Last week West Virginia Wesleyan College hosted a forum featuring U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Ted Koppel. The two came to Buckhannon to promote public service.
Rockefeller used an anecdote to stress the value of all levels of public service. The senator said he had a staffer who wanted to run for governor, but he convinced the man he would lose. Instead, he suggested he run for school board.
But Rockefeller didn't start small with a school board or another local office. Considering he wasn't even a West Virginia native, it was quite bold that he started his career in the West Virginia House of Delegates and became governor only eight years later.
Why didn't Rockefeller use his fast-track to the governor's mansion to inspire his staffer to do the same? There's no way of knowing Rockefeller's reasoning, but hopefully it wasn't because this average mountaineer lacked the senator's privileged education and resources.
What if Rockefeller could have given the man advice on starting small but still aiming for governor? What if Rockefeller could recommend West Virginians of any age and education level someplace to go for guidance in public service?
One such hypothetical place would be a public-service learning community centered around an action tank housed at an institute of higher learning. An action tank would go beyond a think tank with research fellows and speaking engagements; its programs would enact direct change in the real world.
Extrapolating from Rockefeller's words on public service, a possible mission of the action tank would be: first, encourage students and non-students throughout the state to participate in public service; second, use courses, workshops, speakers and internships to prepare future public servants; and third, continue to serve as a resource for public servants facing challenges in politics and policymaking. In summation: encourage, train and support.
The public-service action tank would be off to a strong start if it builds on the success of similar organizations. Architects of the action tank can learn from Harvard's Institute of Politics, The Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia and the Institute for Public Affairs at West Virginia University.
One relevant program to replicate that's been conducted at Harvard is political service-a program bridging the gap between politics and community service. The participants are placed in untraditional internships that require them to engage the nuts and bolts of government to solve problems facing communities. Rockefeller's start in community service makes this program quite apropos.
So where should this action tank be located? Recognizing Rockefeller's passionate promotion of public service, the most logical place is the centrally-located West Virginia Wesleyan College-the institution that served as the lynchpin of his career.
If Rockefeller is as ardent about public service as he says, he should want to make a more lasting impact than a speaking engagement. He's in a position to make this project, or something like it, a reality. He could act as its primary donor or spearhead its fund-raising campaign. By creating a public-service action tank at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Rockefeller will help West Virginians of all economic backgrounds have more equal opportunities to pursue public service.