‘Spirit of public service’ alive in Wilson’s new hire

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While Dante Pittman envisioned eventually returning to Wilson, he admits a local government job wasn’t on his radar.

The University of North Carolina graduate was working as a state attorney general’s aide when he learned about Lead for North Carolina and became one of the inaugural participants in the program designed to spur public service careers.

“I had a teacher during my senior year of high school, Mrs. (Marsha) Irvin, who knew I had an interest in government. She told me to have a good time in school but to come back and find a way to serve your community,” Pittman recalled. “I never could have imagined the effect those words would have on me. It didn’t help my math grade, but that nugget of wisdom has turned out quite fruitful.”

Pittman, 23, is among 16 recent college graduates who were accepted in the first year of Lead for North Carolina. The program is the brainchild of CEO Joe Nail, who wanted to ensure those who wanted to work in local government had the opportunity to do that by arranging two-year fellowships throughout the state.

“When push comes to shove after graduation, those who are committed most to service and their communities were opting not to pursue public service, and those that were, weren’t going to the places that needed the most help. It would be one thing if their motivations had shifted, but we discovered that the opportunities weren’t there,” Nail said. “The corporate recruiting infrastructure includes multiple internships, information sessions, one-on-one recruitment, outreach and more over the course of four years in college. If you juxtapose that against the basically non-existent outreach for public institutions — especially at the local level — it is not hard to see why people opt to go into the private sector or corporations instead of public service.”

Nail partnered with the UNC School of Government and Dean Michael Smith, who led the charge to fund the initiative, recruit recent graduates, get buy-in from communities that would host the fellows as well as provide training and support throughout the two-year placement. Wilson City Manager Grant Goings, as the president of the North Carolina City and County Management Association, also jumped on board.

“The main reason we decided to go forward and launch this new program was because local government officials told us it was critically important,” Smith said. “One of the school’s core values is responsiveness, and it mattered a lot that Grant and other managers said that they viewed it as critically important. In fact, they said that it was so important to the future of N.C. that we needed to start the program this summer and not wait another year until it was fully planned.”

Goings said city employees are traditionally recruited from master’s of public administration graduates, but he admitted that left out many potential assets, namely those who had not yet decided on a career in public service.

“We believe that the spirit of public service is alive and well within our college graduates today,” Goings said. “It is just that we were not doing a good job of presenting opportunities and pathways for them to explore those careers.”

The trend toward small-town residents heading to big cities following college — known as the brain drain — just compounded the issue for cities like Wilson. A cornerstone of the Lead for North Carolina program is placing graduates in their hometowns and in Pittman’s case, it meant he was able to hit the ground running. A few days after starting on Aug. 1, Pittman was tasked with speaking with residents about development for the U.S. 301 corridor during a meeting at the Reid Street Community Center.

“The most exciting thing was getting to go to Reid Street and speak with people about what is happening on 301,” Pittman said. “Engaging with them, getting their feedback about what has happened and what they’d like to see improved was a pretty pivotal beginning to this experience.”

Goings said he has been incredibly impressed by Pittman, who completed the officer leadership course in June and serves as a second lieutenant in the N.C. Army National Guard. Pittman recently was selected by his peers to speak for the fellows at a reception at the governor’s mansion.

“I think that Dante has already shown a commitment to serve his country and state through his leadership in the National Guard, but he also has shown a keen sense of commitment to his hometown,” Goings said. “His skill set is broad enough that he can contribute in a number of ways, so we’re going to expose him to a variety of areas and help him find where his passion is strongest, then give him more opportunities to serve in that capacity. I think he is going to be a superstar if he wants to stay in local government service.”

Pittman is slated to work on the strategic plan for the U.S. 301 corridor, help with downtown development as well as boost participation in Census 2020. The city of Wilson is contributing $25,000 a year to participate in the fellowship program.

“It is a two-way street in that while we definitely need people like Dante that have that commitment to making their hometown better, we have a responsibility to continue to make investments in Wilson to make it an attractive place for young people,” Goings said. “And one of the benefits of having more young people in our employ is they can advise us on what we can do to make Wilson more appealing to their peers.”

Smith said work already is underway to recruit the next class of fellows and communities to host the graduates. Nail said he hopes Lead for North Carolina can be replicated and adapted in other states similar to Teach for America.

“The focus is on what changes these fellows can make or contribute to in their two years, not just as passive observers, but as hands-on drivers of change,” Nail said. “We want them to be a critical part of changes that are already happening in communities. And after two years, we want them to walk away knowing the satisfaction of working every day to provide real solutions, especially in this time of paralysis in state and national politics.”

Visit www.lead4america.org/ to learn more about the program.