School of Government launches program serving local communities

A $500,000 gift will allow the School of Government to partner with Carolina alumnus Joe Nail to launch Lead for North Carolina, a fellowship program matching young leaders with local communities in need.

A North Carolina flag flies above South Building.
Warm winter weather scenes around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When Joe Nail was an undergraduate student at Carolina, he decided to dedicate his life to tackling the 21st century’s most significant challenges. After months of research, he had created a list that included everything from avoiding nuclear war to aligning artificial intelligence with human values.

It would have been easy for Nail, who graduated in 2018 with degrees in political science and entrepreneurship, to look at that list and throw up his hands. Instead, he had an idea: what if there were an organization that could match civic-minded college graduates with local government institutions in need?

With partners at Harvard and Stanford Universities, Nail started that organization, called Lead for America, which offers a two-year paid fellowship for outstanding young leaders to serve in local government.

Now the organization is launching its first state affiliate, Lead for North Carolina, based in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government.

Thanks to a $500,000 gift from the State Employees Credit Union Foundation Inc., Lead for North Carolina will train up to 20 future leaders to address problems facing North Carolinians. Following a three-week training course in July, the trainees will be assigned to a two-year fellowship with a local government office within the state.

Lead for North Carolina will provide a housing stipend and salary for the fellows’ first year of government service.

“SECU Foundation’s investment in Lead for North Carolina will help attract young people to local government as a career and encourage college graduates to work in their hometowns or in distressed communities,” said Mike Smith, dean of the School of Government. “Public officials have told us they need to expand their workforce, and I’m thrilled SECU Foundation has chosen to invest in North Carolina communities by entrusting us with training, placing and mentoring these fellows.”

As more of the public sector workforce becomes eligible to retire, Nail hopes his peers in public service will pursue careers in the places that most need their talent.

“Our goal is not for this to be just a two-year fellowship — it’s an opportunity to work with and for the communities that allowed the fellows to get to where they are, and it’s the first step toward a lifelong commitment to service of the state and nation,” Nail said. “There’s no better grounding for public leaders than serving their neighbors and closest communities.”

The program will focus on bringing young talent to counties facing significant economic distress. Nail believes the fellows will enhance each community’s homegrown talent to increase the prosperity of our state as a whole.

“As faculty members at the School of Government, we hear from local governments on a daily basis about their lack of capacities to meet their often complex community needs,” said Kara Millonzi, faculty lead for the program. “We are excited to test the Lead for North Carolina model as a way to help these local governments, particularly in our most distressed regions of the state.”

Lead for North Carolina will build on the School of Government’s strength in preparing students to be effective public servants. Through the program, the school will provide training in emergency management, community health, citizen engagement and business process involvement, and will continue to support the young leaders throughout their fellowships.

“We need to have some of our best talent from the state addressing our communities’ most pressing challenges, and higher education will always be a critical anchor in that effort,” Nail said. “We couldn’t be luckier to have a partner like the School of Government, and it is because of their tireless work and support that we are where we are today.”

By fall 2021, Lead for America hopes to set up affiliates in six to 10 states — but Nail’s heart lies with North Carolina.

In the spirit of Carolina icon Bill Friday, who challenged college graduates to give back to the taxpayers who helped support their education, Nail hopes fellows will become part of a larger workforce that cares deeply for its communities.

“The more I’ve gotten to know folks who are working in local government, the more strongly I believe that regardless of your ambitions for what level of government or form of service you want to do, you will be better equipped in that mission by starting exactly where you are,” Nail said.