Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service

Thomas Ehrlich & Ernestine Fu

202 pages, University Press of America, 2013

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“Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service” is a new book co-authored by Stanford professor Thomas Ehrlich and student Ernestine Fu. Thomas Ehrlich has worked in the administrations of four presidents starting with President Kennedy and including responsibility for foreign-aid policy, reporting directly to President Carter. Ernestine Fu founded a nonprofit organization to bring music to those in need and is an active supporter of social entrepreneurs. Drawing on the experiences of the co-authors, the book tells why and how young people and their advisors should engage in public service. Visit the website here.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

Introduction: Co-Authors 57 Years Apart

More than 57 years in age separate us—Tom Ehrlich and Ernestine Fu. One might reasonably ask why we thought that we should collaborate on a book designed to be of interest to readers of all ages, and particularly to young people considering a commitment of their time and talent to helping others in their community, whether that community is local, state, national, or international.

The book initially began because Tom wanted to chronicle ways in which his life has been enriched by public service as both a vocation and an avocation, with the aim of encouraging young people to be active civically. Tom wrote a rough draft telling that story. But it was clear to reviewers of the draft that it could not meet the goal of encouraging youth civic engagement unless it included lessons learned from young civic activists. Fortunately, Tom was put in touch with Ernestine, a Stanford University undergraduate who he thought epitomized the characteristics of mind and heart that he has sought to promote. Ernestine brings to the partnership a rich background of experience herself, as will become clear in this volume, as well as contacts with scores of young people who are also engaged in civic projects and have shared with us their own insights and understandings.

This book results from the extended conversations that Ernestine and Tom have had concerning the goal of civic engagement. We believe that our democracy requires men and women of all ages and all walks of life to find their own civic paths and to pursue them with determination, compassion, respect for others, and humility about the limitations of their own perspectives. The chapters that follow emphasize seven key lessons that we stress are central to promoting that goal. Each chapter includes two sections, one written by Tom and the other by Ernestine. A final chapter focuses on new ways to leverage technology for civic engagement.

Most of the civic work that Tom has done involved public-policy positions in government. Ernestine’s civic work has primarily been in starting her own nonprofit organization, helping finance social enterprises, and engaging in a wide range of other civic organizations. Although the paths we have taken differ, reflecting the differences in our particular interests as well as our ages, we are similar in the passion we each bring to our civic work. We both find that our civic work has become part of our identities, part of who we are as human beings. That work has enabled us both to feel connected to something larger than ourselves and to the world around us in ways that would not have happened without our commitment to public service. While we each take on new civic ventures from time to time, and leave others when it seems right to do so, the call to public service to which we have each responded to in our own ways is always with us. We both believe that people of all ages can find enormous satisfaction in civic work, just as we have.

Civic work can take a wide range of different forms. Some of those forms are focused on helping others by providing assistance that fellow human beings require and are entitled to—food, medical care, education, or other basic needs. We never think of this kind of work as “charity,” but rather as collaborating with others because our efforts not only help others, but also enrich ourselves, and bring us satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and connection with the world around us. Some of this civic work is part-time, as avocations that we do along with our vocational positions. Ernestine’s civic work has naturally followed this path since she is still a full-time student. Much of Tom’s civic work, on the other hand, has been full-time, primarily in the federal government, though he has also participated in many nonprofit civic organizations. These varied experiences of ours, and those with whom we have connected through our common commitment to civic work, provide the basis for the stories in this book and the lessons we draw from those stories. We hope the insights that our readers—particularly young people, and those who counsel them—draw from the pages that follow will encourage them to find their own civic passions and to translate those passions into action. But first we should each introduce ourselves.


It was a fall day in 1963. The scene was a drab auditorium in the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The room was packed with those designated as “senior officials,” and I had the good fortune to be one of them, though I was only a 29-year old special assistant to Under Secretary of State George W. Ball.

We all stood as President John F. Kennedy walked into the room and up to the podium. I do not recall the exact words he spoke that day, but I do remember that he began by thanking us for our civic work and that he spoke eloquently about the importance of that work. I felt he was talking directly to me and remember also that I felt 10-feet tall as I listened to his brief remarks.

I was part of the Kennedy administration, and subsequent administrations thereafter of Presidents Johnson, Ford, Carter, and Clinton, in part because I had been stirred by Kennedy and his call for those like me to ask ourselves “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In the years since then, I have come to believe even more deeply in the value of civic work, value to those who engage in the work no less than to the government and its citizenry. And I have come to realize that civic education is essential for all our citizens, whether or not they choose civic work as careers or rather make that work an avocation by becoming civic leaders in their communities. I have learned that civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions can and should be taught to ensure that our democracy functions as it should.

