Find Your Place in Public Life - America's Future

March 23, 2021

Career AdviceProfessional Development

Find Your Place in Public Life

By: Emily Kelchen

Our generation wants to give back. We are quick to click when a friend posts a GoFundMe. We’ve been taught since a young age to pick up litter, and many of us have even had the unfortunate experience of signing up for a charity 5K. However, many young professionals are hesitant to take the leap from upstanding public citizen to public servant. Apathy is often blamed for our generation’s failure to act, but it is also true that finding and securing these positions is not something most young professionals know how to do. I’m here to fix that. 

All Politics Is Local

Each state has hundreds of municipalities within its border, all of which have various councils, boards, and commissions that carry out the day-to-day work of running our government. Getting elected or appointed to serve as a public official on one of these bodies is often quite simple. 

I recently ended a stint on my town’s Historic Preservation Commission because I needed approval to put a new roof on my house. I was not thrilled with the process, so when the chair mentioned there were open seats on the commission, I applied. I had an interview with the commission, did a phone call with the mayor, and that was that. When my first term expired, my reappointment by the new mayor, of the opposite party, was just as easy! 

My experience is not unique. Getting involved with local government is often as simple as raising your hand to volunteer even if there is a veneer of politics coating the process.  Being affiliated with the same political party as the mayor can be helpful, but it’s certainly not required. 

The two most important characteristics you need  are a willingness to serve and an interest in the topic at hand. Like most jobs, nobody expects you to be an expert right away, and your fresh perspective may prove to be an asset. Expertise will come with time. You should not hesitate to push for proper training, or at least ask as many questions as you need to when you start. 

Interested in getting a position, but don’t know where to start? Go online. Most municipalities have a list of boards and commissions on their website with vacancies noted. Others provide the list of board and commission chairs and you will need to reach out to them to see if there are vacancies on a board that interests you. 

Once you get your foot in the door, it’s likely you will get asked to serve on other boards, or even recruited to run for office. 

Serving At The State Level 

If you have expertise or interest in an issue that goes beyond your community, serving on a state board or commission may be a better fit for you. The governor of each state appoints thousands of people to governing bodies as varied as the Interior Design Examination and Evaluation Committee and the Shellfisheries Council. 

Want to see what’s out there? Head to your governor’s website and look for information on boards and commissions or appointments. There should be information on all of the various positions appointed by the governor, and directions for how to indicate your interest. 

To serve in some roles, you must have a particular credential, but many have a slot for a general member of the public. Positions may also be allocated by party, county, or region, so do your homework to make sure you qualify before you apply. 

Some roles require a vote of confirmation by the state legislature, but many do not. Nevertheless, it does not hurt to reach out to your state legislators and let them know you are interested in a particular board or commission. They can help you get information about the role, and may be willing to put in a good word for you with the governor’s staff. 

Political involvement and affiliation play a larger role at the state level, but a willingness to serve is still the most important criteria. And once again, service on one board or commission will often draw the attention of policymakers and politicos who have other slots to fill. 

Non-Political, Non-Profit Boards 

If you prefer to stay away from politics completely, there are still plenty of ways you can serve your community. Local non-profits are frequently looking for new board members. And many of them are eager to have young people on their board. They understand the importance  of connecting with each generation if they want to continue their work. 

If there is an organization in your community that is doing good work, reach out and let them know you see and appreciate them, and are willing to lend a hand. You can also start by contacting your local United Way. Many of them offer a board and community leadership training program that serves as a pipeline to local nonprofits. 

Find Your Seat At The Table

If you have a desire to serve, don’t hesitate to put yourself out there. There is no reason to wait until you are older and more experienced when the public needs hard-working problem solvers to address the many challenges our communities face. .