The outpouring of tributes following Colin Powell’s death last month—and those during his memorial service last Friday at Washington National Cathedral—largely overlook one important piece of his legacy: his volunteer service in the nonprofit world. That service deserves recognition, along with the many other accolades he will continue to receive for his leadership in higher-profile roles.
Powell’s volunteerism began as a young child of Jamaican immigrants in New York City and extended to his founding of America’s Promise Alliance, where he served as chair for three years and stayed involved long after.
While his accomplishments as a nonprofit leader may seem modest compared with his government and military positions—including serving as the nation’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state—they reveal a great deal about who Powell was and what he believed philanthropy could accomplish for children who, like him, grew up amid poverty and discrimination.
Powell was raised during the 1940s in the multi-ethnic, multi-racial South Bronx. No one in his neighborhood had much money, but family and community life flourished. Powell used to say that the speed of the internet had nothing on the speed of the “aunt-net”—the connections among relatives who kept watch on street life.
He began volunteering by serving as a “shabbos goy,” a non-Jew who turned on lights and lit ovens for devout Jews on the Sabbath, picking up a smattering of Yiddish along the way.
The lessons learned in those early years informed his public service and volunteerism, including his approach to dealing with racism in his own life and in the lives of the young people he mentored.
Powell joined the ROTC while attending the City College of New York during the 1950s and graduated as the top cadet. In the military, he found the equivalent of another family and community and moved rapidly up the ranks.
But along the way, he encountered his first real taste of racism, which he described as “relatively new” to him in his 1995 memoir, My American Journey. Army training often took place at bases in the South, where public facilities and stores were still segregated, and even driving as a Black person could be risky. He wrote that his first active-duty post in Germany was a “breath of freedom” for Black GIs like him since there were fewer restrictions and racism was less pervasive.
He considered the “crazy rules” he found in the South and the bigoted views he sometimes encountered in the military a reality he had to live with. He recognized racism as a problem the United States would eventually need to confront but was determined not to let it control him in the meantime. “I occasionally felt hurt; I felt anger,” he wrote in his memoir, “but most of all, I felt challenged.”
A Presidents’ Summit
These experiences set him up well for a role he would eventually take on after retiring from the military in 1993. Two years later, former Michigan Governor George Romney proposed convening a Presidents’ Summit to mobilize volunteers across the United States to address the “vitally serious social problems” endangering the nation’s children. Romney died before the idea got off the ground, but Powell was approached by a group of business and government officials to organize the summit.
Concerned about the feasibility of such a gathering, he initially hesitated but signed on after President Clinton and former President George H.W. Bush agreed to attend.
The three-day summit in Philadelphia kicked off on April 25, 1997. In addition to presidents and cabinet officers, it included 25 governors, 92 mayors, numerous business leaders and celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey, and thousands of volunteers.
It garnered massive media attention and major corporate gift pledges. LensCrafters promised to provide free vision care to 1 million people in need; Timberland donated 5,000 boots and $1 million to an AmeriCorps program; and Time Warner pledged 1 million hours of literacy tutoring.
To build on the summit’s momentum, Powell announced the launch of America’s Promise—the Alliance for Youth, which aimed to provide resources such as mentorship, health care, and safe learning spaces to 2 million at-risk children by the year 2000.
Some observers were skeptical. They thought the “high-voltage gathering,” as the Baltimore Sun termed it, was really meant to launch a Powell bid for the presidency. Others questioned how much a one-shot event could accomplish, noting there was no outpouring of volunteers in the months afterward.
After the event, Paul Clolery, vice president and editorial director of the NonProfit Times, told the Associated Press that “In terms of volunteers, we haven’t seen any wild spikes for any one particular organization in any particular region.” But he also praised the summit for drawing national attention to volunteering, calling it an “unqualified success” in that regard.
State and local gatherings
Powell never did run for elective office, but he campaigned throughout the rest of his life to advance the summit’s goals.
In the three years after the summit, he attended 350 state and local gatherings in person or virtually. After serving as Secretary of State, he resumed his efforts on behalf of the organization, traveling with his wife, Alma, who had succeeded him as chair, to numerous meetings on behalf of America’s Promise and launching efforts to improve high-school graduation rates.
The impact of that work is difficult to measure, but it’s worth noting that graduation rates have risen steadily in the years since the efforts of America’s Promise got underway—from 71 percent in 2001 to nearly 86 percent in 2019.
Powell involved himself on a personal level as well. He mentored young students of color though his church group and, in more recent years, virtually. He opened his home for lessons in his pool to those who couldn’t swim. And from the start, he insisted that the America’s Promise board include young people and regularly did interviews with youth reporters.
Having gone from being a streetwise child of immigrants in New York City to a leader recognizable around the world, he never forgot how much his own successes in life were owed to aunts and fellow soldiers, to families, neighbors, teachers, and mentors. Those experiences fueled his commitment to providing the same type of support to young people who too often lacked it.
Despite the racism he encountered, Powell’s volunteer work was also his way of expressing gratitude for the opportunities the country offered him. That’s why he called his organization America’s Promise. In today’s more cynical and divisive times such patriotism is hard to come by. But Colin Powell’s life reminds us why it is so important.
Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropic studies. He once worked with Colin Powell at the Presidents’ Summit on Volunteering.
This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.