When I was 23, I left a well-paying job in medical technology to return to academia. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in public health after a business trip to a very poor rural Alaskan community. Seeing the health problems there sparked a passion to make life better for people, and clicking buttons in inactive domains wasn't satisfying my itch for service. I was excited to get to a place where I could be involved in making a difference in the world, so I spent my first few months back in academia feeling bright-eyed and enthusiastic.
My coursework was interesting, but it became a little depressing with all the roadblocks facing health programming. For some reason (which we won't discuss here), people are unwilling to trust experts and listen to facts. An example of this sentiment was the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The unreasonable people (and there were many) were more concerned about the possibility of Ebola in the United States than about mental health or food deserts, even though nobody has ever contracted Ebola on American soil.
When I worked with clients needing help with their Medicare, the rules they didn't like were often blamed on "Obamacare," even though those rules had been in place since at least 2006. And vaccines? Don't get me started.
My graduate assistantship brought me into close working relationships with nonprofit organizations in my community. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about their projects, and this should have been inspiring. Instead, I was saddened by their constant struggle for funding, volunteers, and time. I also worked part-time for a nonprofit operating under government grants to assist the elderly and disabled, and even this well-organized program had frustrating problems with resources. It was draining for me to meet so much resistance when trying to do good work and make life better.
Sometimes, the combination of disappointments and academia took a toll on my mental well-being. I would go home and indulge myself with some moping about the future, and what goes better with moping than a Netflix binge? I started Parks & Recreation somewhat reluctantly after an especially long week. I wasn't sure the "Mockumentary" style would fit with anything that wasn't The Office, but a friend assured me it was worth my time. I took David's advice and gave it a shot.
The first episode failed to thrill me, and to be honest, the character of Leslie Knope kind of annoyed me. She tried too hard. Pilot episodes aren't always the most well-developed, though, so I gave it another shot with episode 2. I felt ho-hum about it until the very end, when Leslie is debriefing with the camera crew about a subcommittee hearing. This exchange happens with a member of the public:
"Hey, parks lady. You suck."
"Did you hear that? He called me parks lady."
Parks Lady. A guy that had plenty of opportunity to learn her name referred to her as "parks lady," told her she sucks, and stormed out. And what did Leslie get out of this exchange? Somebody thinks of her as "parks lady" and isn't that just the best thing?!?
Her unrelenting optimism caught my attention. Leslie's character is a little blind to reality, sure, but she cares a lot. Leslie cares so much that she lets the little things roll off her back while she keeps her eyes on what she wants. Leslie cares almost too much, but it's better than not caring enough. Leslie gets the job done no matter what barriers she faces. She meets so much resistance and could easily give up. But she cares about her town's future and making it a better place to live.
This becomes even more apparent as the seasons progress. Leslie is the embodiment of public service, and her colleagues admire her passion so much that they actually start to care, too.
Once I understood Leslie's character, I felt like I had known her my whole life. Many aspects of her personality remind me of myself; she works hard, she's opinionated, and she can be a little intense. She trusts her friends' advice, and she will do what it takes to get the job done, even though she may get discouraged along the way. What I wanted to emulate in Leslie was her persistence and optimism. Some of the tasks she undertakes seem impossible, but she believes in what she does so much that it does not keep her down for long. Even though Parks & Recreation is just a TV show, I was inspired by her persistence and wanted to be more like her in my attitude.
In the second season, Leslie welcomes delegates from their sister city in Venezuela (a role Fred Armisen plays hilariously, by the way). She hosts a town hall meeting, in which citizens yell at her for pressing issues such as:
"My dog went to one of your parks and ate another dog's feces, and I'm going to sue you for that!"
And, my personal favorite,
"These pretzels suck!"
I laughed hysterically through this scene. This is only a slight exaggeration of the insanity one encounters when dealing with the public. Like all good humor, Pawnee is just a slightly alternative universe. As a result, Parks & Recreation had found a way to make me laugh at my own struggles.
After just a couple of days, Parks & Recreation became an outlet every time I felt frustrated with my field. Amy Poehler's beloved character became my refuge when I felt like nothing would ever change. Any time I encountered red tape or felt like nobody valued what I was doing, I found comfort in Pawnee's antics. Every episode contains a situation that spoke to my soul as a public servant, and it did so by making me laugh. Leslie Knope's day-to-day life put my work and studies into perspective and reminded me what passion looks like.
Now, Master's degree in hand, I work long hours for a large nonprofit organization. And even though I've seen the full series of Parks & Recreation at least six times by now, I still have days when I want to come home and chuckle at Leslie's ridiculous interactions with the city of Pawnee.
I have often thought about writing Amy Poehler a thank-you letter for creating the character of Leslie Knope, showing people like me empathy for our challenges by giving us an intelligent, charismatic, beautiful superhero character to smile at. While Leslie's unshakable positive attitude is unattainable by most humans, I learned something invaluable from her: laugh. It is the only way to survive a career in social and public service.