My exposure to public service began at the outset of World War II, when I was eight years old and my father joined the federal government in the Office of Price Administration and our family moved to Washington, D.C. I did not understand much about what my father was doing— helping to prevent price gouging while scarce goods and supplies that might otherwise be available for domestic consumers were funneled to the war effort. But I knew that he was part of the huge public undertaking by the United States and its allies to protect our freedoms. As I write this, I am looking at a wartime poster that my uncle, a U.S. civil servant all his life, created to help ensure that Americans knew what we were fighting for: “The world cannot exist half slave and half free,” it says. “Work for freedom!”

I grew up in a time when most Americans shared a strong sense of civic responsibility. This was an era when adults who had lived through the New Deal and World War II recognized the importance of civic work to the preservation of both their physical and economic security. Almost all of them had experienced sacrifices during this period. Many had served in the armed forces during the War, and everyone knew someone who was killed or whose relative died then. The War galvanized civilians to assist their country and to accept food and fuel rationing and other limitations on their daily lives. At the same time, Americans generally believed they had a responsibility to make our democracy work well by participating in its processes, by engaging in what Ernestine and I term civic work.

As I’ll describe in the pages that follow, I’ve had the good fortune to be guided by splendid mentors who modeled civic work in different arenas. And I have been privileged to engage myself in a range of fulltime and part-time positions in government and in the nonprofit world of civic work. Inevitably, however, when someone my age—78 as I write these words—describes career challenges and choices, it is tempting to ignore two key dimensions of the full-disclosure picture. One is all the positions that I applied for, but failed to be chosen. Over the last five decades, I was runner-up for a number of public-service jobs that I might well have taken had I been selected and, if I had, my own life and that of my family could have been very different. Several times when I was not chosen I felt as though I had “failed.” Today, looking back, it seems that for every door that was closed, not much time passed before another opened. Most often, they opened through a combination of my own efforts and those of others. In the latter part of the 1970s, for example, I really wanted to work directly for President Carter, and was not chosen for several such positions. But then Warren Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State and a close friend for more than a decade, proposed me as the head of a new agency reporting to the President and having responsibility for both bilateral and multi-lateral U.S. foreign-aid policies.

The second and much more important dimension is my family and friends. The greatest blessing of my life has been to be married to my wife, Ellen. Over the course of more than 55 years together we have each engaged in civic work, and I have learned much from her insights. We met as undergraduates. Ellen was a Radcliffe student, and I was at Harvard, during the time when Radcliffe and Harvard were separate institutions but the students took all their classes together. She and I were both in the Class of 1956, and we were both Government majors. We started dating in our junior year and by our senior year we had definite plans to be married. After graduating from Radcliffe, Ellen worked to support us as a research assistant and then as a fifth-grade teacher. While our three children were very young, she devoted fulltime to raising them, but in subsequent years she also worked as a fundraiser for a program at Georgetown University, for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and for Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. She has been a trustee of Radcliffe College and has been an active volunteer as well as a board member for Abilities United, an organization in Palo Alto, California, helping people with disabilities. While Ellen and I were in Indiana, she was an extraordinarily active leader of civic causes. She chaired the United Way of the county where Indiana University Bloomington is located and was a tireless advocate for civic organizations in this role. This work led to her being chosen as a member of the United Way of American Board of Governors, which she helped to guide through one of its most difficult periods. When we left Indiana University, the Trustees gave Ellen unprecedented recognition by the award of an honorary degree, citing her “as a splendid exemplar of public service for the enhancement of community life,” one who “brightened countless lives with her enthusiasm, energy, and warmth.” Most of my stories are from my own life, rather than Ellen’s, because I know my stories first-hand. But she could tell her own remarkable tales of her civic work, of which I am enormously proud.

No one who came of age in the era that I did could have then imagined what has become commonplace in recent decades: politicians campaigning against Washington in their efforts to gain the presidency or a seat in Congress. We knew first-hand, or at least from our parents, that the country’s future totally depended on the abilities of the federal government to protect its citizenry and on the willingness of the citizenry to support that government. Civic work, whether in the military or in civilian service, was viewed as noble work.

Over the last fifty years I have held six full-time jobs in government: speech-writer for the Governor of Massachusetts, Foster Furcolo; law clerk for Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals; special assistant to the Legal Adviser to the State Department, Abram Chayes, in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; special assistant to the Under Secretary of State, George W. Ball, in the Johnson administration; president of the Legal Services Corporation, subject to a Board of Directors chosen initially by the President Ford and then by President Carter, and approved by Congress; and director of the International Development Cooperation Agency, chosen and reporting directly to President Carter after the U.S. Senate approved my appointment.

