What I Learned in 12 Years of Public Service

Interacting with the people I helped was truly rewarding, and I wish I could tell you that I loved every minute of the decade I served, but I can’t.

I spent all of those years highlighting the best parts of my public service online, but it’s time to do something different. I want to talk about everything that happened without a public relations or marketing filter.

For those who were there day after day, watching and listening, I believe they understood. They felt the experience with me and it was real. The only things we lacked were perspective and hindsight, which makes it worth revisiting. And to be honest, it feels safe now to share the lessons.

  • Why did I choose public service?
  • What made me want to serve?
  • What were the systemic barriers to success?
  • Who stood in my way and why?
  • Who helped me and why?
  • Which mistakes did I make?
  • Was it worth it?
  • Would I serve again?
  • What can I use toward my current and future work?

Why I chose public service: I had already worked at private sector companies and corporations that did not care about my well-being. I thought nonprofits could be different, so gave them a try. Nonprofits turned out to be a better fit because I could help people advance in life. I could relate to their struggles. I was already winning a similar fight, so I felt like I had some valuable experience to offer.

What made me want to serve: Instead of criticizing from the outside, I chose to earn my way into organizations so I could make a change from the inside. Helping people turned out to be my sole motivation for getting up in the morning. I strategically worked toward creating programs that would allow me to spend 80% of my time in direct service. Later, I saw my motivation evolve toward removing obstacles to serve people better, which led to recruiting volunteers to take my place in direct service so I could spend more time on stubborn administrative issues that held us back.

There may be a time when history calls upon you. There may be an injustice that has hurt your friends or fellow citizens. How will you respond? Will you support those who are oppressed? By listening to the voice within, you will find the courage and power to do what is right, even if it is unpopular at the time. –John Lewis, Carry On

The systemic barriers to success: For the people I was serving, they needed flexible adult learning programs that complemented their lifestyles. I don’t mean “lifestyles” in a glamorous way, of course. We’re talking about the lifestyle of being under-educated, poor, marginalized, and oppressed. This way of life is reactive and they needed free drop-in programs that would allow them to respond to life issues as they happened. For me in my work, systemic barriers to success were public under-funding, departmental budget mismanagement, prejudice, racism, bullying, retaliation, poor leadership, bureaucracy, local and state politics, excessive reporting requirements for state grants, high turnover rates for volunteers and adult learners, and workspace that didn’t accommodate disabilities.

Who stood in my way, and why? Middle management stood in my way most often. Primarily, this was because they didn’t know how to lead or how to support. It was also because they brought dysfunction to the workplace.

Other times, it was upper management and local politics that stood in the way. People took credit for my programs in public and undermined me in private. It’s hard to believe anyone would care so much about keeping adult learners down through harassing me, but in the end, we must realize what we’re actually looking at is the daily practice of white supremacy, and ultimately, voter suppression. One of our programs helped residents become citizens and we were actively encouraging them to vote for the first time. We ignited progress that will be felt for generations. There is power in that. Voting made our people happy and confident, but I can imagine it must have intimidated others.

At the state level, a budget impasse lasting almost 3 years made nonprofit funding unreliable. We stopped applying for state grants because of it. By the end of 2017, I had to take a break. When I returned in the fall of 2018, it was just in time to vote out the Republican governor whose politics threatened our grassroots efforts. When a governor has the power to wipe out local programs that help people advance in life, that’s a form of white supremacy. Everyone knew what it was and what it meant.

Who helped me, and why? In the beginning, two rounds of funding from a corporate foundation made most of my work possible. Near the end, the privatization of the GED exams made a positive impact; we were able to offer official test proctoring. In the middle, I made strategic alliances with my peers. I listened to gossip, but I didn’t share it. I remained friendly with the IT staff; they have access to video footage and they can read organizational email, so they can fact-check instigators. I built a reputation of good character so rumors were usually dismissed. My peers helped me because I was unjustly targeted; they knew I wasn’t doing anything to encourage the treatment I received. There was no shortage of positive press, though—the best thing upper management did was to get the local newspaper to come around on a regular basis, which affirmed the work our volunteers were doing and it made the community look good. Outside of work, I was blessed to have friends and neighbors who saw value in what we were doing. They personally helped me, and they donated time and money to the cause.

The mistakes I made: The biggest mistake I made was taking everything personally. It deteriorated my health. I started to notice it at the 9-year mark.

At year 10 in 2017, I went back home to Pennsylvania and volunteered remotely. The next two years were spent traveling and slowly dismantling everything in such a way that we could pass our programs to larger nonprofits in the community.

Another mistake I made was saying yes too often. I didn’t want to be the reason people didn’t donate. One substantial donor stopped donating when I began to say no. Progress is difficult for donors and volunteers as much as it is for adult learners, staff, and board members. Sometimes progress isn’t linear. At least twice, we had to take a step backward so we could take two steps forward.

The last mistake I made was procrastinating the inevitable end. I didn’t want to leave a mess for anyone to clean up, but I also wasn’t ready to let go. It probably took me longer than it should have and I could have saved a lot of my own time, energy, and money from the last two years if I had made an active decision to accept it earlier.

Was it worth it? Yes, it was. Experience can’t always be bought and it’s not taught in school. I would underscore that with the declaration that no salary would ever fully compensate public service work, but I still served. I made personal sacrifices for the intrinsic rewards of community development.

Would I serve again? Yes, but in other ways. For instance, I volunteer now with an environmental organization and we do the work remotely. I remind myself not to take things personally and I actively challenge myself to pause when I don’t understand something—asking for clarification and waiting for feelings to pass so I can demonstrate patience and kindness.

What can I use toward my current and future work? All of it. The area of expertise I chose—and even the fact that it was a nonprofit activity—does not diminish the value of what I learned about people and human nature. Even if I didn’t understand power structures then, I do now because I’ve participated in conversations about it and they have prompted me to reflect. The greatest takeaway I can articulate is my understanding of how to be organized with people for an intended outcome. Whether it’s in art, business, education, or government, I know what to look for to determine if people are serious about winning. I know how to decide if I want to be involved and for how long. I know how to design a thoughtful exit strategy as I do the work, and I know how to plan for future opportunities while I’m working on current ones. To sum it all up, I understand the strategy, I can go the extra mile, and I can balance work, rest, and play.

Final Thoughts on Public Service

There are two things I want young people to know about public service: it must be done for the right reasons, and you must protect yourself as you would in any other environment. It’s important to be realistic and ask a variety of people about their experiences.

It can also be illuminating to study the history of a place and its people before committing to doing progressive work there. If at all possible, learn the history from the people who have been oppressed rather than from what gets published by the dominant culture, if anything gets published at all.

In 1951, some four thousand Italian and Polish immigrants went on a rampage when a black veteran tried to move his family into the all-white suburb of Cicero, Illinois. Hostility toward the lowest caste became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America. —Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents

I know some would say they didn’t experience the worst of what I did, but I suspect there are more who did, and they may never tell their stories.

But we should.