What was your local government moment? What keeps you in local government? Who have been the influences in your career? We take a deep dive into these questions by asking you (the practitioner) to tell your local government story. You can sign up to participate in the bi-monthly feature at Finding Local Government. Thanks to Matt Wojnowski, City of Altus, OK, for developing and coordinating the feature.
By: Ana Colls, Assistant Director, Parks & Recreation Department
Not working in the “Dark Side” (aka the private sector). That’s about all I knew about my career trajectory when I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Economics, a degree my academic advisory convinced me to pursue because he considered my original choice of Liberal Arts as the most worthless degree I could obtain at Florida International University. I loved learning about a wide variety of subjects and feared limiting myself by choosing a very specific academic path. Economics turned out to be an excellent choice for teaching me how to think analytically about human behavior and our impacts on society. Although I would never be a professional economist, I knew the skills and lessons I was learning would be valuable in any career I chose. For college students who have not yet discovered their passions (which I would argue is most people that age), I highly encourage a degree in the Arts and Sciences that will teach you how to be a better reader, writer and thinker. You’ll pick up the technical skills later in life.
Follow What Intrigues You
I yearned for a career where I help could help people but was overwhelmed by the possibilities and paralyzed by my uncertainty. I decided the best way to proceed was to get real-world experience in something I cared about. I had always been curious about what makes my hometown (Miami) unique, how its challenges could best be addressed and how its opportunities could be maximized. My interest in Miami’s urban issues led to a paid internship and series of jobs at non-profit institutions focused on solving the social, economic, and environmental problems created by suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment.
These entry-level administrative positions taught me valuable skills in office management, finance and event planning. Although my job duties were less than glamorous, I had incredible opportunities to travel around the country and learn more about issues affecting cities and suburbs. I also had a better understanding of the fundraising challenges faced by the non-profit organizations in this field… and that was a big turnoff. I wanted to improve people’s quality of life but not worry about finding the money to do it. Still not clear on my dream job, it was time to go to graduate school and my goal was to not acquire any debt.
It’s OK to be a Generalist
Luck was on my side when I received a fully-funded graduate fellowship in Public Administration through the National Urban Fellows program, which I unintentionally found on www.idealist.org. Through this 14-month long program, Fellows complete 2 summers of coursework at City University of New York along with a 9-month internship at a non-profit organization, a foundation or a government agency. For my internship I had the opportunity to serve as Special Assistant to the City Manager in the city of Coachella, California. This was an exciting prospect, but also one that revealed my fear about not having a specific expertise. What exactly do people with a degree in Public Administration working in local government do? I would soon learn that professionals in this field must be well versed in a wide range of issues and have varied skills that enable them to tackle challenges in a community.
More than a Music Festival
Known for a popular music festival (which actually takes place next door in the city of Indio), Coachella is a unique city comprised of 40,000+ residents, 97% of which are Hispanic, with a median age of 25 and a high rate of poverty. At that time, members of a local church were organizing around the inadequate and unsafe public parks. I was immediately intrigued by the prospect of helping this community address an important quality of life issue on the city administration’s behalf.
City officials supported my desire to spend my internship creating a Parks and Recreation Master Plan for the city, an important planning document that this young and growing community desperately needed. Leading this endeavor granted me the opportunity to meet with residents, survey their needs, create a plan to use city funds to rehabilitate existing parks, and identify needs for future park space and recreation programs.
I also used my position at the City Manager’s office to develop partnerships with local schools, nonprofit organizations, grassroots community groups, and neighboring municipalities. When my internship concluded, I was hired as the city’s Parks and Recreation Services Manager and helped implement a $6.5 million park and recreation facilities rehabilitation program.
Miami’s Real-Life Leslie Knope
While addressing the open space and recreational needs of Coachella residents, I realized the tremendous power and influence being a local government administrator carried. I learned how to be an agent of change by engaging the community and becoming their advocate within City Hall. I also grew to appreciate the fact that even a local government with a small tax base still has a sizeable revenue stream that must be managed ethically and efficiently.
Basically, I realized my dream job was to be like television’s Leslie Knope and work in the municipal parks and recreation field. My dream came true in in 2008 when I returned to my hometown and was hired by the Village of Key Biscayne (a small island community off the coast of downtown Miami) to operate their Community Center. My role has grown over the years and I am now Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation, just like Leslie Knope!
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