Joe Nail is the founder of Lead for America, a program that provides fellowships to people of all ages looking to pursue careers in civic engagement in their hometowns and rural communities nationwide.
Applications for the fellowship are live now. Enjoy our conversation about the beginnings of that project, the college-to-consulting pipeline, and getting the hell into Dodge, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I read online that Lead for America was a dorm room startup. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about that origin story.
Joe Nail: I was born and raised in Kansas and I had two public service examples as parents. My dad works in the army and my mom’s a nurse. So I’ve always had these great examples in my parents, and then in my sophomore year of high school my dad was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. I really started realizing just how fortunate I was to be born in the United States in a family where I had parents who were still together and provided a great life for my brothers and sisters. We have good public schools and safe streets and it was something I was really grateful for. But growing up in Kansas, I think I had internalized this idea that in order to be successful, I had to leave the state and never come back. So I didn’t apply to any schools that were anywhere close to home, and I actually spent a year on a fellowship in Germany before starting college. But by the time I got to college, I really had a passion for public service. And I felt like I had challenges facing my own home state and I really wanted to be part of disrupting the pattern of people leaving and never coming back. So in college I tried to surround myself with other people who aspired to contribute to their hometowns and home states as well. But after graduation, I saw so many of my peers opting out, not only out of public service but especially out of moving back to where they were from. While my plan was to serve in the military and then actually go back to Kansas, I thought that a far more impactful approach would be to build an organization that could get thousands of our generation’s young leaders to do service work in their hometowns. So yeah, I was a 21-year-old in college at Chapel Hill and as soon as I put this idea on paper I was obsessed with making it a reality.
DY: When you first had that idea and started talking about it with your friends at school, were they excited about it? Or were you off in a corner doing your own thing?
JN: I think people were definitely excited about it. I think it’s one thing if you feel like you’re trying to build something and you’re having to convince people that this is something that’s worth doing. But so many of my peers were accepting roles to work in investment banking, or consulting, or tech jobs in New York or Boston or DC or San Francisco. But what seemed more tragic was that it wasn’t like suddenly these were their dream jobs, but rather, that they felt like they didn’t have any viable pathways that aligned with acting on their convictions. So I knew from the start that this is something that was really exciting to people. We actually surveyed over 500 students across more than 30 campuses at the very start and the response was magnetic. Everyone who I was talking to was saying, “If there was an opportunity for me to – rather than doing this job I don’t really feel passionate about – to actually start contributing to the place where I grew up, I’d be thrilled to do that after graduation.” And we found that survey was accurate, because in that first year we had more than 10 applications for every fellowship slot that we offered.
DY: Just to have a more concrete image of what people do with these fellowships, can you run through some examples?
JN: We started the Hometown Fellows program about four years ago. Our first cohort launched in 2018. And then the American Connection Corps (ACC), which has been focused primarily on broadband access and digital adoption, was started in 2021. And then now, going forward, we’re basically combining the two. So the best aspects of the Hometown Fellows Program and that program on broadband access and digital adoption are being combined.
I’ll give you two quick stories of the kind of projects we’ve run through the Hometown Fellows Program serving in rural communities, which is the focus of the ACC going forward. One example of a Hometown Fellow: Shandiin Herrera is from Navajo Nation, right near the border of Arizona and Utah. She got a full ride scholarship to Duke University and got a degree in public policy. She could have done just about anything after graduation, but she heard about the Hometown Fellowship with Lead for America. And we ended up placing her back working with her tribal council government. She was working on affordable housing and broadband access and a couple of other issues when, about nine months into her fellowship, Covid hit and Navajo Nation was experiencing one of the highest per-capita infection rates in the entire country. They’re also a community that disproportionately has folks who are elderly and often hours away from being able to access critical infrastructure like grocery stores or pharmacies or whatever else. And so Shandiin, recognizing the need, actually with mentors that she got to know through Lead for America and the office of the former Attorney General of Navajo Nation, started a GoFundMe originally, and ended up raising over $18 million in a single year. That included a $10 million grant from MacKenzie Scott in order to start a nonprofit to meet some of these critical needs for thousands of families all across the Nation. She stayed for a year after her two year fellowship to start a community center there, and now she’s on a full tuition scholarship at Arizona State studying Tribal Law.
A second story would be Evan Bonsall. He grew up in Marquette, Michigan, which is a pretty small town of about 30,000 people on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was one the first in his community to be admitted and then go to Harvard College in Massachusetts. He had a real passion, though, for his hometown, and really wanted to go back and serve. He also received a fellowship and went back into working with the city administrator on all sorts of projects that are important to his community, from environmental issues to preserving trails to airport renovation to recruiting more employers to the area. He also won election to the City Commission and became the youngest commissioner in the history of the city of Marquette. And after his fellowship he married his high school sweetheart from Marquette and became a high school social studies teacher. He plans to stay involved in public service the rest of his life.
