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Service calls on us to remove barriers and build bridges across communities and institutions. This guiding philosophy has shaped the public service journey of Lauren Thompson Starks ’05, whose career has spanned two Presidential administrations and centered on promoting educational equity and economic development for the American people. As the recent Program Lead of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $500 million Good Jobs Challenge, Lauren has carried her commitment to these causes into the present day.
Lauren’s investment in service began at a young age. She grew up in southwest Atlanta, Georgia, where local leaders, Sunday school teachers, and family reinforced the importance of giving back to the community. Her mother – the first person in her family to go to college and a now retired Title I public school educator – served as an early example and lifelong inspiration of what characterizes service. “My passion for promoting access to [opportunity] started with my mom who advocated for me as a young student, and later taught vulnerable students, bringing warmth and an attitude of no-challenge-too-big.” This mindset catalyzed a commitment that continued to help Lauren see “how as individuals we can make a difference through service in students’ lives, remove barriers, and meet people where they are.”
The idea of service as a way to bring people together and create common ground took root for Lauren in high school. “I thought a lot about how service engages you as an individual, and how it transforms you. Service also creates belonging, because you’re part of a mission, you’re working with others, and you’re finding other people who share those values with you.”
Applying this observation, she served as class president at her high school for several years, and was eventually elected student body president, representing classmates from over 60 countries. When brainstorming how to bring her diverse community of peers together, Lauren found service to be the binding agent. She organized a class-wide project called “Volunteer 2001” (2001 being her high school graduation year) for her peers to collectively log their service hours and organize volunteer activities together. The goal was to generate 2,001 hours of service to their community by the time they graduated. The student body reached its goal, and by the time Lauren graduated, she had found common ground with her peers through numerous acts of service.
High school was also a time when Lauren began thinking about service on a global scale. She volunteered with CARE USA, an “international humanitarian nonprofit that works around the globe to save lives, defeat poverty, and achieve social justice.” Taking initiative, Lauren led her high school in becoming the founding chapter of the Atlanta Youth Committee for CARE, the first CARE program to connect American youth volunteers to the nonprofit’s international work.
Lauren was very motivated by the community-driven aspect of CARE’s work, volunteering in Guatemala the summer after high school. “It’s one thing to have policies and programs that aim to effect change, and it’s another thing to design these with the community, coming up with solutions that directly address local needs.” With this notion in mind, she knew she wanted to continue the work she started with CARE when she arrived at Yale for her first year of undergraduate studies.
“Before I even got to Yale, I had Dwight Hall in my front view,” recalled Lauren. “I remember hearing that the spirit of service is what makes the Yale experience distinct, and how integral it is to developing as a leader. I was inspired by the chance to learn in the classroom and learn in the community.”
She gave herself some time to settle into her life at college, and then she got to work, founding the College Council for CARE, CARE’s first college youth program. Lauren registered the organization as a Dwight Hall student member group, wanting it to be a part of the Hall’s umbrella network of social change organizations on campus. She emphasized the impact of being a part of Dwight Hall’s student network. “Dwight Hall was a vehicle for getting the word out and finding other passionate students who cared about issues and wanted to partner with you to do great things in and outside of New Haven.”
The College Council for CARE held its meetings at Dwight Hall, partnered with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP) to organize a “Yale Week of Action around Hunger” for World Hunger Day, and even hosted a student-led fundraising concert on campus.
Continuing to advance a dual focus on local and global public service, the group also launched an initiative called CARE BUDS, which brought a global education curriculum focused on promoting empathy and an understanding of local and international poverty to schools in New Haven. Lauren also worked as a reading mentor with New Haven Reads and a flute teacher for Instrumental Connection, a program that helped New Haven Public Schools students access music education for free.
Similarly, Lauren continued to develop her public service experience with summer fellowships, working as a Dwight Hall Summer Fellow at the New Haven Board of Education and a President’s Public Service Fellow at the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Lauren noted that those summers were particularly impactful in connecting her to New Haven. “With Dwight Hall having such an anchor in the Yale and New Haven communities, I was excited to learn from my context and be a part of a place where I was learning and growing as a young adult.”
