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My Great-Grandmother Would Have Made a Great Public Servant

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily Paulson
July 7, 2015

Paulson july 2Alma Erickson left her family and home in Sweden at 18 years old and journeyed across the Atlantic to start a new life. She was poor and alone, but even the stench of that ship’s underbelly couldn’t drown out the sweet fragrance of hope.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word spoken of Alma. My mother refers to her as her “laughing grandma,” because she always seemed to have a twinkle in her eye and a belly laugh at the ready. I wish I could have known her.

Alma faced many trials, including the voyage to America, poverty, the death of her husband at a young age and the death of two sons. That hardship made her ability to give nothing but joy back to our relentless world something special. It is that joyful attitude along with a number of other qualities that convince me Alma would have been a great public servant.

First and Foremost: She Loved America

This might seem like a no-brainer, but I think public servants should be fiercely patriotic. The idea that someone could be otherwise would have broken Alma’s heart. She loved her homeland, but the conviction with which she gave her allegiance to this country was undeniable. She loved what it stood for. She loved what it was trying to be. She loved that it believed in her.

As public servants, if we stop believing in what America is or can become, can we really have the momentum we need to contribute to that vision? I think we forget sometimes how new our nation is. It is easy to be disheartened by partisan politics, speed bumps in policy change or our sometimes cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.

But if we’re taking a cue from Alma, we can’t let that cause us to take our freedom for granted. Our dedication to building a country that mirrors the vision we have for it can be our greatest asset. By actually believing in the things we advocate for, we can be smarter, more tenacious decision makers.

She Always Did Her Best

Alma never stopped working. From dawn ‘till dusk she kept busy. She believed in doing as much as she could instead of as little as possible. My mother remembers her always insisting she rake her own leaves and those of her next-door neighbor, even at an old age.

In any line of work, it can be easy to become complacent. In deadline-driven environments, there may be pressure to do things quickly instead of to do things right. I suppose we need a balance between fast and perfect, for the sake of actually getting things done. However, we should remember we are called to be good stewards. Turning something in just to get it off our plates, as guilty as we likely all are of doing so, probably isn’t the best we can do.

Alma strove for excellence. She didn’t do things half-way. When she was around 10 years old, she won a penmanship award at school. Even decades and a new continent later, she would beam when she talked about it. That commitment to excellence is exactly what we want in public servants. We want a government made of hard-working, principled people, who won’t easily settle.

Community was Her Mission

Paulson julyOne of the biggest indicators of Alma’s love for her community was the way she raised her three sons. In each of them, she instilled a sense of patriotism, community involvement and public responsibility. From a fallen WWII soldier to a community organization leader, they were living proof of the emphasis Alma put on giving back. She would also sew and crochet blankets for the needy, provide support for neighborhood widows and make a point to embrace who and what others were.

In the public sector, it’s our job to do all of those things. Maybe not each of us individually, but certainly as a collective force for the good of the people. Do we have an attitude of service? Do we go to work each day with the intention of helping, protecting or bettering the lives of our community members? I hope so, because I believe that’s what we’re being entrusted to do. Advancing the public interest, after all, is the first item in ASPA’s code of ethics.

Every public servant is different. Each has a different skill set, different life experiences, different priorities. But every one of us can probably learn something from Alma. Let us strive for excellence, make it our mission to foster stronger communities and never take the possibility of what America can be for granted. By taking a cue from her, I think we will be one step closer to reaching the beautiful vision we have for this great nation.


Author: Emily G. Paulson is a content marketing manager in Minneapolis, where she moonlights as an MPA student at Hamline University’s School of Business. She’s carving out a career in public safety and community outreach, and believes in firm handshakes and shameless smiles. Contact her at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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