Get involved locally. Find a specific problem and commit to solving it. And network every way you can. That’s how to begin a career in public service, a group of accomplished alumni said at the 30th Annual Dwight L. Greene Symposium, held November 15.
The one-hour panel discussion, held on Zoom, explored the topics of authentic civic engagement, how Wesleyan encourages a life of service, the power of connecting with community, and strategies to build and sustain a career in the public sphere.
For the first time in the history of the symposium, the entire panel was comprised of Latinx alumni: Sid Espinosa ’00, Head of Social Impact at GitHub, who moderated the conversation; Ray Sanchez ’00, President of Sanchez Strategies & Solutions, LLC; Degan Mercado Leopold ’03, Chief Strategy & Operations Officer at New York Jobs CEO Council; and Joshua Cardenas ’19, Associate Director of Research and Vetting at the Office of the Vice President.
Wesleyan University has a long and rich history of civic and political engagement and students’ desire to participate has never been higher.
“What’s so exciting to me right now is that the University really instills in people (the drive) to think about significant problems in the world, the change we can affect, and how people can be given the tools that lead engagement in civic life,” Espinoza said.
“We had a feeling of ‘how can we imagine a better world? … I was really drawn to Wesleyan because we want to hold people with power accountable and push ourselves to do more,” Cardenas said.
Leopold, like other members of the panel, came to Wesleyan to move out of the bubble of her high school life and to meet a diverse array of people. Leopold was a Spanish Language and Literature and Dance major who found herself drawn to public service after an internship working with underprivileged teens opened her eyes.
“Not everyone in my family had access to the same kind of opportunity, so Wesleyan was an intentional choice for me to surround myself with more diversity – racial, ethnic, socioeconomic – to get out of the bubble that I was allowed or privileged to be part of,” said Leopold, who is a member of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. “I think I was destined to be part of the world of public service.”
Cardenas had the same destiny. The Obama administration’s multi-racial, multi-generational coalition, and the example set by his own family led Cardenas to seek a role at the White House. “I was really inspired by my mother’s own history of public service, serving six years in the United States Navy and then serving as a guidance counselor helping young men who were incarcerated realize their potential,” Cardenas said.
To have a life in the public arena will take perseverance, the panel counseled. Sanchez encouraged students to not accept the status quo and to get involved locally by attending community boards or city council meetings. The opportunities to meet local non-profit executives and political figures will inevitably lead to the chance to make an impact. “That’s where you start figuring out who the players are in your community,” he said. “You have to build your brand.”
Once you know the players, you have to find a particular issue on which to focus, Cardenas said. There are so many problems to be solved that it’s not possible to work on all of them. By networking, seeking internships, students have a chance to have their voices heard. “You have to find your passion,” Cardenas said.
Espinoza asked the panel their thoughts on how democracy can be strengthened, admittedly a big question with many answers.
“Get informed, be proactive about building a network of people who are passionate or have points of view around the things that are most important to you, and really be informed about your values, but also the opposing values as well so you can engage in informed dialogue,” Leopold said.
The Dwight L. Greene Symposium honors Dwight L. Greene ’70 as a memorial and tribute to his life and work as a professor of law, mentor and friend. The Alumni of Color Network and the Wesleyan Education Network sponsored this event.