The rest of my full-time professional life has been working in universities. My early years in education were as a faculty member and administrator at Stanford University, where I was first a professor and then the dean of the Law School. Later I was provost at the University of Pennsylvania. I consciously chose to move from Penn to a public institution, Indiana University, because I wanted to grapple with the issues of public access to higher education as well as ones of quality.

On a part-time basis, I have also served in a number of federal government roles. My first started when I was still a student at Harvard College when I joined the U.S. Army Reserve, where I was an enlisted soldier for six years. Much later in life I served on a Commission on Military Compensation, appointed by President Carter and charged with revising the military retirement program. In addition, I was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to the Commission on National and Community Service (and was later chair of that Commission), and I was then appointed and reappointed by President Clinton to the Board of Directors of the Commission’s successor organization, the Corporation on National and Community Service. These appointments all required confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

In this book, as Ernestine and I indicate, our definition of civic work includes assisting nonprofit organizations as well as working in a government position. While dean at Stanford Law School, provost at the University of Pennsylvania, and then president at Indiana University, I served on the boards of a number of national educational organizations, and these roles helped me do a better job as an administrator while giving me an opportunity to serve higher education and the public. I have also been a trustee of Bennett College, a historically Black college for women, of the University of Pennsylvania, and of Mills College, as well as chair of various higher-education organizations.

The organization that has given me the greatest satisfaction is called Campus Compact, which now has the presidents of almost 1200 colleges and universities as its members and has 34 state affiliates. It was founded, with the help of one of my mentors, John W. Gardner, to encourage college students to engage as volunteers in civic work in their communities. My daughter, Elizabeth, who was one of the very first employees of Campus Compact, helped me understand how critical it is for college and university presidents to speak out about public service and to facilitate ways in which students can participate.


Wedged in the back pocket of my wallet, hugging the business card I made when I was ten-years old, is a photo of my sister and me that always brings back mixed memories. We are adorned in matching bluestriped collared shirts with white denim shorts and embracing one another— a loving, yet previously rare sight. Like many siblings, Christine and I fought constantly. From who hit the tennis ball harder to who multiplied numbers more quickly, we were two hard-driving overachievers, competing for awards and recognition. Our rivalry came to a quick halt when Christine was diagnosed with depression. Despite all our squabbles, I still loved my sister deeply. Even though she had doctors, psychologists, mentors, and medications, I kept asking myself, “What can I do for her?”

I started encouraging her to play the flute with me, and slowly saw our common interest in music take on a therapeutic role. We began with Selected Duets for Flutes and moved on to more advanced pieces in Friedrich Kuhlau’s Three Duos Brilliants. Initially, our disharmony was audible, but after days and weeks of practice and communication, a mellifluous sound began to emerge. Our relationship transformed from one of sibling rivalries to that of an integrated team: two sisters with one musical voice and sound.

As I visited the hospital to see my sister, I realized that even among my peers and community, there were many people just like her. This insight and the moments leading up to it became the factors driving my decision to engage in civic work. I wanted to do for others what flute duets had done for us, and also help Christine feel a sense of duty and responsibility—that there was a reason to live and that she was not just a “person in need.”

With Christine’s help, I started a nonprofit organization to share the power of music. Through Visual Arts and Music for Society, I encouraged fellow high-school artists and musicians to use their talents to organize events for people in need. Our audience included abused women, homeless families, orphans, and senior citizens. As the organization quickly expanded, these people in the community became a part of who I am. Instead of writing a check for charity, it allowed me to develop one-on-one connections with people in need, as I had with my sister. I reached out to others, strangers suffering from different mental and physical disorders, and these people in turn defined and shaped me. As I sought to make musical ensembles an engaging, regular part of their lives, the people I was helping opened my eyes to a deeper sense of personal satisfaction, beyond collecting trophies and awards.

This initiative pushed me to immerse myself in a range of civic ventures that other young people were engaged in throughout the country. The summer before college, I joined a national board responsible for allocating corporate philanthropy dollars to youth civic causes. I witnessed firsthand how a private corporation could alleviate social problems. While I was inspired to learn about other ways in which the private sector could positively impact the public sector and help further social causes, I never imagined myself involved in the day-to-day activities of the private sector.

During the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent global recession, my dad was laid off from J.P. Morgan Chase in 2009. He has worked for twenty years as a computer programmer, starting at Great Western Bank, to its acquisition by Washington Mutual Bank, and subsequently by J.P. Morgan Chase. I was looking for a job to help fund my undergraduate tuition at Stanford. It was then that I immersed myself in the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship culture surrounding the University and joined a venture-capital firm. I identified my first investment within two months of joining the firm, convinced the partners to fund an earlystage technology company, and then collaborated with an attorney from a leading Silicon Valley law firm to negotiate with the entrepreneurs. It was a bewildering and lengthy process. I was nineteen when the investment process began, and twenty when the deal closed. My experiences during the time sparked a keen interest in how the private sector could draw on cutting-edge research and rapidly deploy new technologies to improve society’s quality of life. The skills and insights that I gained through my investment, and subsequent experiences at the firm, also directly benefited my ability to do effective civic work, for much of the learning I acquired also had direct application to social entrepreneurship, and more broadly, to a range of different kinds of civic work.

My call to public service also led me to study global environmental challenges at the School of Engineering. I examined the ability of a coastal-area infrastructure to adapt to sea-level rise produced by climate change and technology to efficiently power our energy needs. I had the opportunity to put my studies into practice when I joined Stanford’s Board of Trustees as a student representative and member of its Committee on Land and Buildings, where the sustainability of Stanford’s buildings was a critical component in our decision-making. I also directed the Student Services Division of student government, reviving a dying service branch that oversaw local sustainability as well as tutoring projects. I found great satisfaction in practicing these different forms of civic work.

Civic work, of course, has challenges. The nonprofit I had founded, for example, started out very modestly. It began when I co-founded its first local chapter at my high school and oversaw its activities and commitments as the club’s president. Only six students attended our first meeting. Many times I thought the club would fail to meet its goals. A number of people supported me, however, and helped develop the nonprofit. My good friend Jasmine Schladen, for example, created the organization’s website, in addition to attending every meeting. Many others assisted in my struggle to attract volunteers, complete stacks of government nonprofit-status forms, and hone my skills as a leader. This was my first lesson in coming to understand that every successful organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is indebted to great mentors and supporters. I mention some of my own great mentors in the first lesson of this book.

While Tom grew up in a time when most Americans shared a strong sense of civic responsibility, I grew up surrounded by the boom of the Internet and digital media. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we are able to interact with others in civic work, as we discuss in the last chapter. I have been able to use technology to connect with dozens of young civic leaders around the world, and in writing my portions of this book, I found it only natural to include their stories. Together, Tom and I interviewed them and tried our best to recreate their experiences as accurately as possible. These friends with whom I have collaborated in my civic work have been wise and compassionate leaders and serve as inspirations for what I hope to encourage in other youth.


Most of the civic work that Ernestine discusses in illustrating our seven lessons is focused on nonprofit organizations like the one she has started. Most of the civic work that Tom talks about in these pages concern public service, particularly through the lenses of the various positions he held in the federal government. This difference is only natural since each of us has written about our own experiences and the experiences of those whom we know most closely.

Both of us believe passionately, however, that civic work—particularly by young people—in both the private and the public sectors is acutely needed, perhaps now more than ever before. In the year 2000, Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard wrote a seminal work titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Putnam argued that Americans had become increasingly disconnected from each other in terms of the kinds of civic organizations that used to bind them together. He also pointed to the steady decline in political participation by each generation since World War II, as measured by traditional activities such as voting and other partisan activities including attending political rallies and working for political parties, as Tom had done. Putnam also noted that communal participation on matters of public policy, such as attending a public meeting or writing a letter to a magazine or newspaper, had declined as well. He stressed that this fraying of the American social fabric and loss of social capital was particularly acute among young people. All this suggested to Putnam a weakening in the civic health of our American society.

In the years since then, the story does not look much different in terms of involvement in politics and public policy. Youth political engagement has modestly increased, though not at the pace of their elders. But there has been an explosion of interest among young people in giving their time and energies, and what money they can spare, to promote literally tens of thousands of youth-led civic organizations like the one Ernestine founded as a teenager.

We are eager to see this youth energy not only continue to grow, but also to focus some of its attention on politics and public policy, just as we are eager to see the realm of public policy and politics learn from the civic work in which so many youth groups are now engaged. If our democracy is to flourish, youth must become much more active in public affairs, using the tools of digital media and other new technologies, as we outline in our last chapter.

Every generation has reshaped American civil society to meet the difficulties of its times. Although youth and those who counsel them are not our only intended audiences for this book, America’s future depends on our youth, so young people are our primary focus. American youth today face particularly troubling challenges, both domestic and international. We are convinced that youth civic engagement can master those challenges. This was the basis for our judgment that each of us could contribute a distinct perspective on a troubling national need: To promote youth civic engagement far more widely and wisely than has been the case up to now. We hope our intergenerational vantage points offer useful insights for America’s youth and for those who advise them.