Rekindling the Flame: Inspiring others to join the public service in the face of cynicism
by Paul Carlson, Executive Director, Seattle Federal Executive Board
After directing a small federal agency, I am making the transition to teaching graduate students and I enjoy it immensely. However, I have been surprised to encounter profound cynicism among the students. They seem to have an overwhelmingly negative view, not just of government, but about our capacity for any significant social change in America as well.
The topic was homelessness. The class was virtually united in believing that homelessness neither could nor would be ended. Considering that we are entering the fifth decade of this prolonged crisis, this pessimism is hardly surprising. But the view of students went much deeper than that.
Homelessness, institutional racism, the perception of growing disparity between rich and poor, unbridled capitalism, neo-colonialism, the pervasive belief that only those born to privilege can succeed, bigotry, racism, and sexism are believed to be not simply present in American society but to define its very character. To many of my students, the overall view of decaying, dysfunctional American government is a foregone conclusion on the basis of overwhelming evidence in the news each day.
How to inspire students to consider public service, when they despair of the efficacy of most agents of political and social change, especially the institutions of government?
In our discussion I appealed to recent history and the dramatic changes wrought in the wake of the wars and upheavals of the 20th century. I do not think I made much impression. Historical reference points, as a means of measuring progress, seems dismissed as so many limited “constructs” of particular groups, usually from the dominant power group. I respond that truth can and does transcend the limited constructs of a point in history, or groups within history. We must avoid the fundamental error of believing the constructs of our particular time and ethos somehow stand out of history. There is no meta-construct; no post history prism through which we interpret current and past events.
Yet, oddly enough, this pessimism exists side by side with a kind of hyper-idealism; a stark contrast of the ideal versus real world. As it were, we can find only distorted shadows of the ideal world on the walls of our social order. This dualism seems Manichean: the light of high human aspirations is hidden only in pockets of resistance, while the mainstream social order grows ever darker.
Feeling no estrangement from high ideals, I ask myself exactly how I might share my faith in the values of a liberal society. Government’s function is not merely management of the social order, but to provide meaningful, humane and just service to our citizens.
I believe we want to open a horizon of government service, not merely because there are good jobs to be had (and there are!), but because we want those positions filled with civil servants who aspire to truly serve, who view their work is part of a wide net of services that supports and promotes growth, creativity and change in American civic, social and economic institutions.
I have been encouraged in recent years by my experiences with working with a federal inter-agency program that develops the talents of emerging leaders. This is a two year program comprised of two small cohorts of mid-career federal staff who overlap (1st year, 2nd year) in participation. Each year they choose a group service project, such as hosting a state wide conference on prisoner re-entry, building a tiny house shelter in support of the work of a local non- profit, or other similar projects. This peer led program is overseen by a team of five Advisors, senior federal agency staff. Our program structure is not unique.
However, the content of learning, while important, is subordinate to group process, the interpersonal encounters, friction and camaraderie inherent in their working together as a team of peers. Advisors mix it up in group discussion, candid with general opinions, though careful not to interpose their views in the peer decision-making process. Somehow this whole process becomes remarkably uplifting to spirit and morale, at least for most. Advisors serve less as teachers than co-learners.
To inspire the formation of new leaders in all levels of American government, current leaders obviously have to impart their own notions of service, their own beliefs, sense of duty and civic commitment. Our posture perhaps is that we are in leadership formation together with those we advise and teach. We owe as much authenticity of our character, beliefs and ideas as we can muster.
I do not want to have too ready a response to the students I teach in an academic setting. Their views are strongly held and worth listening to. I can, then, only share myself with them, my ideas and experience, and perhaps encourage them to place themselves within an experiential context of growth towards leadership. Will such an experience shake their cynicism, restore some faith in American society and civic ideals? A professionally intimate, personally engaged approach I believe may be the best way to impress a new generation of leaders, and help them develop a lens through which to find their own sense of meaning and purpose, and thereby to aspire to civic leadership.
About the Author
Paul Carlson’s career in housing homeless persons and working on national homelessness policy spans three decades. From the earliest days of the homelessness crisis in the 1980’s he worked to house homeless person with severe mental illness and substance abuse issues. He held key positions with the City of Seattle and later with the federal government developing strategies to end homelessness.
For nine years he represented the federal United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The focus of his work was on organizing community strategies to end homelessness and to create an adequate supply of housing and services for disabled persons and impoverished families.
Before entering federal service he was a special advisor on homelessness for the City of Seattle, directing the operations of the Sound Families Initiative, a housing production program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Paul worked for many years as the Director of Housing Services for Harborview Mental Health in Seattle, where he developed the housing program for chronically homeless persons with severe and persistent mental illness.
He currently serves as Executive Director of a federal agency called the Seattle Federal Executive Board. His duties involve working with federal agency executives to organize special inter-agency programs and initiatives.
He received a BA from Dickinson College and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has also attended St. Andrews University, Scotland, and Princeton Theological Seminary.
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