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Our Civic Duty

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

By Sarah Sweeney
February 24, 2023

In thinking about what to write for this article I considered what it means to be civically engaged—especially since we are currently in the midst of the legislative session—and found that it is “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference”. This seems to me a cornerstone of what it means to study and to become a public administrator in today’s world, taking steps toward building a better society that is free from intolerance and devastation. By investing in ourselves and each other through education and action we are making the decision to improve the lives of those we serve in our communities, not only for today but for all the tomorrows to come.

When I decided to make the professional move into public administration, I did so with the desire to make a difference in my community. I had been working for many years in social services and hit some incredible barriers while trying to provide the adequate and necessary services that my clients deserved, and I wanted to make an impact on a systems level. I went back to school to learn the tools and skills needed to become a change agent, brining with me the knowledge and understanding of what needed to improve in the field of human services. I had aspirations of a more equitable and clean future for my community and I was going to be at the forefront of that change. Throughout my education and experience I’ve come to understand how long and difficult the journey to social change can be, simply because change is hard and there is so much that needs to happen to make society better. What does it mean to make society better? How do we know that society needs to change? Who are the people making those judgment calls and how can we become involved?

As a fairly new public administrator I have learned that creating a better world is too global of a concept and that picking an area or a problem to tackle is much more manageable at the local level. Looking around my own community I can see that change must happen in order for us to move forward, whether it be addressing rampant drug use, increased rates of violence or even access to affordable and safe housing. I believe these are important areas to focus on because of the many horror stories we hear—people being victimized in their homes or on the streets without cause and the frequency of gun violence in schools, grocery stores or community centers is alarming and must be stopped. This is our call to action: we must be part of the solution and not the problem. By understanding that change takes incredible fortitude and perseverance, I believe that we can create a better future—we just need to take the first step. Being a public administrator requires a level of engagement in the community that I had never before imagined, and in order to make change you must recognize the needs of those you serve rather than acting on assumptions of what we believe will be best for them. By asking “what do you need” rather than stating “here’s what you get” we can better target areas that require more time and energy than we previously considered. Having an awareness of what is happening in your community through reliable news and information is key to building a foundation for change.

If I could offer any bit of advice to new public administrators, I would encourage you to understand the current and future needs of your community by asking questions and getting to know the unique characteristics of the neighborhoods you serve. Become involved in meetings or events that allow for a diverse exposure of thoughts, ideas and people, and constantly challenge yourself and your team to push boundaries and test limits. Don’t be afraid to enter into situations that make you uncomfortable because that is where change will happen. Taking advantage of educational and professional development opportunities is a great way to invest in yourself and those around you. I would urge you to become involved in your local government or community agency board of directors as a means of sharing your thoughts and opinions on how we can do better. Through the development of partnerships we can see that impacting change on a global level is much more achievable than if we travel that road alone.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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