I Have to Ask: Leave a Place Better Than You Found It

Posted on September 1, 2019


In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Ruanda McFerren, Cookingham-Noll Management Fellow, City of Kansas City, Missouri, writes about aligning work with your passions.

Why work in local government?

Why work where you work?

Why do what you do?

Why do what you do where you do it? 

If you are like me, you would give a different answer to each of these questions. Despite this difference, each question is rooted in influence. I’m sure answering “what influenced your decision to work in local government” is something that you can do easily. When I received the prompts for this essay I thought this one would be easy-peasy. Surprisingly, I was wrong and drilling down to my influences to work in local government was a challenge. 

For a lot of reasons, this summer has been a time of reflection.

Reason one: I’ve been in my current position for over a year and am thinking about the next steps in my career.

Reason two: I was asked by my undergrad to share how I feel my path has been shaped by the school. 

RuandaThere are other reasons too, but they have all lead me to ask “is this the road I should be on to get where I want to go.” I hate doing this. I hate the gushy emotionality involved in this self-work. This work does not gel with my ISTJ Myers-Briggs type or my Aquarius brain! 

Despite the discomfort I feel digging into my own feelings, it has been good for me (shocking, I know). Through treflection, I realized a key motivator for me is working on issues I care about. I knew this about myself but now I have more confidence saying I don’t want to be a generalist practitioner. If you are the kind of person excited by working on the different random projects that come your city’s way, go you! That’s not me. 

I’m sure you’re asking “what issues excite Ruanda?”

Answer: housing policy, and more broadly, shaping the social and built environments for the good of all. A desire to solve problems related to housing, and there are many which is why I went to grad school for my MPA and MS in Urban & Regional Planning (yes, I am a super nerd ?). 

I care about housing and the role it plays in our communities. My  interest was sparked ten years ago while on a undergrad service trip in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. This trip was the first time I interacted with people experiencing homelessness and I was struck by the proximity of extreme wealth and extreme poverty in San Francisco. This experience and volunteerism with Habitat for Humanity led me to take more sociology classes and think critically about how we build the places we live and how we interact with each other in those spaces.

My desire to learn more and shape policy took off during my four years working in college admissions. During these years, I traveled 10 to 12 weeks each fall and spring recruiting prospective students. I noticed affluent high schools were often prioritized for visits. This was the case across the country. My college was not unique. The fact that students in communities with a lower socioeconomic status did not have the equal access to colleges left a bad taste in my mouth. Each of these experiences got me closer to grad school and local government. 

There is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to work in public service. Being of service is important and will continue to be a priority should I ever leave local government. My service orientation wasn’t passed down by city manager or elected official parents but my inheritance from the Girl Scouts. A basic rule of camping as a Girl Scout is to leave a place better than you found it. This is one of the guiding principles that I live by. 

Regardless of what you do, where you do it, or how you do it, it is amazing to do work that aligns with your passions. But, it is also okay if you are in a place right now where the two might not be aligned. Given the right influences, the path that you are on now will help you get where you want to go. 

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