Meet the Next American Vanguard: Bethany Henderson

An interview with Bethany Henderson, Founder of City Hall Fellows and a member of the 2010 Next American Vanguard.

Bethany Henderson, far right, with many of the 2009 San Francisco City Hall Fellows at an alumni-driven fundraising event last fall. Curtis Hartdegen © 2010

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Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in late 2011, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To read more of these interviews, click here. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in mid-2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.

Bethany Rubin Henderson is the Founder and Executive Director of City Hall Fellows, the only non-partisan national service corps preparing the best and brightest to lead America’s cities. Working in New York City government as a NYC Urban Fellow over a decade ago inspired Bethany to find a way to engage more young people in local public service. Since launching City Hall Fellows 4 years ago, Bethany has raised over $2,000,000 from public and private sources to train 51 Fellows in San Francisco, Houston and Baton Rouge, LA. Previously, Bethany was a trial lawyer at Quinn Emanuel, the largest litigation-only firm in the country. Bethany has authored 8 journal articles on topics ranging from cities’ human capital needs to intellectual property law. She holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and both a B.A. and M.A. in Political Science (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a 2009 Echoing Green Fellow, a 2010 New Leaders Council Fellow and a member of the 2011 Selah Executive Leadership Program. Next American City Magazine named Bethany a member of their 30-person 2010 Next American Vanguard.

What is your typical workday like?

There is no such thing as a typical workday when you’re a social entrepreneur. Some days I never leave my desk. On those days, I might be on conference calls or Twitter meet-ups, ensconced in analyzing our finances, writing grant applications, creating new marketing collateral, catching up on emails or doing one of the hundreds of other tasks running a start-up social venture entails. Other days I’m in the field (in cities around the country) meeting Mayors and heads of city agencies, candidates for our Fellowship program, current Fellows and alumni, or potential funders. Every day is different. That’s what I like most about what I do – there is never a dull moment.

Why do you do the work you do?

One of my most significant childhood memories is delivering Meals on Wheels each Christmas. What stuck with me most (besides the tacky holiday outfits my mom dressed us in) was that not only did our efforts help the elderly shut-ins to whom we were bringing food and a little company, but we also enabled the regular delivery people to be with their families on Christmas, a holiday my Jewish family doesn’t celebrate. One act at the right point in time. Two entirely different communities benefited. Hundreds of lives impacted.

Fast forward a decade. Between college and law school, I spent a gap year working for the City of New York. I was part of figuring out how NYC could use then then-brand-new Internet technology to make government work better. That experience showed me how inserting the right interrupters – motivated, smart young people untainted by the concept of “can’t” – into the local government system at the right points can bring about massive social change.

Fast forward another decade. I was a young lawyer on a fast and furious ascent up the big law partnership ladder. The only problem: my work was not feeding my soul. I kept daydreaming about making a difference in the world. I kept fantasizing about simple actions that could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. My thoughts constantly drifted to how I could adapt the experience I’d had in New York to a national scale – to effectively leverage a few smart young minds to completely change how cities operated, and make them work better. And I knew I had to try it.

What is your proudest achievement?

On a personal level, my two young daughters (ages 2.5 and 5 months). They’re truly amazing and it’s incredible to watch them evolve into caring, thoughtful individuals. Professionally, I am most proud of walking away from the proverbial golden handcuffs of a big law career to pursue my passion for social change. I launched City Hall Fellows 4 years ago. My vision was to inspire and empower America’s best and brightest to think local, act local and stay local. City Hall Fellows offers recent college grads of all majors a non-partisan, year-long, paid, cohort-based immersion experience in local government. Our Fellowship integrates hands-on, full-time work experience in city departments with intensive training in how cities actually work, and in the people, organizations and issues that influence the local policy process. To date, 51 Fellows have served in our program, chosen from 1,200 applicants. The Fellows have worked more than 60,000 hours inside city agencies – improving local government efficiency and cost-effectiveness. On top of that, as part of the training we provide, they’ve completed 67 pro bono consulting projects for city agencies. Two-thirds of our alumni have worked in local public service after their Fellowship ended. Our Fellows have found ways their cities can save millions of dollars without cutting services, piloted new anti-obesity, juvenile justice and healthcare and environmental initiatives, educated thousands of citizens about public services they are entitled to, sped up city buses and street maintenance and so much more! I’m in awe every day of the work they do.

What is your favorite thing to do in your city?

I’m a recent transplant to the Washington, DC area. One of my favorite things to do in DC is visiting indoor and outdoor cultural and historical sites. I learn something new every time, and, best of all, many are free. In Pasadena, CA, where I moved from, one of my favorite things to do was attend the many local outdoor street festivals (lots of which I learned about from the bi-monthly newsletter the City mails to all residents). The street festivals let you experience live music, examine antique cars up close, watch incredible chalk artists in action, taste-test local restaurants, climb around inside fire and police vehicles and much more, often in the shadow of the city’s stunning, Italianate, Renaissance-inspired city hall.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge of my work is fundraising. I didn’t launch City Hall Fellows because I’m passionate about raising money. I launched it because I’m passionate about cities and about the incredible systemic impact engaging bright young people in local government can have on cities. Yet, as with any nonprofit, I have to spend a lot of my time working to raise money to support our cause.

What would you like to have achieved in ten years?

I’d like City Hall Fellows to be as recognizable a name on college campuses as Teach For America. More importantly, I’d like top college students to routinely list working for their hometown at the top of their career goals, alongside TFA, law school, investment banks, consulting firms and other higher-paying, higher-prestige opportunities.

What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?

Work in local government. Our cities need you.

How would you define the “Next American City”?

A thriving, humming hub of energy. A multi-generational, multi-cultural, transit-accessible, tech-enabled center of innovation. A beautifully-integrated flow of greenspace and buildings. A maximizer of natural, financial and human capital resources. Home.

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Tags: washington dcsan franciscogovernancenext city vanguard

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