I enjoy learning of the journeys that individuals take to arrive at a place of leadership and particularly when that journey leads to political office. There has been a national concern that while our younger generations provide services to their communities (through school, church, family or a combination) at relatively high levels they lack a desire to run for political office.
Allow me to share the story of my colleague Carter Hendricks, from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, who is now the mayor of his hometown.
Carter grew up in Hopkinsville and graduated from high school in 1991. During his formative years he was greatly influenced by his father’s military service that set the tone for his orientation to service to others. Carter refers to this as his father’s “legacy of service.” Due to his eyesight, Carter was unable to serve in the military and sought other ways of serving his community and nation.
After high school Carter attended college and graduated in 1995 from Western Kentucky University with a degree is political science and history. His first formal political experience was working on George W. Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign where he gained insights into politics and public service. Upon graduation Carter prepared for law school, but due to scheduling would need to wait for several months before he could matriculate. As a result he joined AmeriCorps mentoring and tutoring third grade students, which included many conversations with youth and visiting with their families to understand the circumstances and opportunities for their education progress and success. Given these experiences Carter enhanced his capacity to serve and as a result returned to university and received a teaching degree, his program of study included supervising middle school students during summer terms.
He and his wife moved to Minnesota where Carter taught physical education in an alternative high school. After a year the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning approached him to manage the statewide Learn and Serve and other AmeriCorps programs serving citizens throughout the state. These experiences enhanced his leadership skills by connecting his commitment to service to organizational and government structures.
In 2004, responding to a nagging desire to return home, Carter moved back to Hopkinsville where he initially taught in the local community college teacher preparation program. Not too long after returned home he the successful candidate for the position of Hopkinsville Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Officer offering him the opportunity to provide services to the military and others in my community. After serving in that capacity, in 2010 he was selected as the Hopkinsville Chamber of Commerce President. These experiences with many community organizations, businesses and nonprofits led to his feeling that he could do more for his community and his 2014 successful campaign for mayor.
According to Carter: “It all started honoring my father’s legacy of service.” Given his background in service, advocacy and community development he came to the mayor position with many realistic expectations of the day-to-day responsibilities of the office. However there were a few surprises as he encountered the reality of the inherent conflict between executive and legislative branch as well as the growing distrust of government and elected officials.
When Carter finds himself in challenging situations he talks with some of the current members of the City Council, the previous mayor, his pastor, other mayors from towns close by and his wife and also relies on daily devotional to reflect and to solve problems.
One of the realities of municipal public office is that it usually means a reduction in compensation and as a result, in 2014 Carter developed Momentum Consulting, an organization with the mission to examine and explore how organizations develop and improve in an effort to help others succeed by sharing lessons and ideas learned along the way. Momentum Consulting offers strategic consultations, workshops, seminars, and public speaking engagements on a variety of topics including grassroots advocacy, leadership development, working with millennials, and customer service. For more information, please visit their Facebook page at Momentum Consulting, LLC.
As we mentioned earlier, Carter had many early experiences in service and politics, but which K-12 education experiences led to his civic duty and political orientation? His response: “My AP History class just came alive with a mix of history and civics allowing me to acquire corresponding knowledge and skills that built on my parents’ orientation to service for the common good. Also I had many opportunities to serve in the community as part of extracurricular and co-curricular activities like Key Club.”
In terms of his 15 year-old daughter and 13 year old son, he believes his legacy for them in terms of politics is that they are both interested in politics and at young ages attended meetings and forums on politics and community issues. This includes volunteering and marching in celebrations leading them both to be very intrigued in politics, how government works and he would not be surprised if they engaged in politics throughout their lives.
I asked Carter what strategies he employs when talking to youth about being civically engaged and consider political office, here are his responses:
- Be part of the solution, which requires engaging the political systems;
- It takes all citizens to create a better tomorrow
- Every one can serve in the community as at every age we have gifts and talents that can be shared with others
If he were a teacher today, Carter would integrate five specific strategies for students to develop academic, social and civic knowledge and skills:
- Service-learning, engaging students in meeting needs of community attached to course content and leadership development
- Project-based learning with a focus on local decision-making and participating in local meetings and forum
- Field trips to understand how government works, how nonprofits contribute to the community and the role of business and industry in community development
- Extracurricular service and leadership opportunities
- Reflection activities for students to understand their experiences and implications today and in the future
Carter has integrated several formal strategies for youth to be directly engaged in municipal leadership including:
- Mayor’s Youth Scholars encouraging 7th and 8th grade students to author essays on improving the community and chose 16 to be Youth Scholars (NOTE: the city has adopted suggestions made by students in response to their essays).
- Mayor’s Youth Council who share their experiences, insights and strategies and learn how government works
- Appointing youth, from diverse backgrounds, to serve on municipal boards and commissions
- Allowing students to be Mayor for a Day where students get to tour city hall, attend meetings, and meet key city personnel
- Hosting local school classes and groups to provide tours of city hall as well information about city government
- Routinely visiting local schools for special events and as a guest speaker
Carter firmly believes that communities need to ensure students are connected to their hometown so that they consider returning after they have experiences in other locations.
In terms of his current efforts as mayor, Carter shared that there are many initiatives and policies he supports and eager to move them through the political process (e.g., sidewalk projects, increased parks, development of sports facility and creating agricultural exposition center). Carter’s current aspirations include:
- Helping Hopkinsville be the best community in the state of Kentucky
- Keeping political and professional options open but does feel he will run for reelection
- Wants to leave room for opportunities that arise to serve the community
As Carter reflected on his initial years as mayor he wishes he would have been more prepared to not take things personally and finding the balance between his emotional investment to ensure the city is led effectively and other aspects of his personal and family life. But, Carter also shared that he imagines he’ll always take his jobs personal because of his intense emotional investment to performance and success. He views being Mayor as a commitment to serve and grow the community and views failure as a personal failure.
Recently, Carter experienced a mild heart attack, Christmas Eve 2016, which has caused him to reflect on life’s fragility, his service and his future. An avid runner and exercise enthusiast, Carter’s heart issue is largely attributed to genetics. But, he also recognizes the need to de-stress and eat healthier. He has shared his experience very publicly to help others see the serious nature of heart disease and to lead transparently.
Lessons I take from Carter’s experiences:
- Learning about service and politics at a young age prepares an individual to be an active principled citizen throughout their entire life
- Active teaching strategies with a focus on civic knowledge, skills and dispositions prepares students to be actively engaged in their communities
- Working on political campaigns orients individuals to the realities of political office and how to effectively communicate on political and social issues
- The more connected education is to families the more meaningful school is for students and relevant to their future
- Our legacy is more about the values we hold dear than the material assets we accumulate and we should welcome the opportunity to express those values and the implications is has on our lives.
I enjoy Carter Hendricks’ journey from service to engagement to political office and encourage our youth to consider creating a path built on their interests with a focus on the common good. As adults we can share our journey and celebrate the positive contributions others have made on us and share our aspirations for the future.
Web Resources for more information:
- Facebook: Momentum Consulting LLC
- Carter Hendricks contact info: Cell: 270-348-6226; email: firstname.lastname@example.org