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Finding Meaning in the ASPA Experience

Guest Columnist: ASPA President-Elect Erik Bergrud

Erik Bergrud

I write this column in the aftermath of learning that my chapter’s January luncheon has been canceled. An arsonist destroyed the long-standing meeting place of ASPA’s Greater Kansas City Chapter, the venerable Hereford House, in 2008. The establishment subsequently moved across the street in a temporary location but unexpectedly closed its doors over the holidays.

Nineteen years ago, I attended my first chapter luncheon at the Hereford House. I was socialized at a time when chapters were generally considered to be ASPA’s grassroots and when attending a monthly meeting was a rite of passage.

In an era which predated Facebook, YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle, sitting in a room with 100 public administrators to hear “words of wisdom” from the city manager was considered to be a pretty big deal.

As we have all witnessed, our world has changed quite dramatically during those nineteen years. ASPA finds itself competing with newer membership associations and even for its members’ attention, as many of us attempt to balance work-life issues.

So, what do these sweeping social changes mean for ASPA’s chapters and sections, the traditional conveners of ASPA members? The word “mean” reminds me of long-time ASPA member Alex Pattakos, host of the “Dr. Meaning” Channel on YouTube.

In a January 2009 online column in which he referenced ASPA and Public Administration Review, Pattakos wrote:

“Indeed, as someone who has worked in and with government, and as a professor of public policy and management who has helped to prepare many others for public sector employment, the search for meaning in government service is more than a rhetorical or academic question. On the contrary, the search for meaning, I propose, is the very platform upon which the concept and spirit of public service come alive in a real, practical sense.”

In this PA TIMES issue, you will find a special section on volunteerism/civic engagement. As I noted in my PA TIMES guest column last January, I found meaning in the service I provided to Kansas City area community organizations as part of my two-year “ASPA sabbatical.” Upon reflection, I wonder why I had to take some time away from my ASPA experience to feel more connected with my home community.

I contend that ASPA’s chapters and sections, in addition to hosting luncheons and facilitating electronic discussions, can provide opportunities for members to find meaning and, in the process, rekindle their spirit of public service.

With the full support of ASPA President Meredith Newman who invited me to write this issue’s guest column, I call upon all of ASPA’s chapters and sections, including our new virtual International Chapter, to commit to at least one service project in 2011.

I can envision some chapters assisting their local public television pledge drives, or participating in after-school reading programs or even helping area homeless.

Even though section members connect virtually, they too can rally behind a project, be it partnering with Internet microfinance leader Kiva to support a microenterprise in Cambodia or Tanzania or establishing a scholarship for an at-need student. Imagine the far-ranging projects which could be developed by two of our newer sections, the Section on Democracy and Social Justice and the Section on Korean Public Administration!

For the first time that I can recall, ASPA will adopt a theme for its next program year (March 2011-March 2012) that serves to link our chapter/section activities, publications and conferences.

The theme “Redefining Public Service through Civic Engagement” reflects the fact that businesses, nonprofits, and citizen groups have become essential partners in government, contributing resources to community problem solving and public service delivery. It also reminds each of us that no matter whether we are professionals, scholars, researchers or students, we are all public servants at heart. As servant-leaders, we retain an implicit responsibility to ensure that our communities remain healthy and vibrant.

During the coming year, ASPA will continue to publish Public Administration Review. It will continue to host webinars and conferences. None of that will change.

But perhaps, in the process of performing a community service function, some of us “older” members will remember why we first committed our lives to public service and perhaps some of our newer members will discover the ASPA spirit, which has never gone away. I, for one, am eager to forego a chicken lunch or two, roll up my sleeves and accomplish something meaningful in the city I’ve come to love over the past two decades.

When we formally close the 2011-2012 program year at the 2012 ASPA Annual Conference, we will celebrate all the accomplishments of our chapters and sections. Maybe, we’ll even leave the conference site for a few hours to make a difference in the host community!

ASPA member Erik Bergrud is the Society’s President-Elect. He is senior director, community and government relations for Park University. Email: [email protected].

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