As we approach the height of election season, there’s been a corresponding wave of anticipation rising among young people. They’re eager to see meaningful and immediate change take place on the issues they care about most—from improving access to mental health care, to fighting against climate change—and every election feels like a chance to achieve that progress.
Gen Z may be the most change-minded generation yet—a whopping 75% of them believe that their generation will change the world. And if you work with young people, hopefully you’re seeking out ways to help them reach this aspiration…even beyond election season!
That’s why we love to use this time of year to remind students and young adults how they can take real action toward change today—by exercising their agency and taking steps into their own change-focused career.
In our new documentary series, “Serving Change,” we explore how different paths in the public sector, specifically, are helping people from all walks of life achieve the kinds of meaningful impact they crave out of their careers.
The world of public service is vast, encompassing careers in politics, but also extending into government service at large, as well as into the nonprofit world—opening up endless career opportunities for young people who want to work in a field that prioritizes impact and positive change over profit.
To help young people understand what’s possible through public service, we’ve highlighted three key themes found throughout “Serving Change”—takeaways that can help them discover new ways to mold their careers around the causes they care about.
1. You don’t have to run for election in order to create policy change
Allison Chan never dreamed of a job in politics. All she knew—from a very young age!—was that she loved nature. So she went down the road of environmental science, going to college, then grad school, and then conducting research…until the 2008 recession hit.
After losing her job as a researcher, she discovered Save the Bay, a regional nonprofit based out of San Francisco that works with scientists and policymakers to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay. It was exactly the kind of nonprofit she wanted to work for—but she had to essentially start her career path over as a policy intern.
She'd never done advocacy work before, but she quickly learned that it was a great way to communicate technical findings on a human level—and that she had a passion for this kind of work.
Today, she’s been with Save the Bay for over 12 years, and she’s made a direct impact on the health of the SF Bay—from securing funding to keep trash out of the city’s stormwater system, to advocating for green infrastructure planning and implementation in the Bay’s surrounding cities.
What can young people learn from Allison’s story?
Policy change is important—but the actual day-to-day work of a politician may not appeal to every young person! That’s why we wanted to pull back the curtain and show how people are working behind the scenes to help politicians make the best possible choices for our future.
For young people who love to write, think analytically, or solve problems, a public service career in advocacy or policy could help them usher in big changes.
“Policy and advocacy is a way to take the information that’s in front of us — the good science that people have done — and say, we’ve got the answer; now someone needs to step up, and be a leader, and make it happen. It’s the way to see the change we envision for the world.” —Allison Chan
2. Public service stretches way beyond politics
Tori Cooper is director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative at the Human Rights Campaign. She also acts as a health and equity consultant—a self-created job title!—in several outside roles, including serving on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
Unlike Allison, Tori always knew she would work in advocacy in some way or another. As a transgender Black woman, she grew up in the middle of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and saw its direct effects on her community. As a result, she’s been working to provide HIV services for over 30 years.
Today, Tori’s work is less about influencing change through politics, and more about building community and creating change from the ground up by educating people on transgender issues. She creates campaigns that accomplish a range of goals, from telling transgender stories in authentic new ways, to helping transgender people get access to the health care they need.
What can young people learn from Tori’s story?
In many communities, nonprofits are filling crucial gaps and providing direct support to people that the government hasn’t reached or can’t easily reach. And with the proliferation of nonprofit organizations popping up around the country, we can almost guarantee that no matter what any given young person cares about most, there’s a nonprofit out there that would love to have them onboard.
And look, there may not be an exact career title out there that fits everything each young person wants to do and achieve. But like Tori, if you follow the unique issues that tug at you, you may find yourself in an entirely new kind of career, creating change in ways no one has before.
“Consistently create new spaces. Consistently create new opportunities for growth. Access and opportunity are two of the things that keep us from success. So if myself and others are able to provide greater opportunities, that’s more access.” —Tori Cooper
3. You don’t have to be an activist to build lasting change
While studying public health in college, a unique nonprofit caught Victoria Hoang’s eye.
Bike and Build uses bike trips to tackle service projects across the country while spreading the word about housing inequality. It was a mix of two seemingly disparate interests—creating a Venn diagram that was tailor-made for Victoria.
Through Bike and Build, Victoria was assigned to a service project with Community Rebuilds, a nonprofit based in Moab, Utah. They build sustainable and affordable homes in order to simultaneously tackle two major issues facing the Moab community: housing insecurity and climate change.
Since Victoria didn’t have any experience in construction, her placement was surprising. But she stuck with it, and realized that, not only was she directly helping to solve a housing crisis—she had a true passion for sustainable building!
Through an apprenticeship with AmeriCorps—another great organization connecting people with public service opportunities—she was able to stay on the job beyond her initial two-month apprenticeship, and today, she feels like she’s come into her own in the world of construction.
What can young people learn from Victoria’s story?
There’s a place for everyone when it comes to shaping change through public service. You don’t have to put yourself front and center…and you definitely don’t have to be a great public speaker! You can be someone who likes working with your hands, being outside, or building something tangible—and there’s definitely a program near you that could put your unique skills and interests to work for a cause.
In addition, for young people who know they want to make a difference, but aren’t sure where to start, programs like AmeriCorps or Service Year can be a great entry point into public service.
“This work is meaningful, and the people that it draws? Those are the people I want to be with.” —Victoria Hoang