By Kara Thompson, Capital News Service
Just a few days after being sworn in as secretary of the Department of Civic and Service Innovation, Paul Monteiro was working Friday to get the service year program—passed by the Maryland General Assembly as the SERVE Act, and a new vision from the governor—established and operational by this October.
The Serving Every Region Through Vocational Exploration Act of 2023—its formal name—has been a priority of Democratic Gov. Wes Moore since the start of his term; he created the new department on his first full day in office. But it wasn’t until he named Monteiro on April 3 — just a week shy of the end of the MGA session — as the head of the department that things could really start.
“The governor’s an ambitious guy, and that’s part of the appeal of the job, really,” Monteiro told Capital News Service. “You don’t often see government move this fast. “This is very much: The need is there, the support is there, and the demand is there, so we just have to quickly put these things together.”
Creating the union of the need, support and demand is something that Monteiro is looking forward to tackling.
With a deadline looming just five months away, there is no time to waste. The program will be open to recent high school graduates, and will place them in service roles throughout the state as an alternative to attending college or starting a career. Those who participate will not only be paid $15 an hour for their work (with a minimum of 30 hours a week), but will also receive mentorship and job training during their time serving. The first cohort of participants is slated to be 250, but then grow to 500 students the second year of the program, around 1,100 the third year, and peak in the fourth year at 2,000, which will be the number of students in the program for every year thereafter.
“In this early phase, it’s going to be standing up the team, hiring a core team of folks at the new agency, in addition to the great folks we’ve inherited (from the State Service Commission),” Monteiro said of the first steps in creating the program. “Also standing up a website, setting up an application portal for the service year option in Maryland core, standing up office space—everything’s new.”
Though time is of the essence, organizations have already indicated their interest in being a part of the service program.
“I’ve already been so pleased with the response to the governor’s call,” Monteiro said. “A number of nonprofits and businesses and public offices in the state have said they want to be a part of this. They want to be a destination for folks serving in the first cohort.”
He also said he’d like to ensure that eligible students have a say in how the program is designed, too.
Monteiro said he wants to assure the students have opportunities to provide input on “how do we build this in a way where you and your peers would feel agency, would feel like this is something I can choose my own adventure, I can make my own way?” Monteiro said. “How do we design it so it’s something that you don’t feel is foisted on you, but is something you get to tap into to bring out and tap into whatever purpose you might have or what might light a spark in you?”
To do this, Monteiro is looking not just to school superintendents, but to elected student leaders and student councils to share their input on what type of program they would like to participate in.
Before his new secretary position, Monteiro served in the US Department of Justice as director of Community Relations Service. He also was national director of AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, appointed by former President Barack Obama, and before that was an associate director in the Obama White House Office of Public Engagement. Monteiro also served on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and held a position as an at-large member of the Prince George’s County Public Schools Board of Education.
“Paul is a public servant who has spent his life giving back to our communities,” said Moore in a statement about the appointment. “Throughout his career, he has earned a reputation as not only someone who knows how to lead, but as someone who knows how to listen. The Department of Service and Civic Innovation will be the home of Maryland’s legacy-defining service-year program, and it’s going to be the place from which so many best practices in civic innovation will be launched. Paul will be a model for the young people who raise their hands and participate in Maryland’s first-in-the-nation service-year program.”
The service program will not only be legacy-defining for Maryland as a state, but for Moore himself, who has stressed the importance of service throughout his campaign and tenure in office. The pressure is on for Monteiro, who has to design and create this program, all in a short timespan.
“To me, it’s a continuation of the work I was trying to do with the Justice Department, but we’re going upstream with this and we’re saying listen, we will give pathways for you to discern what it is you want to do,” Monteiro said. “We’ll get you a mentor, we’ll put you in an environment where you’ll be developed professionally, get some soft skills and hard skills.”
Both AmeriCorps and this new service program deal with the problem of “wasted human talent,” according to Monteiro. Targeting those coming out of high school will be very beneficial in addressing where the needs are in a community and how the students can help.
Monteiro also said that having Moore as governor is a real asset in terms of developing the new service program.
“I have a governor and a lot of his senior staff that come out of the service world, so they’re going to have ideas, they’re going to have suggestions, they’re going to have network resources,” he said. “What Cabinet secretary wouldn’t want the boss, like, cheerleading for the thing? I welcome having input from him and the senior team because he’s clearly the chief executive of the state, and he comes with a bunch of experiences.”
Monteiro wants accessibility and representation for the new department and program.
“Our real mission is going to be building a corps that looks like this state, and at all points recognizing service is something that has a place for everyone and and working accordingly,” he said. “We’re just looking forward to building an agency that has a seat at the table for everybody.”