Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

What I Learned During My “ASPA Sabbatical”

I didn’t intentionally set out to take a break from active engagement in ASPA. After all, I had served ASPA in multiple volunteer and staff roles continuously for 15 years.

However, in 2007, the president of Park University nominated me for acceptance into the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s highly competitive Centurions Leadership Program, which attracts applicants from the region’s major employers.
After participating in a formal interview, I received my acceptance letter in the summer of 2007. Over the next two years, I undertook an interesting journey of discovery, a journey which challenged my personal and professional values and pre-conceived notions about what “public service” means.

Before continuing my story, I should provide you with a little background information about myself. I earned an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s degree in public affairs (MPA). I have spent my entire professional career in higher education administration and association management.

When I attended my first official Centurions function, I felt oddly out of place. During my university days, my classmates had been liberal arts majors or government/nonprofit employees. Now, I suddenly found myself surrounded by rising corporate executives, architects, bankers and attorneys–not your typical ASPA audience!

The Centurions Leadership Program operates on a nine-month calendar and consists of several elements: a retreat at the beginning of the program year, monthly day-long “task forces” focused on key issues or challenges facing the Kansas City area, a two-day benchmarking trip to another city and a significant community service component. Program participants are required to organize one task force and to serve on a program committee.

The typical program participant possesses a “Type A” personality and is driven to succeed. When Centurions are assigned to task forces or committees, they enter an environment in which excellence is demanded and 100 percent participation is expected.

Task force members try to solicit the most prominent local speakers and solicit external funding in order to stage spectacular events. To give you a better sense of the substance of these task forces, let me share with you the agenda of the October 2008 event I co-chaired, which addressed politics and elections and took place at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum:

  • A conversation with three U.S. Senate staff representatives on how Senate
  • offices actually operate
  • A panel session, entitled “How the Levers of Power are Controlled in Kansas City” (this panel discussion included two county executives, two political newspapers and a newspaper publisher; it was co-hosted by two local political radio talk-show hosts and was broadcast on a tape-delay basis)
  • A Truman Presidential Library and Museum tour
  • A government relations advocacy panel (this discussion included four government relations professionals who explained the inner-workings of legislative advocacy on the state and national levels)
  • A workshop on Advocacy 101 (a facilitated mini-workshop)

We even developed outcome measures for the event and were later invited to brief the Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors on what attendees learned that day.
The Centurions’ motto is “learn, lead, serve.” Though listed third, the service component of the program provides the most meaning and, arguably, the most poignant education in terms of the real problems faced by Americans today.

During my first year in the program, I completed 28 hours of community service, and 35 hours in the second year. Some of my most memorable experiences included: riding in the back of a van and delivering clothes and hot chili to the homeless on the streets of Kansas City, conducting mock interviews for women eager to transition their careers in the midst of a challenging economy, and playing with abused and neglected children, bringing some joy to them on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Centurions passionately commit themselves to leaving their mark in the community. I served on the program’s Legacy Committee, as the name implies, responsible for identifying a project that will create a lasting legacy. My classmates and I decided to endow a scholarship at a local community college to assist students from Kansas City’s urban core pursue their dream of a college education. We began our year with a goal of raising $10,000. We actually raised more than twice that total.

Visiting San Francisco and Charlotte on our benchmarking trips not only exposed me to some intelligent practices in those cities, but also challenged me to view my city differently once I returned home. In San Francisco, we got a behind-the-scenes look at Recycle Central, where materials are separated into commodities that are sold to manufacturers, turning discards into new products. We also took a walking tour of the Tenderloin neighborhood and learned how a local nonprofit organization is making a real difference in the lives of low-income families. In Charlotte, we learned how public, private and civic leaders collaborated to launch and expand that city’s popular light-rail system.

The Big “Takeaways”
Reflecting on my two-year experience, I have identified three major “takeaways” that will guide me during my tenure as an ASPA officer:

  • Participating in the Centurions program challenged me to reconsider my long-held beliefs that the public and nonprofit sectors hold a monopoly on being committed to solving the challenges facing our society. I discovered that many of Kansas City’s established and rising corporate leaders have dedicated themselves to civic engagement and civic progress. The leading driver for sustainability in the Kansas City region, for instance, is actually the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, buttressed by the many architectural and engineering firms headquartered here.
  • I witnessed how the culture of an organization affects individuals’ behavior and “ownership.” Participating in committees, which adhered to hard deadlines and whose members willingly brought external (both financial and in-kind) resources to the table, provided me additional motivation to perform exceptionally.
  • My classmates and I learned more about the challenges facing our community once we left our comfortable meeting rooms and actually engaged with individuals on the streets and in the myriad facilities operated by local nonprofit organizations.

One of the routes I travel to my monthly ASPA chapter meeting takes me past a soup kitchen where I served lunch to a long line of hungry and needy individuals of four generations, as well as past two street corners frequented by our community’s homeless population.

Attending future ASPA meetings and annual conferences will be forever changed as I contemplate whether we are really accomplishing anything of lasting impact. Maybe the ASPA experience, and my service as an ASPA officer, would be more significant and relevant if we were to “have class outside” once in a while?!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Loading...

About Erik Bergrud

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *