Content Warning: This article mentions domestic violence.
Lead for America (LFA) is a new fellowship program aimed at bringing recent college graduates back to their local communities and implanting them into that local government. Benya Kraus (LA ’18) is one of the founding members of LFA.
They have partnered with the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Government and are being supported by other organizations such as the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the Vision New America Foundation, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the Launch Chapel Hill Accelerator and others, according to their website.
Kraus said their ideal candidate for this fellowship is someone who deeply cares about their community and wants to give back.
By bringing college graduates back to local communities, LFA is filling gaps in local government manpower, according to Joe Nail, chief executive officer of the organization.
“If you look at the average graduating class of Harvard, you have half the graduate class going to… one of these four places: Boston, New York City, Washington D.C. or San Francisco,” Nail said. “There is … a huge net outflow of talent where people with college educations are not returning back [to their home communities], and where leadership, new ideas and fresh thinking is desperately needed.”
He also said that LFA is creating the opportunity for recent college graduates to go into service in these smaller communities.
“The people who I saw as the antidote to the [brain drain] were choosing not to go into lives of service or impact not because they didn’t want to do that but because that pathway really didn’t exist before them,” he said.
Kraus added that LFA based its vision on the current polarization and immobility of national politics.
“Cities [and] communities are really taking up the mantle to address most of our most pressing global challenges. One example is the Paris Agreement. Now that the United States has dropped out, we are seeing a growing number of mayors sign on to pledge their [continued] commitment and have their local community lead the action on climate change,” Kraus said, explaining that LFA is trying to inspire young leaders to execute some of this much needed change at a grassroots and local level.
Nail said LFA aims to send its fellows to different towns across the country, rather than placing a number of fellows in one small town.
“While we can not and should not try to place… 20 fellows in any one small town or medium sized city, what we can do is provide a network [or] cohort [for these fellows], first in individual states and then across the country, of people who feel supported to continue building community.”
Kraus said her experience as a survivor of domestic violence changed her outlook on where societal change takes place, describing why she chose to be a part of LFA.
“In my situation of domestic violence from an older brother, it was hard to have any legal or policing entity in all the big cities that I have lived in really see this as an issue of violence and someone needing protection,” she said.
She added that the only entity that she managed to garner a restraining order from was her small rural hometown of Waseca, Minnesota.
“Local communities can offer truly life changing impact, and it is because of this understanding that I needed to be working in places that have the closest connection to the people they’re there to serve,” Kraus said.
Kraus also said that one of the unique features of the fellowship is that a fellow may choose to go back to their own hometown as a member of LFA to stimulate change.
“There is a really big degree of flexibility when an applicant says they are interested in being a hometown fellow. For example, I can apply and say I want to go back to Minneapolis or Waseca in Minnesota; right now, we might not have any connections with Waseca, [Minn.] but we will do the work to build off the connections that you have made there and then in the same way that we have been able to provide a framework in North Carolina, we will also provide a framework of support for you to go back to your hometown,” she said.
Their first batch of hometown fellows will be scattered across the country, according to Nail.
“We’ve had people who have said that they want to apply anywhere from El Paso, Texas right next to the United States/Mexico border all the way up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” Nail said.
Kraus said that besides hometown fellows, LFA is anticipating to have 40 placements in North Carolina out of their first 50 as a starting point. She also explained that applicants don’t need to have a specific community within North Carolina in mind when applying — just the desire to work with local governments in need of new encouraged leaders.
She also added that LFA wants to pull fellows from a broad spectrum of studies, not just from ones related to the public sector.
“I think the strength of our program will be how we are able to connect the desire of being part of and to contribute to the community, no matter what you are studying,” Kraus said.
Shimul Melwani, an assistant professor of organizational behavior in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, serves as the director of people & culture for the organization, providing experiences in creating an effective team and important leadership qualities.
“Often when startup teams get together, it’s very much an all hands on deck type of experience,” Melwani said. “Especially in this organization, where many different bodies are getting involved, we’ve sat down [and] built our organizational chart, which for example defines communication channels.”
Most of LFA’s leg work will be reaching out to communities across North Carolina and elsewhere, with hopes of bridging the gap between small governments and college graduates, according to Kraus.
“We mapped out what local governments want and what special task they are looking for to be done through hundreds of conversations with local government leaders,” Kraus said.
Kraus said that, from the conversations, LFA found lack of manpower to be an overarching issue in local governments.
“The tasks ranged from police community relations to one community that had just got a federal grant to respond to the opioid crisis in their community. They just don’t have staff capacity to do it.”
Following this year, LFA plans to expand within different states in the same way that they have in North Carolina, according to Nail.
“We already have been looking at some other states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, California, Texas, Florida and Georgia,” Nail said.
Nail added LFA’s goal is to create a movement of people committed to public service, not just a fellowship in which someone works for two years and leaves.
“We’re really looking for people who have already decided to commit their lives to public service.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify that hometown fellows for LFA need to have a specific community in mind when applying. The Daily regrets this error.