This November's Winners: Not a Politician Among Them

For the past five years, Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has been instrumental in developing the concept of "encore" careers for older Americans, has been awarding the Purpose Prize, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation. The winners—five received $100,000 and another five got $50,000—are all over age 60 and have founded projects that have achieved sufficient success to justify the cash and acclaim that goes with the honor. I am one of the judges tasked to choose among the finalists based on material prepared by the Civic Ventures staff from among more than one thousand submissions. According to Marc Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures, there have been about six thousand nominations for Purpose Prizes, and 307 people have been designated winners or fellows (essentially, runners-up). "On the first day of March 2006, when the doors closed we had received 1,200 nominations," Freedman wrote in introducing this year's results. "The Prize had clearly hit a vein of creativity and one not easily exhausted."

The prizes are presented at a "summit" gathering that includes past winners, fellows and representatives of groups and organizations working in the evolving field of encore work—careers that begin when a generation ago people started thinking about retirement. PublicAffairs has published two books by Freedman: Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America and Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. Another book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage between Midlife and Old Age will appear next spring. Collectively, the theme is how best to use the decades (roughly thirty years) that have been added to Americans' life spans over the past century.

As a judge, I do my best to be conscientious in choosing among the finalists, but I have always felt that however innovative the projects, the descriptions of them seem more earnest than inspirational. That two-dimensional quality comes from reading questionnaires and staff appraisals rather than meeting the finalists or visiting their projects. But that vaguely patronizing sense disappears when, as happened again this year at the summit in Philadelphia, I actually see the winners, hear them talk about their work, and see short films that illustrated their work in action. Here, very briefly are descriptions of this year's $100,000 winners.

Allen Barsema of Community Collaboration Inc., Rockford, Illinois. A former alcoholic, Barsema has created an outreach center for the area's homeless that, he estimates, has served ten thousand people over the past decade. More than 140 social service agencies in five states have adopted his methods and database tools.

Barry Childs of AfricaBridge, Marylhurst, Oregon. Working in Tanzania, his childhood home, Childs has set up twenty-eight income-generating farming cooperatives and built classrooms and clinics for thousands of children, many orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. In 2009, Africa Bridge offered comprehensive care plans for 3,557 children.

Margaret Gordon of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Oakland, California. Gordon's project has focused on rerouting diesel trucks on three adjoining freeways to reduce pollution that was making area residents sick with asthma at twelve times the rate of children in more affluent areas. She is a commissioner of the country's fourth-busiest container port and, through her organization, she has been instrumental in improving the health standards in her urban neighborhood.

Inez Killingworth of Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People, Cleveland, Ohio. Beginning in 1993, Killlingworth began pressuring banks on behalf of her neighbors to get better terms on mortgages. As the foreclosure crisis deepened, she took her organization statewide, with eight thousand Ohio families receiving help in 2009 alone. More than 80 percent of those "clients" received loan modifications.

Judith B. Van Ginkel of Every Child Succeeds, Cincinnati, Ohio. This program provides in-home services and support for first-time, at-risk mothers, including primary medical care and a range of learning and support materials. Ninety-five percent of the children, her organization reports, exhibit normal social and emotional development.

For more details on the winners and the Purpose Prize go to their website. Civic Ventures also has introduced a new project, called LaunchPad, for ideas at an earlier stage, which is starting this year.

So far, the Purpose Prize doubtless comes across as a significant way to honor good citizens. But there was a deeper message for me: In all the presentations and discussion in Philadelphia, there was no almost no mention of politics in the ways we usually define it. President Obama's agenda, the midterm elections at national and state levels, the Tea Parties, and the rest of Congress were all barely mentioned. What seemed to matter was the dedicated, even fierce commitment of individuals and their entrepreneurial enterprises. Of course, they all need funding, but gaining official approbation (and tax revenues) was not the stated mission of these local leaders.

Today's big money politics and the media obsession with personalities and the quantifying of successes and failures of our elected representatives all seemed irrelevant to what these people are doing in their communities and their outreach to similar projects elsewhere. Ignoring politics is not necessarily a virtue. When the system syncs, broader society is the unquestioned beneficiary, as we have so often discovered in times of war and peace, prosperity and recession. But politics in the United States in our era has become expensive, nasty, and dysfunctional in all kinds of ways. Across America there are people like these Purpose Prize honorees and the thousands of others who have been nominated whose impact on society is outside the conventional political framework. In the grand scheme of things, grass roots activists usually seem marginal. But what Purpose Prize winners are doing is powerful, even when it is relatively local and small. Add it all up and you've got quite a movement. For these seniors, dotage is passé.