NOVATO RESIDENT JOSH Fryday believes public service is the most American and patriotic of endeavors. And as of September 3, the former Novato mayor has a position in Sacramento to help promote that message. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Fryday would become California’s Chief Service Officer, charged with establishing and promoting community volunteer opportunities across the state.
“In a democracy, you have a responsibility to be engaged and involved at every level,” Fryday says. “If you read the work of our founding fathers, you know that we must go way beyond our current sense of service — voting, jury duty and paying taxes — in order to have a vibrant democracy. Everyone carries responsibility; that is the way democracy works.”
Over the past year, presidential hopefuls have rolled out various service platforms built on the idea that civilian public service is essential to address our most pressing social and environmental problems. These include Pete Buttigieg’s far-reaching New Call to Service, Elizabeth Warren’s proposed 10,000-person Civilian Conservation Corps, and many candidates’ ideas for a national Climate Corps.
In California, Newsom has openly praised and modeled himself after Sargent Shriver, the influential ’60s and ’70s politician and founder of the Peace Corps and Head Start as well as other socially minded programs. While running for governor, Newsom spoke of plans to encourage service and volunteerism and thereby make California a national model for civic engagement. Fryday caught the governor’s eye as someone suited to drive this effort, and the new post puts him in charge of California Volunteers, the state office that oversees programs like Americorps, disaster relief groups, and community corporate and nonprofit partnerships.
“Josh is a leader with a lifelong commitment to service and will be an invaluable partner as we work to increase service and volunteerism in California,” Newsom said in announcing the appointment. Fryday grew up in Marin, aware of how living here came with privileges like a clean environment and good public schools, and he has spent his life actively giving back. As a teen he joined Amigos de las Americas and helped build an aqueduct to bring clean water to a village in the Dominican Republic. After graduating from UC Berkeley, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Japan and at Guantanamo Bay. Returning to Novato, he joined the city council and became mayor while also working as full-time COO of NextGen Climate and then as president of Golden State Opportunity, a nonprofit assisting low-income Californians.
As Novato mayor, Fryday co-created a program with Dominican University President Mary Marcy that could serve as a template for the Sacramento work. Reimagining Citizenship provides a $100,000 Dominican academic scholarship to qualifying high schoolers who complete two summers of public service with the city. It’s a form of public-private partnership he thinks could be replicated statewide.
“We want to give young people the opportunity to serve, and also the opportunity to further their own careers and their own lives, which is something the military did for generations of Americans,” Fryday says. Since 9/11, he notes, fewer than 1 percent of the population has registered for military service. “I would argue that today individuals feel very disconnected from society and each other. There’s no sense of shared experience, and that is something service has created in our country in the past.” The Trump administration has tried to cut funding for civil service programs, unsuccessfully pushing in its last three budgets to eliminate Americorps and the Senior Corps. Since the ’90s, when Americorps flourished, funding shortfalls have left tens of thousands of would-be volunteers unable to serve and needy communities across the country without a program. Here in California, Fryday and Newsom will bolster student-debt-relief stipends for Americorps volunteers and expand it and other programs into the most underserved areas. After a month on the job, Fryday says, priorities are becoming clear. “We know we will focus on civic engagement in the Central Valley and other inland communities that have historically been left behind and left without resources.”
Besides overseeing service programs, Fryday will join the Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force led by California former First Lady Maria Shriver. It teams research scientists, business and nonprofit leaders to address issues faced by an aging population (California’s older adults will increase by 64 percent by 2035). The task force “is a perfect example of our [state-level] approach,” Fryday says. “We want to engage citizens in finding solutions to our state’s biggest challenges.”