow in our footsteps, and eventually fill our shoes. We must help foster innovations to expand opportunity and to strengthen their resilience. We are working to essentially turn up the volume for the voices of young people who are out of school and work, may not be heard in communities around the country, and need support to find paths to learning, training, and employment opportunities.

Question: How can the average person take action to support Opportunity Youth? What can philanthropic organizations and foundations – as employers and funders – do? What can community-based organizations do?

Rodin: One way to make a difference is to serve as a mentor. I resolved, early in my career, to make mentoring a central commitment of my work and life. Mentors cultivate and put capable young people in challenging situations, daring them to succeed and pushing them to achieve beyond what they think possible.

The world has become more globalized, more diverse and more complex. Effective change requires all sectors to rethink their models and adapt to new and vastly changed circumstances. The challenge today is to leverage the unique assets of each sector – public, private, and philanthropic – in unison to get entire systems moving. And each needs to become a stronger engine of social innovation to support programs that help put Opportunity Youth on a trajectory to become the engaged and productive who contribute to the long-term strength and competitiveness of our nation.

Judith Rodin currently serves as the 12th President of the Rockefeller Foundation. Prior to working with the Foundation, Dr. Rodin served as President of the University of Pennsylvania and provost of Yale University.

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