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Spotlight on Commerce: Jane Callen, Senior Editor, U.S. Census Bureau

Ed. note: This post is part of a series for Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW) May 6-12, showcasing the vast and diverse work of Commerce employees collectively working together to deliver important services that are helping the American economy grow.

Guest blog post Jane Callen, Senior Editor, U.S. Census Bureau

Grover Cleveland said the path of public duty is unusually rugged. That can certainly be true! I would add that it is also unusually, deeply satisfying. Perhaps the two are intertwined; the greatest challenges are often the most meaningful, even if there is room to do more, go further, be of greater service. My public service began in 1993 at the U.S. Census Bureau in communications. It is a career that has included conducting the lockup briefings to release the principal economic indicators, managing staff, as well as writing, editing and working on policy issues.

The early ‘90s was a time of profound technological change — the Internet was only a few years old and computers and cell phones were making some of their first appearances in the workplace. The Census Bureau was grappling with implications for the world’s premier statistical agency. We had a sense of the tectonic plates shifting and we were excited to embrace the change and ride the wave of technological advancement. Indeed, Census was one of — if not THE first government agency to have an online presence. For this we received the Vice President’s Hammer Award, one of the highest awards for innovation leading to improved government performance. Standing alongside that amazing group of public servants during the ceremony, I could not have been prouder to be part of a team.

Service in its many incarnations has been a primary and important theme throughout my life. In addition to my public service, I am a first responder, EMS lieutenant, and hospice volunteer, which includes taking our little pup to visit patients at the end of life whose last wish is for a dog visit. Callie is a small Yorkie we found in the middle of the road and she is certified to do this work. Serving in these roles, I am reminded of how fragile and fleeting life is: each day, each encounter, each new project is a gift. That’s why we serve: it reminds us of what really matters and makes us feel great. When we also receive recognition, it is humbling: it was an incredible honor to receive the Volunteer of the Year Award from Montgomery County, MD, at the end of April.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, I, like so many others, wanted to help. I remember turning to my Commerce Department colleagues and asking if they could possibly cover for me so that I could volunteer — for three weeks! They did not hesitate, even though it meant adding a considerable burden to their already heavy workloads. They told me that it made them feel as if they too were part of the disaster response — and they were. Whether I was serving as a first responder helping survivors of Katrina, victims of the earthquakes in Nepal, or those impacted by last year’s punishing hurricanes, I knew I was part of a much larger if not always visible team; my volunteer service was enabled by the generosity and hard work of Commerce Department colleagues. That collaboration demonstrates a beautiful nexus of public and volunteer service. Interconnection and support are hallmarks of the federal government “community” and among our greatest strengths.

Last year, after two and a half years of night school, I received a second master’s degree, in social work, hoping to deepen my volunteer skills. Sitting with the dying is a profound privilege and responsibility, and I want to approach it as well as disaster response as skillfully as possible. The truth is, though, that the most important skills are those gleaned from a quarter century in service: to slow down and pay attention, to greet work with curiosity and keen interest — with the openness of a beginner’s mind. To listen to colleagues with curiosity rather than defensiveness or reactivity. To learn the name of the person who removes your trash or checks you out in the lunch line. To remember that the patient in the back of the ambulance or lying amidst the debris from a hurricane or earthquake is no different from you and in a heartbeat, the tables can, and will, turn. To view each moment with wonder and awe because we know how fleeting this life is — the lesson of hospice. To treat our colleagues with kindness and respect, and pour ourselves into our work so that it is the best it can be, because we care. If we embrace these lessons, then we know that we are serving each other. Let our actions and commitment stand as evidence of the monumental value of public service.

I grew up principally in the DC area other than stints abroad — a year in Japan where I attended first grade, and a year-and-a-half in Israel. My sisters and I attended Maryland public schools. I received my undergraduate degree from American University, where my father chaired the physics department, and my master’s in government from Johns Hopkins University. My parents chose to raise a family in the DC area because they felt it was ground zero for service as they defined it — civil and human rights volunteer work as well as public service. In addition to teaching quantum mechanics, my father worked part time as a scientific researcher for the Naval Research Laboratory and also, I learned later, the National Security Agency. I recall riding atop his shoulders as he marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. I also vividly remember the joyful moment when I told my parents I was going to work for the government, and I keep a framed photo of my father standing beside me, smiling broadly, when I was first sworn in as a Census Bureau employee.

Public service has been an amazing career – the mission and, most of all, the people. The incredibly dedicated career staff at the Commerce Department are bright lights, smart, kind, collaborative, interesting, and interested. They say that one way to know if you’re in a good relationship is to ask if you are your best self with that person. At Census, I am my best self.

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