(Re)Filling the Big Tent
Helping Young People Find a Home in Local Government
By Andrew Faught
Both are ambitious 30-somethings with a passion for public service — Knope (portrayed by actress Amy Poehler) as a deputy parks director in a mid-sized Indiana town, and Wyatt as the real-life assistant city manager of West Linn, Ore. Each woman endures similar hardships, too, which can range from budget crunches to the occasional loud depredations from constituents.
“I do appreciate how the show pokes fun at public hearings and showcases the work of paid professional staff,” says Wyatt, who has taken one of the mockumentary catch lines to heart. “It reminds all of us in the public sector that when work gets tough, it’s time to ‘treat yo self.’”
But these days Wyatt is delaying personal gratification to address a new challenge facing local governments around the country. Baby-boomer retirements — dubbed the “silver tsunami” by economists — stand to drain the public sector of experienced employees and civic acumen Wyatt isn’t waiting for the storm surge. Four years ago she sat down at the kitchen table with her husband Kent, a senior management analyst for the City of Tigard, and formed Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL), a support network for young men and women with leadership aspirations.
Her Willamette experience played no small part in the effort. “Service above self and trying to make the world a better place — Willamette does such a great job of cultivating that,” Wyatt says. “It’s a cherished value that many of my peers and I adopted.”
While most professional associations focus on a specific job duty, ELGL takes a big-tent approach that encourages membership from all disciplines — from city managers and public safety officials to finance directors and analysts, all of whom can share their expertise (or just plain commiserate).
Focusing the group’s efforts broadly is an attempt to reach the so-called Generation Y, or millennials, whose 70 million members aren’t known for their allegiance to any single job or career. “What we’re trying to do is engage people who are just starting their careers, so when they have an offer to jump to the private sector or a nonprofit, they might feel that staying in local government is really a great way to make a difference in the world,” Wyatt says. “Our overarching goal is really to address the issue of mentoring the next generation of local government leaders.”
What once amounted to 16 Portland-area professionals who discussed their concerns over lunch has swelled to an organization with 450 members in 18 states, including a recently created Midwest chapter. One reason for the growth is that ELGL has harnessed new media and technology like few professional associations to date. There’s a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and a blog, all of which are bustling and bring dynamism and immediacy to the group’s efforts. Featured speakers and workshops fit the tone and scope of the conversation perfectly, too, making events relevant and widely accessible.
Large government operations, such as Metro, the Portland-based metropolitan service district whose duties include land-use planning, count themselves among ELGL’s supporters. Wyatt reached out to Metro Chief Operating Officer Martha Bennett ’89, who immediately signed up her 750-employee organization as a member.
“ELGL has a level of energy to it that you don’t find in traditional professional-development organizations,” Bennett says. “They captured a group of people who were looking for a home.”
Bennett isn’t as dour as some in characterizing this young group, either: “For the most part, their generational impatience, I think, is really healthy because it takes a long time to get anything done in government. And their ability to absorb information from a variety of sources and synthesize it into a coherent mass is really amazing. There’s an opportunity here.”
Not Unto Ourselves...
ELGL is filled with Willamette alumni, many of them recent graduates whose commitment to public service, inculcated at the university, resembles Wyatt’s.
“Willamette definitely shaped my worldview,” says Ben Kittelson ’12, a double-major in economics and politics who is now is pursuing his master’s in public administration at Portland State. He’s also serving an internship with the City of West Linn, where he helps with economic development and public affairs. He recently developed a communications plan for an event called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, in which citizens assisted elderly residents with yard work, and the effort’s success was partly due to his social-media expertise.
Kittelson is an intern for ELGL as well, working up to 15 hours a week maintaining the group’s website. The site includes local-government news items from around the country, while also making room for levity (see “The Morning Buzz,” which once covered “15 Happy Meal Toys That Made Your McChildhood,” or the ever-important “Knope of the Week” distinction).
Ben Bryant ’09, another economics major and a management analyst with the City of Tualatin, goes right to the Willamette motto. “We always talk about it – ‘Not unto ourselves alone are we born.’ That’s something I took away, as have a lot of other Willamette students, graduates, professors and professionals. We carry that mindset. It’s something I try to employ as much as possible.”
