The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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Young people in the United States have come of age in an economy that elevates a handful “superstar cities” as the aspirational destinations for the best jobs, opportunities, and thus, futures. Benya Kraus doesn’t accept this cultural mindset and co-founded Lead for America to counter this belief with action.
Lead for America is devoted to encouraging young people, after they finish their formal education, to bring their skills and energy back to their hometowns. Through two-year paid fellowships, these returnees are enabled to work with local civic and political leaders to address local challenges.
Kraus grew up spending summers and winters with her family who lived on a farm outside Waseca, Minnesota, a town that like many others in America had experienced a slow-motion decline as manufacturing jobs dwindled in number. Historically, Waseca was home to two major companies -- EF Johnson Technologies and Brown Printing – that employed so many engineers that the city once had one of the highest concentrations of engineers per capita in the country. But both these companies, followed by others, left the city. The closing of a state university campus followed, transformed into a penitentiary. The whole psyche of the town and its young people understandably changed: why stay?
Kraus went east to Tufts University for college. Like her peers, Kraus soon expected that after graduation, she too would join the mass migration to one of America’s superstar cities upon graduation. Then a family situation called her home before her junior year, and while there, she learned about Waseca’s bold 2020 vision to revitalize the city. Kraus realized that, with her new skills, she could be part of that vision. Kraus got to know the Main Street entrepreneurs who were the beating heart of the city. She reached out to local leaders. She pursued an internship with Minnesota’s government.
Yet, by the time she arrived back on campus for her senior year, with excitement about returning to her home state, she found no opportunities through normal college recruiting that were aligned with her goal to return to Minnesota. While thinking about other ways to get herself back to Waseca, Joe Nail, one of the four co-founders and current CEO of Lead for America, was interning at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and having hundreds of conversations about the future of public service and how to show democracy working at the local level. Nail drafted and shared a two pager with Kraus outlining the idea of a hometown fellowship, and Kraus thought, “Wow, this is the thing that would have gotten me back to Waseca.”
Kraus, Nail, and their two other co-founders moved to North Carolina to take the first steps to show that they could build a national and state-affiliated program right away. The University of North Carolina School of Government agreed to affiliate with their organization and moved forward with a pilot of Lead for North Carolina. This pilot was run by the School of Government with Lead for America leading recruitment, ultimately placing 16 fellows in distressed rural communities throughout the state. The partnership during this first year allowed Lead for America to gain reputational legitimacy rooted in communities that could benefit from hosting a fellow. The early success served as a model for state expansion elsewhere.
In October of 2019, Kraus and her colleagues set their objective to place 10 hometown fellows elsewhere in the U.S. An open call and three months of targeted recruitment led to over 1,800 applicants—from all corners of the U.S.—and ultimately 54 fellows for the first year beyond UNC. Lead for America worked with each fellow to find meaningful and important opportunities and challenges for fellows to tackle in each of their hometowns. Lead for America also worked with each fellow to send personal narrative videos to members of their hometown city governments to articulate the fellow’s personal story, the town’s needs, and how the two could intersect in a way that would strengthen the community. Kraus recalls, “This storytelling and purpose was enough to inspire government officials to host our fellows and pay a host-contribution.”
This innovative, and potentially sustainable and scalable, funding model for the fellows is a special aspect of which Kraus is particularly proud, because it is unique in being locally sourced. In their first year, Lead for America since has raised over $2 million from host organizations and community philanthropies where the fellows are active. Kraus explains, “It was important to show that this could all be locally sustained financially, before looking toward national funders.”
In the second year, the Bush Foundation sponsored Lead for America’s Minnesota roll out—resulting in 20 fellows placed throughout the state. Kraus drove to thirty towns in thirty days for a listening tour to understand “what were the things keeping people up at night” and the meta-challenges (“childcare, housing, broadband, placemaking/culture”) that determine rural success. Through these conversations, and also keeping the question of “Why haven’t we found a solution yet?” at the forefront of her mind, Kraus came to understand that developing human capital is critical to sustain the work tackling these issues. “In these communities and towns, everyone is so deeply involved, but also so spread out… when the same individual is doing broadband and Cares Act funding, something has got to give,” she explains. These challenges or gaps are where fellows plugged in, providing extra capacity for steering committees, town councils, and other community organizations.
Lead for America has grown from 54 fellows to about 200, and an operating budget over $6 million, with the organization in its third year of operations. This year, Kraus and her colleagues are celebrating the graduation of the first cohort, supporting the second cohort, and actively recruiting the third cohort of fellows while also developing state affiliates in Nebraska, Hawaii, Kansas and a city affiliate in Poughkeepsie, New York. Kraus notes that a critical part of scaling their success in the rural and tribal communities where fellows have been placed is the access to AmeriCorps funding, in partnership with new sources of corporate philanthropy. She also credits the importance of state-level operations in gaining credibility and trust with local government partners, as well as working with local funding structures as part of a long-term plan.
Kraus encourages others interested in being entrepreneurial leaders to invest time up front when scoping out projects with communities. She cites the words of Bryan Stevenson (the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose remarkable work we reference in our companion Entrepreneurial Leadership essay): “Get proximate”. As Kraus continues: “You need to work with organizations and people on the ground in these communities to earn trust and buy-in… you can talk about these challenges, but if we aren’t going to these places that are experiencing those issues first-hand, your ability to solve will be fractured and divorced from lived reality.” Working with communities creates a culture of partnership, co-design, and shared enthusiasm for joint problem solving because there is a trust that successes will be thoughtfully shared throughout and even beyond the community. Kraus sums it all up with this advice: “Dive into where you see those challenges most acutely. Start there.” ots in Stockton, California and Jackson, Mississippi—it really helped us plan.” Understanding the power of success stories, Mayor Siddiqui has positioned Cambridge RISE to be included in an innovative body of research headed by the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice and the Center for Guaranteed Income Research. The learning agenda includes other cities throughout the U.S. also launching guaranteed income pilots and the potential impact of data showing successful outcomes could include building bipartisan momentum for guaranteed basic income and designing more effective policies moving forward. Mayor Siddiqui’s hope is that both the pilots and data will speak for themselves: “Other communities will see that cash is powerful, effective, and easy.”
When considering advice for policy makers and individuals alike who want to spark change, she emphasizes the need for creative thinking. As she explains, “The role of policy makers and community leaders is to think outside the box.” Moreover, it is important to deeply understand who it is you are trying to help. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of a single caretaker who needs this support and would be applying. Anticipate every question that they might ask like, Is my housing going to be affected? My childcare benefits?” Finally, Siddiqui emphasizes the power of learning from others—be it community leaders and city officials with different skillsets or leaders from other cities or networks like MGI. She notes, “With this type of work, time is of the essence here. There is no need to reinvent the wheel—you can and should learn from others.”