Gillen Martin: Home in Humboldt, ready to Lead for America and make a difference in the world

People keep asking me why I came back. 

Humboldt County has a tendency to entrench in its young people the idea that if they want to be “successful” or make a difference in the world, they have to leave and stay gone. Combined with a lack of clear career opportunities (for both locals who want to return or Humboldt State students who want to stay), this sentiment can place a stigma on homecoming in our community.

I left Humboldt when I was 18 for Providence, Rhode Island to attend Brown University and moved back this summer, after my graduation. Like many 22-year-olds, I spent my senior year asking not only “how can I make a difference in the world?” but also “where will I be most happy?” and “how will I ever be happy working 40-hour weeks?” 

I was a Political Science major staring down a less-than-difference-making corporate public relations job offer, haunted by memories of unfulfilling internships. The only thing I knew was that I did not want to be where I’d been – New England, New York, Washington: the three places East Coast schools propel students through campus recruitment, job fairs, and connections. They often felt like the only options. But when I took “options” out of the equation and just thought “geographically, what do I want?” I knew. 

The places I grew up. This network of tiny towns that form one unique community. During semesters I’d be waiting for the beginning of summer when I would come home. And throughout summer itself, from behind a desk in sweaty DC or loud New York, I would long for its end and the week or two I’d have in Humboldt before school.

Options, however, had to come back into the equation. And I invite anyone to try and find an entry-level job in Arcata in the field of Political Science. Just when I was pondering if I could be considered eligible for a forestry position by any stretch of the imagination, 

I recalled the multiple attempted recruitment emails I sent to my spam folder from an organization called Lead for America. A civic service organization with the motto “Transformation is local. Start where you live.” and a “Hometown Fellowship” program. The emails were moved back into my inbox.    

Lead for America is an organization founded by passionate people – fresh out of school themselves – who were similarly dissatisfied with the lack of routes back to serving communities – especially those already underserved. 

By the time I became a semi-finalist, the City of Arcata had agreed to take me on and the work they proposed excited me; it entailed things that I understood the necessity of. If I did well in this, the impacts might begin to unfold around me. 

After growing up thinking that I had to leave to make a difference, coming home became the opportunity with the potential for the most impactful change. And once I accepted that, the stigma of moving back was erased by the possibility of serving my hometown in a tangible way. 

But I still get asked the question: “Why did you come back here?”

Why are we impressing upon Humboldt’s youth that their talent is best outsourced? And rather than wonder why some come back, why not ask instead how we can create more accessible opportunities here for those that want to? 

I am working on emergency preparedness, racial equity, and arts & culture in the Arcata City Manager’s Office. Reach me at [email protected] with any questions/comments regarding those areas or about Lead for America. 

I would also like to thank the Smullin Foundation, the Humboldt Area Foundation, Lead for America, and the City of Arcata for giving me this opportunity. 

Gillen Martin is a resident of Arcata and Blue Lake.







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