Published on Friday, July 6, 2001 in the Boston Globe
The Rising Price of Public Service
by Angela Calman
TEN YEARS AGO, when I was an undergraduate, a young man running for the state Legislature came to speak to my political science class. He wasn't a politician - he was a public servant.
Back then I didn't understand the difference. But now I not only make the distinction, I have a deep appreciation for what he embodied, and I fear that it has been lost on my generation. He stood out in the rain talking to us for hours after class about his belief in the power of the individual as an instrument for change.
It was at that moment that I first recognized the need to pursue something greater than my own self-interest and solidified my desire to work in public service.
Over the years, the desire grew, and I was no longer content with part-time involvement in civic causes and community service. It eventually compelled me to leave a lucrative job at a television network to pursue a graduate degree in public policy.
But as I stare at the large crimson folder detailing the pending repayment schedule for my student loans, I feel my heart sink. My optimism for changing the world is slightly tempered by my desire to be able to afford to pay my bills.
Like many graduates, I am in constant turmoil over my desire to do what's right and having the means to do it. For now, the call to help others is the one that prevails. But for others, it has been drowned out by the increasing noise from recruiters and headhunters seeking to woo graduates from top policy schools.
A public sector income is no match for the lure of a six-figure salary from a top consulting firm. But it's not just about money - it's about the values of American society, and how we define success.
Graduates who land the big jobs are showered with accolades from their fellow students. But who is raising a glass to the individual working to revitalize urban neighborhoods or teach in a low-income school district?
The prestige and temptation of the private sector is draining all the talent from the public servant pool - at a great cost to our society.
From the Head Start teacher who helps at-risk children overcome the enormous educational and social hurdles that stand in their way to the disaster relief worker at FEMA who helps hundreds of flood victims negotiate their way through devastating loss and pain - our democracy rests on the backs of these individuals. Millions of Americans are the civil servants whose institutional knowledge and service keep our country healthy and viable.
It is unrealistic to believe that public service organizations can compete financially with a firm on Wall Street. But we shouldn't expect them to. What we should demand is a commitment from the private sector to recognize the inherent value in public service. The public sector work force is the backbone of the infrastructure that keeps the markets going and the economy solid.
While I worry that my generation may lose its way, I am even more concerned with the fate of those who follow in our footsteps - if we choose not to lead.
The challenge facing the next generation of leaders is this: to make a fundamental shift in our country where we recognize the importance of public service to our survival as a nation. Only then will we begin to establish a culture that rewards and acknowledges the valor of working for the greater good.
Angela Calman just graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Excellence in Public Service Award.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company