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Abell and Russ
October 26, 2020

To Be of Service

Alumnae credit their Andover connection and commitment to non sibi as drivers for their service-focused startup
by Allyson Irish

Listening to Octavia Abell ’10 and Kyleigh Russ ’10 talk about their startup Govern for America (GFA), it’s hard not to get excited.

“There’s language on our website that says, ‘Join the movement. Be part of the next generation who sees government as an avenue for meaningful change and can help us usher in an era where governments reflect the values and diversity of our nation,’” says Abell. “That’s what we truly believe.”

The GFA “movement” officially began in 2018, one year after Abell and Russ reconnected via LinkedIn. At the time, Russ was a fifth-grade teacher in Boston and Abell was working in the Rhode Island Office of Innovation. Though they came from different parts of the public sector, they both recognized the ability of government to solve big problems at scale and in a way that no other entity can do. Based on their own career experiences, they also identified the need for a stronger pipeline of diverse, next-generation talent into government. So they decided to build one.

“I probably would not have reached out to Octavia if it were not for the Andover connection,” Russ says. “But Andover does such an amazing job of building a sense of community and shared values that, years after graduating, there was still a clear bond.”

Govern for America currently has 26 fellows placed in five states: Rhode Island, Louisiana, Connecticut, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. GFA fellows hail from 17 states and 23 different academic institutions. In total, 58% identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color; 23% identify with the LQBTQ+ community; and 35% are in the first generation of their family to attend college.

Abell, GFA’s CEO, wanted to address the lack of diversity. “I started to notice in my own job that I was often the only woman in the room and the only person under age 30. I really started to think a lot about this idea of proximity and how to build inclusive systems.”

COO Russ recognized similar problems, but from a different perspective. Teaching at a charter school, Russ saw firsthand how policy decisions and government programs impacted underrepresented communities, which often did not have a voice in the policy-making process. “I would routinely see decisions about policies and programs being made by those without the lived experience or understanding of the people who would be directly impacted by the decisions,” she says.

Their answer? A multipronged approach to attract young, diverse talent in to government. After applying for a two-year fellowship, GFA recruits are placed into a cohort and provided with training, beginning with an intensive summer institute. Fellows are provided with leadership and skills training, as well as coaching and mentoring opportunities. They are then matched with a government agency looking for young talent. The first cohort of GFA Fellows has just completed their first year; GFA launched a second cohort in June, and began recruiting for the third in September.

So far, response to the program has been positive. The first cohort of 26 fellows has been placed in full-time state government jobs in five states, and the program has received media attention, most notably from the Washington Post, which featured GFA in a July 2018 story. Abell and Russ were also recently named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the Law and Policy category.

With public trust in the government remaining low for the past decade, Abell and Russ say it is even more important for young people to raise their hand and work toward change.

“The reason Kyleigh and I launched this organization is because we believe that government can be a powerful instrument of change,” Abell says. “We want government to work better for everyone in this country and to more effectively and equitably serve everyone.”

Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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