And then two ACC stories: in Gage County, Nebraska, one of our fellows, Oliver Borchers-Williams, helped his county broker with a local internet service provider to bring fiber internet to rural homes across the county. And then Celia Simpson in Martin County, Minnesota has been building digital skilling programs to teach seniors how to access telehealth and pay their bills online. And she also founded the first Girls Who Code chapter in her rural school district. So as you can probably tell, by combining these two programs, the existing Hometown Fellows program and the ACC program, we’re well on track to achieving the overall goal, which is to build the nation’s leading rural prosperity national service program.
DY: For me, it’s a lot easier to imagine what the Hometown Fellow branch of that program looks like. Like I think everybody can kind of imagine finding some kind of public service project to get involved with in their hometown. But I guess when I first heard about the American Connection Corps program, I was sort of thinking, “Okay, I’m from a small town. I had terrible internet connection at my grandpa’s house where I stayed in high school. But if I were to go home, what on earth would I do about it? If I were to get this fellowship as a recent college graduate, how could I possibly fix the broadband situation?” So can you tell me more about the role those ACC fellows actually play?
JN: So first of all, the slightly longer term vision for the American Connection Corps is not just about broadband access and digital adoption – again, we really see this as being the nation’s leading rural prosperity project. And that means working not only on affordable internet and digital skills, but also education and healthcare and jobs and economic opportunity. But a little bit more to your point, all of those sorts of projects would be eligible under the American Connection Corps.
The reason we have a specific focus on broadband access and digital adoption is because of the 65 billion dollar federal investment in that infrastructure. That created a big opportunity for development. And on top of that, you know, having lived in a rural community in Dodge City, Kansas, myself, the digital divide is something that really is a foundational issue to being able to improve in the other areas our fellows are working in. So the program is designed to be flexible. But the emphasis on broadband access is responding to a unique challenge and I certainly hope that you know, say five years from now, that the American Connection Corps is not focusing as much on those issues, because we really believe that this is a solvable problem, especially with the smart investment that has been placed in this area.
DY: You mentioned an original plan for yourself before the fellowship program really took off. I guess it’s safe to assume that that vision you had really changed after that. So did you ultimately end up moving home?
JN: So when we were first getting started we were working out of North Carolina, which was convenient because my dad actually got moved to Fort Bragg. That’s the state where I went to school and it was kind of like a home away from home. But I always knew that I wanted to move our headquarters out to Kansas. So it was right at the start of the pandemic that we basically did a statewide listing for Kansas. I initially thought that we’d locate closer to Kansas City, which is where I grew up, but we were touring around the state of Kansas and trying to figure out where the best place was to really be rooted. We heard over and over again that in some of the other parts of the state of Kansas young people growing up there feel like, in order to be successful, they have to move to places like Kansas City. So I moved back not just to Kansas, but actually to Dodge City, Kansas which is a rural community of 30,000 in southwest Kansas. Now we’ve moved our primary office to Wichita, Kansas.
DY: What are some of your favorite things about living in Dodge City?
JN: Dodge City is actually famous for the phrase “get the hell out of dodge,” which is very ironic given the mission of our organization is to get people to invest back in their own towns and states. But that phrase came all the way from the 1880s. So one of my favorite things is just the sense of history of the place. Close to downtown there’s an old recreated street that is supposed to be similar to how the town was in the 1880s. And I think there really is a sense of pride that comes from welcoming people from all over the world to Dodge City. My host family during that year when I lived in Germany actually said that they picked me in part because they were huge fans of the show Gunsmoke, which is set in Dodge City. So before I ever lived in Dodge City, my affiliation with it helped me find a place to live. But beyond that, I would say it’s really a place where people who are there are there for a reason. In a lot of cases, it’s people who are often second, third, or fourth generation farmers or ranchers. In other cases, it’s immigrants, especially from Mexico and Guatemala, who have moved to Dodge City to find work at one of the two really large packing plants there. And I think a lot of the idiosyncrasies of the place, including the fact that the meatpacking plants often lead to interesting smells in the air or the fact that it’s the windiest city literally in the entire country are things that really make it a more difficult place to live. But for people who do live there, those difficulties mean that their commitments to being there are even more significant. So I think it’s a unique consequence of a history of bringing people from all sorts of different backgrounds to a relatively small town in rural southwest Kansas. I think it’s an exciting place to be and I’ve been grateful for the time to be there.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.
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