Challenging Assumptions, Thinking In New Ways

Posted on January 17, 2017

January 2017 is Local Government Mentor Month! All month long, we’ll be learning from people about how to be an effective mentor (as well as celebrating the people who have mentored us). RJ Susko with the Township of Robinson, PA is today’s guest blogger. Sign up to share your own mentoring story here.

RJ Susko

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The path to local government can take on many forms. For some, public service is a family affair; others start their careers here intending to move on to larger-scale operations, only to find they like it here just fine; and some might describe it as a long string of coincidences that led them to exactly what they always wanted to do but never knew was an option. Regardless, the common thread running through all these stories is almost always the presence of a good mentor. If your experience has been anything like mine, you’ve been lucky to have several.

For each major experience that led me to local government, I can identify mentor figures that challenged my prior assumptions and encouraged me to think in new ways about how to guide a community to a vibrant and sustainable future. I’ll never forget the day I met the professor most responsible for my love of local government, who got up in front of the entire incoming class at our graduate school orientation and said, “if you don’t want to change the world, you’re sitting in the wrong place.”

Imagine that – me, changing the world! “Who knows, maybe I can,” I thought, “but there’s only one way to find out.” And even though I consider what I’ve learned from him to be essential to my development as a professional and public official, Dr. Miller wasn’t the first person to show me how meaningful the job of a public administrator can be. So, perhaps I should start this one from the beginning.

It was towards the end of my final fall semester in undergrad when the internship posting appeared in my inbox – a constituent services position answering phones at the Massachusetts Office of the Governor’s western branch. At the time, I was finishing up a public health degree while interning for the local chamber of commerce, and was becoming very interested in the idea that good government was an important piece of community health. I figured the Governor’s Office might be a nice way to round off my college experience and sent in my resume.

Not long after, I got a call from the western office director. She wanted to meet with me in a café the next town over. On the day of the interview, I anxiously sipped a little too much coffee as I waited for her to arrive. When we began, I was immediately struck by her energy and sincere interest in what I had to say. The first few questions seemed fairly standard, though I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a competitive interview at that point.

Once I’d taken my best shot at describing my strengths without bragging and spinning “I procrastinate” into something a little less negative, she cocked her head to one side and, after a pause, asked me why I wanted to work in a government office. My major was public health – didn’t I want to do something closer to the “health” side?

“Well…” I took a deep breath. The last time I had explained this, to my department director, it was met with no small amount of skepticism. I began again. “The way I see it, health is about more than just whether you’re sick or not. You need to live somewhere that’s clean, and safe, and has things to do, right? If your air quality is bad, or the infrastructure is crumbling, and your public officials won’t engage with you to fix it, you’re going to be stressed all the time, and that’s terrible for your health.

So I think a community’s environment is really important, and a lot of that has to do with public policy. I want to learn how that works so I can be a better professional.” Her face lit up. Evidently, she liked my answer more than my department director had.

After just enough time passed after the interview that I’d started feeling sorry for myself, the phone rang. The director was calling.

“I have to ask you something, and maybe I’m being selfish,” she started, and my stomach dropped with confusion. This didn’t sound like an internship offer. “I know you’re graduating in the spring, and the position you applied for is during the spring semester, but I think you’d actually be a better fit for another program we have. It’s in the summer. Can you stay?” And with that, I joined a handful of other interns working in Springfield that summer as Governor’s Interns.

Her name was Elizabeth Cardona. She loved her community and her work and it was clear that the staff loved her back. As interns, we split off into different agency placements for hands-on work during most of the week, but every Wednesday we would all crowd into a state van for a field trip with Elizabeth and her equally capable assistant, Donna.

I remember the thought-provoking discussions we had on the long drives to places like the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the Hampden County Correctional Center, and the State House in Boston. On one trip, when our group seemed particularly troubled by a policy challenge, she told us she had hope for a good outcome because there were young people like us that cared enough to try and solve it.

Most importantly, Elizabeth taught me what it means to be a committed public servant who does their job with compassion and humility. I am very sure that if she hadn’t gone out on a limb and challenged me to stay that summer for the more rigorous internship, I would never have gone on to get my MPA. A career in local government has allowed me to do the work I was trying to find my way into while getting my bachelor’s degree, and tackle those same problems with the understanding of, as my current manager and most recent mentor would say, “how the sausage is made.”

In graduate school, I participated in a peer mentoring program that matched incoming students with second-years to help them narrow down their area of focus. What I told my mentees was something I learned from my time with Elizabeth: every person has a role to play in the community-building process, whether it’s advocating for policy change, brainstorming the ways to effect that change, or managing its implementation.

Standing up for what you believe should be done better isn’t easy, it’s true; but it takes just as much courage to have the wisdom to know when to say no, and when to say yes. That’s the challenge of being a public administrator. Her management of the Springfield office showed me just how important that type of courage can be.

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