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The Global Impact of Public Sector Leadership Education in California

The Center for California Studies, housed since 1982 at Sacramento State, has long served to bridge academia and government in the service of strengthening California’s democracy. Being located in California’s capital strategically positions the Center as a link between the University and the branches of California’s government, think tanks, other universities, and outside partnerships involved with public service in California. The Center’s primary role over the past 40 years has been running the Capital Fellows programs, a suite of four graduate fellowship programs serving all three branches of California state government. Nearly 2,300 Capital Fellows have served in special assistant roles in select offices in the state Legislature and in executive offices of the Executive and Judicial branches. These experiential education programs have become nationally renowned for the diversity, talent, and capacity of each graduating class, and their potential has been realized in many careers in public service leadership across the country and around the world.

Capital Fellows consist of four distinct programs: the Jesse M. Unruh Assembly Fellowship Program, the California Senate Fellows, the Executive Fellowship Program, and the Judicial Fellowship Program. As the director of the Executive Fellowship program for the past nine years, and as an alum of the same program, I have learned that the key to their success lies in actively engaging the desire of eager applicants to make a substantive difference in the lives of millions of people. Capital Fellows come to these programs from disparate backgrounds and with profound levels of personal experience in the successes and failures of public policy and services, all of them seeking to magnify the impact they can have in public service. For the better part of a year, our programs provide these fellows with expert-level access to the formidable and ever-growing influence of the California state government.

By virtue of being a part of policymaking for 40 million people in the 5th largest economy in the world, Capital Fellows are in fact learning how to run perhaps the most influential subnational democratic government in the world. It logically follows that successfully cultivating a state public leadership corps means not only accounting for the role our state occupies internationally, but recognizing the global impact each of our Fellows may indeed exercise in their future. During my own time as an Executive Fellow serving my placement in the State Treasurer’s Office I experienced this first hand. Completing a research presentation on California’s retirement safety net for the eyes of the Australian government helped me to understand the finance peers of then State Treasurer Bill Lockyer were not his counterparts in Arizona or Colorado, but the finance ministers of Brazil, Canada and Spain, a stark reality made even more clear as the Global Financial Crisis unfolded.

Despite our successes in cultivating and accelerating the growth of future public sector leaders in California, it is debatable that our programs have not yet realized their full potential as incubators for the greater future of democracy.  As our world grows ever more economically, socially, and politically interdependent, so too does our responsibility to ensure our Fellows appreciate their position in this world and their identities as global citizens. We must now ask of our Fellows “What does it mean to be a responsible leader in public policy as a global citizen from California?” Or greater still, “What does it mean to be a Californian of the world?” 

The issue can present as being both simple and complex. What is a global citizen? The Lantos Foundation, created to honor the former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the only holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress, California Congressman Dr. Tom Lantos, states quite simply that a global citizen seeks to “positively influence the lives of individuals around the world”. For the education of our Capital Fellows this would mean when we seek to leverage the power of our state to positively affect Californians, we must also consider how our choices and actions may impact our global neighbors and community members.  

In practice, those choices and actions are heavily influenced by the forces and trends of global policy and globalization. For example, the United Nations has identified three mega-trends related to globalization: shifts in production and labor markets, rapid advances in technology, and climate change (1). At home, these trends look similar. California’s primary international interests rest upon three pillars of related policy: climate change, trade, and immigration. Three successive gubernatorial administrations have prioritized enormous funding and policy changes to regulate and limit the carbon footprint of our state, often in concert with global partners at the national and sub-national level.  We are a global commerce power, responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars of imports and exports and have consistently attracted more annual venture capital than all other 49 states combined. And since the greatest historical migration in the world was initiated by the discovery of gold in Coloma in 1849, California has been a destination for millions of people seeking to make a better life for their families. Important as these pillars are to the function of state, we are more than just the exchange of goods and services, the monitoring and regulation of carbon footprints, and a destination labor market. The unique value of California, as with any society and community, is in its people.   

Examples of the uniqueness of our state abound. The linguistic diversity of many of our counties rivals the European continent. Our higher education institutions are resources of education for hundreds of thousands across the globe. Our state is an intercultural hub that represents the vanguard of cultural synthesis throughout the humanities. And yet when we instruct and educate the future leaders of our state we continue to over-emphasize the transactional nature of our role as a global entity and undervalue the cultural, intellectual, historic value we bring and enjoy with the world. 

A prime example of this oversight is with the backgrounds and experiences of our own Fellows. Many of our Fellows are the children of immigrants, some who only in recent times escaped civil wars. Many more have seen firsthand how current policy solution-making has negated and even subjugated the health and well-being of their families and communities. While we impress on them the importance of bringing these experiences to the halls of government in pursuit of true representative decision making, by denying the role our state plays in influencing the communities and families of other countries we risk minimizing the authentic voice of many people no matter where they reside. The role our Fellows play in informing conversations at the highest levels of government, as well as lessons imprinted during their tenure that inform how they will one day lead, cannot be overstated. We undermine the potential of these transformational experiences in public leadership when we fail to embrace the impact of policy upon all people, regardless of borders. 

The past few years have demonstrated explicitly the danger of viewing the world and the people of the globe through this dehumanized lens, and conversely, the gains that can be achieved when we work as collaborative citizens of a global community. We now understand that global learning is necessary to thrive in the world today – it encourages awareness and critical thinking about issues such as poverty, climate change, religious and cultural differences, world trade and politics, and local activism. Unlike when I was an Executive Fellow fifteen years ago, as today’s educators and mentors we must prepare globally competent students who are prepared to engage with the world around them as a core element of being a public sector leader, and not as an afterthought.

The students of the campuses of the California State University system represent the enlightened and deliberate efforts of decades of progress in higher education to create the future of our society. They arguably represent “the most ethnically, economically, and academically diverse student body in the nation” (2), and it is this diversity from which we draw our greatest strengths in learning. As much progress as has been made in recognizing the value of the diversity of our own communities of students, I argue we must similarly endeavor to learn more about the assets of communities of people from around the world in order to properly cultivate cohorts of future public service leaders. We must strive to recognize the humanity of our continental neighbors as much as we seek to do so within the borders of our state. We must expose our future leaders not only to citizens of other countries, but to those from across the globe who are similarly inspired to serve their own citizenry. We search not just for timely and relevant policy ideas, but for connection to those facing the same struggles who embrace the hard work of protecting their most cherished communities. We must create global students today so they will be better prepared to solve the world’s most pressing problems long after the rest of us are gone.

The Capital Fellows programs represent just one of hundreds of unique and powerful ways the students and people of the CSU system seek to improve society. Cultivating leadership within our students is as much about preparing them for the challenges of the future as it is about helping them to discover and pursue their talents and passions. As a firm member of the global community it is imperative we think creatively about using our global membership to educate the future leaders of our society. It is in this spirit of global service and higher learning that we begin our charter edition of csuglobal. We invite all to join us and participate in our journal and zine who similarly strive to create a better world beyond the borders and limitations of how we order and govern ourselves. And we look forward to your contributions to the learning and elevation of the many amazing ways our campuses, educators, and students seek to impact the world.

Brian Aguilar