The members of ELGL understand the challenge at hand. “At the same time that there’s kind of this narcissistic strain in young people,” Kittelson says, “there’s also an influence challenging them to get involved and serve the greater good. The challenge is that the vehicle young people see immediately is the nonprofit sector. Local governments need to do a better job of attracting this generation. It’s been a trend nationally, and it trickles down to the local level: the idea that government is the enemy, that regulations don’t help, and all that. Local government needs to change that perspective.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in seven of the top 20 industry classifications, the oldest workers hail from the public sector. Their would-be millennial replacements are more slippery, a 70-million-strong cohort that the American Psychological Association characterizes as more self-centered and less civically engaged than generations preceding it. Many of the public-spirited among them have gone on to jobs in the nonprofit sector, avoiding government work at a time when the body politic endures the enmity of a jaded public.
There is cause for optimism, though. A study released last year by the Council of Graduate Schools shows the number of students enrolling in “public administration services” programs rose 5 percent in 2012; the rate climbed 3.6 percent during the previous five years.
One of those students is Rafael Baptista ’12, who met Wyatt at a “You’re Doing What With Your Degree?” alumni event put on by Willamette. After speaking with Wyatt, Baptista, a politics and Spanish major, decided to leave political campaign work and dedicate himself to public service. He’s now pursuing his MPA at the University of North Carolina, as did Wyatt.
Baptista was encouraged by his parents. His mother lived in Brazil under an authoritarian military dictatorship; his father emigrated from Angola, where political upheavals have roiled the African nation for decades. Baptista says he is considering working as a management analyst for a city or as an analyst for the federal government.
“My parents always told me that government can be used to do really bad things, but it can also be used to do really good things and it’s our responsibility to ensure that,” he says, adding that in such work “there’s more accountability, and you see the people you serve every day. If you do a good job, you can see the fruits of the work every day.”
Fires in Bellies
ELGL, meanwhile, continues to broaden its reach. It held its first conference in October at the Kennedy School in Portland, complete with a “Parks and Recreation” theme. Featured speakers included former governors Ted Kulongoski of Oregon and Christine Gregoire of Washington (Wyatt’s father worked with Gregoire in the state attorney general’s office while she was governor, while Wyatt’s mother ran the governor’s mansion during Gregoire’s tenure; Gregoire’s daughters Michelle and Courtney are WU grads).
“My perspective as a governor is that I am very concerned about the growing of future leaders, and I think that starts locally,” Gregoire says. She worries that today’s generation of young people lack what she calls a “fundamental commitment beyond the dollar.
“When John F. Kennedy called people to service, it was a noble calling,” she says. “People were expected to give back, either by serving in positions of local government or county government, or by volunteering in some way. Times have changed, which has put a new demand on nurturing, supporting and growing the leadership that we’re going to need.”
Bryant agrees that ELGL is on the way. “The organization has removed the barriers to finding people who are facing similar situations and who have similar passions and desires,” he says. Bryant is a member of the group’s advisory board and earned an MPA from the University of Kansas. “We can be better prepared to address similar circumstances in our cities based on the stories and feedback we’ve learned from others. It helps us become more effective in what we do.”
In Beaverton, Chief Administrative Officer Randy Ealy ’91 has hired interns from ELGL. He’s also a member.
“It’s a must for me in terms of keeping a pulse on the bright and talented upcoming public administrators,” he says. “They have that fire in their belly that you want from people in those careers. It’s a pretty special group that did not exist pre-Kirsten, so kudos to her. Kirsten is the kind of leader that you want to follow. She’s clearly driving the bus on this, and I want to be on that bus.”
Wyatt, a mother of two young daughters, is up at 4:30 every morning working on ELGL business. Her leadership dates back to Willamette, where she was Panhellenic president and a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.
Sorority sister Amy (Erekson) Varga ’97, an adjunct faculty member in Portland State’s Center for Public Service and former member of the Willamette Office of Alumni and Parent Relations, says Wyatt possesses “the coolest combination of traits. She loves data and analysis, but if you met her at a coffee shop, you’d never know that about her,” she says. “She’s the most polished, personable person, and she hides her geekiness well, which makes her an excellent ambassador for government.”
Leslie Knope would approve.
Kirsten (Olson) Wyatt ’99
(In order of appearance)
Martha Bennett ’89
Ben Kittleson ’12
Ben Bryant ’09
Randy Ealy ’91