I recently revisited one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Parks and Recreation. Something about the main character, Leslie Knope, has always resonated with me and my drive to pursue work that is personally meaningful and that serves people. Maybe it’s her tenacious personality, or maybe it’s her charming goofiness paired with an incredible, steadfast conviction. After relocating my family from big-city Texas to the small town of South Bend last year, my enjoyment of this show has grown exponentially. Now more than ever, I can identify with Leslie and her comically serious quest to organize good works in Small Town, Indiana.
The final episode of the series is profound. Leslie, while giving a keynote address about her time as the Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation in the fictitious town of Pawnee, Indiana, shares:
“When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about: small, incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.”
While our work isn’t always easy, the recipe for finding meaning and joy in work really is simple.
“Work worth doing” often comes with big questions and lofty goals. The same questions that kept me up at night in Fort Worth keep me up in South Bend. How do we help our brothers and sisters who struggle every day to find a way out of poverty? How do we ensure the solutions we identify are sustainable? How do we scale the experiences of one person and one family in order to impact the lives of thousands?
Big questions require great teams. Before coming to the University of Notre Dame, I spent 17 years serving the mission of a great nonprofit in Fort Worth, Texas. My team there had passion and grit, and their collective attitude was one of the greatest parts of my job. I admit I was nervous about leaving that team, but I have found the same kind of passion and grit in the people I work with at LEO. Their tangible belief in our mission, willingness to build, and drive to seek out “work worth doing” gives LEO a grounded and eager perspective.
Like the recipe for meaningful work, our mission at LEO can be summed up simply: “science that serves.” Service lacking science and science lacking service both leave those in poverty with less than our best. Whether you are a provider working with a family in need, an academic studying the effects of a particular intervention, or a philanthropist seeking to invest in the deepest impact, you have unique experiences and skills that can be used in the fight against poverty.
We know the paradigm needs to shift from anecdote to evidence. We dream of the day when we will no longer give the poor our best guess, but give them our best interventions and resources, backed by truth. To me, this is work worth doing, and I’m grateful to have a team of nonprofit partners, academics, and philanthropists that I love doing it with.
In the wise words of Leslie Knope, “Now, go find your team and get to work!”