After graduating from Yale College in the spring of 2005, Lauren turned her attention to the behind-the-scenes work of university administration. She became the first-ever Woodbridge Fellow, spending three years working at Yale’s Office of the President, Office of the Secretary and Vice President for University Life, and Office of the General Counsel, respectively. (The Woodbridge Fellowship “provides valuable professional experience for potential careers in higher education and non-profit organizations, particularly for recent graduates belonging to minority communities currently underrepresented in university administration.”)
Her fellowship provided a crucial backdrop for her later work in law and higher education policy, particularly her role as Senior Policy Advisor to the Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, the chief higher education official in the United States, and at the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Lauren’s work at the Office of the General Counsel also helped inspire her to apply to Columbia Law School, where she was eager to sharpen her analytical skills and fine tune her ability to see problems and remedies in different ways.
True to form, Lauren was committed to this vision from her very first days of law school, where she recalled hearing an inspirational presentation from a professor who was also the Director of Columbia’s Center for Institutional & Social Change. Speaking of that professor, Lauren remembered, “everything she was saying resonated with my idea of myself as a future lawyer–someone who wanted to be a change agent and deeply understand systems and structural change.”
Inspired by her interdisciplinary major at Yale–Ethics, Politics, and Economics–Lauren ensured her law school experience was similarly unique and integrative. She cross-enrolled at Columbia Business School and Columbia Teachers College, drawing on different disciplines to consider solutions to complex social challenges.
Shortly after starting work at a law firm, Lauren’s next opportunity arose in the form of federal public service. She would serve as Chief of Staff to the Acting General Counsel of U.S. Department of Education beginning in the first term of the Obama administration.
The role proved to be invaluable in Lauren’s first years as a federal public servant. “I was working closely with someone who had been a dedicated public servant for decades, who knew everything about the Department’s history, and who was a civil rights leader and advocate. I learned so much about ‘art of the possible’ – how to work with others to get hard things done.”
The role of Chief of Staff also spoke to Lauren because it was centered around breaking down silos–systems or processes that operate in isolation from others. “I have been drawn in my career to spaces where I can be boundary-spanning, working across different areas and connecting different people, because I believe that is where transformation happens,” emphasized Lauren.
Practically speaking, that meant connecting an office of 100 legal professionals across seven legal divisions and coordinating interagency collaborations with stakeholders like the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense.
During that time, Lauren led the implementation of a nearly $1.4 billion career readiness program that helped over 250,000 veterans annually returning from service find good jobs, access education, or start their own businesses. She began working on the program as a lawyer, but as her expertise grew, she was recruited to become the program’s policy lead, eventually carrying the portfolio as Senior Policy Advisor to the Education Department’s Under Secretary. This move further validated Lauren’s earlier choice to become the first lawyer in her family and apply that training in federal service. “At that point of my career, [my legal background] allowed me a seat at the table [to make an impact and shape the direction of the program] with other agency partners.”
Speaking to the distinctiveness of federal public service, Lauren underlined the privilege and responsibility of serving the American people, noting that “having that responsibility on a daily basis has been an honor and deeply humbling.”
After several years at the Department of Education and the White House Domestic Policy Council, Lauren returned to higher education policy and practice, carrying on her work at an innovative nonprofit university serving primarily adult learners, with a focus on aligning education and workforce training. Motivated by a chance to help communities recover from the pandemic, Lauren would return to federal public service at the Department of Commerce in 2021. She was named Program Lead of the Good Jobs Challenge, a program created under the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan and housed under Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA).
The program was a massive undertaking by any metric, being both the largest workforce program in Commerce’s history and the first of its kind at the EDA. Announcing 32 awards across the U.S. in August 2022, the Challenge was aimed at revitalizing communities that had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic by “developing and strengthening regional workforce training systems and sectoral partnerships.” This would mean creating more good jobs, driving economic resiliency in marginalized communities, and building intergenerational mobility – issues that, not only as a policy leader but also now as a mother of two young children – she sees as essential to realizing the promise of a better world for future generations. Lauren carries on a focus on good jobs and strategies for improving job quality as a newly named leader within the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program in Washington, DC.
When asked about her personal philosophy of service, Lauren summarized it as follows: “Service transforms us and helps us realize our own capacities to lead change. We become different people during and on the other side of service. And in turn, it creates a space for us to take the opportunities and blessings we’ve been given and return them to the world.”