Three years ago, as the Princeton baccalaureate speaker, I stood in the pulpit of the University Chapel and addressed the graduating Class of 2014. I talked about the sacrifices my parents made so I could attend college and my commitment to using my education to help future generations. I encouraged the graduates to consider the path I had chosen: a career in public service.
Last week, I returned to a campus that felt very different from my earlier visit. I met with a range of student groups, and each conversation inevitably turned to our country’s new President, the harm caused by his policies, the disruption of established norms, and the growing political polarization in our country.
At the end of these conversations, the same question kept coming up: Does public service still matter?
For progressive students interested in working for the government, many now find their plans upended. They rightly question whether they can work under the leadership of a President whose values and policies are so contrary to their views.
I share your disappointment, anger, and fear. But even in these troubling times, I haven’t lost my faith in the value of public service. Now more than ever, our government needs to continue attracting young people who understand the importance of facts, data, and science. However, for progressives interested in public service, the changed political landscape will require a broader search for ways to make a difference.
To those students who remain interested in federal service, I encourage you to pursue those opportunities. Much of what the federal government does is not affected by who occupies the White House. Civil servants implement and enforce the laws that keep our country stable and functioning. They manage critical programs that help millions of Americans. Because of the dedication of federal employees, veterans receive high-quality health care, unemployed workers are trained for the jobs of the 21st century, and medical researchers are eradicating diseases.
That being said, it would be disingenuous for me to say that it doesn’t matter who captains the ship. In fact, it matters very much. Just over the past 100 days, climate change is being erased from the federal government’s agenda, a 70-year-old foreign policy consensus has been upended, and health care for millions is in danger of being stripped away.
If I were starting a career in government today, I would look instead to state and local government. Progressive leaders across the country are driving change that will create greater opportunity and fairness, and these local actions will eventually become the foundation for national policies.
When it comes to helping American workers, states like California, New York, and Connecticut are leading the way in raising the minimum wage, requiring paid leave, and protecting against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. When it comes to fighting climate change, cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago are committed to taking meaningful action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
With the smaller size of state and local government, it’s also easier to make a difference earlier in your career. The impact of your work will be felt more quickly and acutely in the communities you serve, which, in turn, will result in a more gratifying professional experience. If you want to impact people’s lives every day — and get to know the people you’re serving — the rewards at the local level may ultimately be greater than chasing the shiny object of federal service.
However, public service isn’t limited to working in the government. Important policy changes can be driven through nonprofit organizations, foundations, and even the private sector.
I am a board member of the American Sustainable Business Council, which represents a quarter of a million companies around the country. These socially responsible companies support pro-environment and pro-labor policies because they know that profits can made without sacrificing people or the planet. These companies understand that the high road is the smart road.
In the end, public service doesn’t take just one form. It’s a mindset. It’s a commitment to address the problems of our time and not simply pass those problems on to the next generation.
As former President Obama said shortly after leaving office, “Our democracy’s not the buildings, it’s not the monuments, it’s you being willing to work to make things better.”
I have spent two decades in public service, and I can’t imagine a more intellectually stimulating and professionally rewarding career. Our nation is going through one of the most challenging periods in its history, and many are disillusioned about what the future holds. Yet, even in times like this, I still believe in the power of ordinary citizens to create a more perfect union for future generations.
Chris Lu ’88 served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Secretary of Labor and White House Cabinet Secretary. He is a news editor emeritus for The Daily Princetonian. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs. You can contact him on Twitter @ChrisLu44.