Life Through Service: A Conversation with Allison Zelman ’99
Alison Zelman attended IMS from 6-9th grade and graduated in 1999. Today, she is the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Labor, a job that keeps her very busy.
We stole a few minutes of her time to ask about her career journey and her experience at IMS.
IMS: Tell us about what you do at the Department of Labor?
AZ: The Department of Labor is a large federal agency, so there is a lot of internal and external management. That means everything from helping the Secretary of Labor with his strategic vision, working closely with the White House on the President’s priorities, to working with our Assistant Secretaries to effectuate those priorities and helping ensure we have the organizational structure to get all of the work across the finish line. Ultimately, I am helping ensure the Secretary of Labor can accomplish what the Administration and President have committed to accomplishing for workers and the American people.
It’s a unique and special opportunity, but it’s also a really demanding job. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day! The federal government is large and complex, and the Department of Labor plays a critical role for workers. I feel very grateful to have this opportunity to serve and to work with an exceptional staff of more than 20,000 public servants charged to accomplish big and impactful goals.
IMS: What drew you to a career in public service?
AZ: I graduated college in 2007 with a major in International Relations and I was committed to moving to South America. But, before the move came together, I was looking for something that could give me a paycheck and be a fulfilling way to occupy my time. So I ‘411ed’ an Obama campaign office and was easily convinced to become a ‘ field organizer.’ That moment changed my life. For the next almost two years, I was part of this amazing team, traveling the country, community organizing, and talking about what government could do for people. I listened to people’s stories about their every-day challenges, and I was inspired and moved by the amount of people who took any free minute they had to help the campaign and see a more hopeful future for themselves and their community. I ended up following the campaign all the way to Washington DC.
I worked in the White House for the first few years of the Administration, then went back out into the field for President Obama’s second campaign. Following that, I worked on women’s economic security issues and gun violence prevention in the nonprofit sector and then ended up at the Department of Labor for the final few years of the Obama Administration.
IMS: What inspires you at work?
AZ: At the core, what keeps me going are the workers whose lives we are impacting. I also believe so strongly in public service and how much good the government can do. And the people I work with – some of whom have been public servants for decades and decades – have dedicated their entire lives to the Department of Labor’s mission: helping workers, and the workers themselves, who deserve to have their rights protected. All of those things really inspire and motivate me on a daily basis.
I’m also very passionate about climate change. As we think about the future of climate change, we have to think about the future jobs and work associated with these new sectors and how it will impact our labor market and economy. It is one of the biggest issues of our time and for generations to come. I have a two and a half year old and newborn at home, and it’s hard not to think about the future and what we’re leaving our kids.
IMS: Let’s talk about your time at IMS. What are the first words that come to mind?
AZ: Family. Community. Opportunity.
I felt really cared for at IMS. I loved being a member of the theater program and the captain of my sports teams. My advisor (Mrs. Hayes), I remember so well to this day. She was so important to me, pushing me to do a lot of different things and to work through challenges. Middle school years can be hard, but I had this incredible group of teachers and mentors and fellow students who were really supportive. I learned so much about leadership and friendship. As a day student, my mom and dad would often host dinners with my boarding student friends and it was such a tight knit community. I truly loved being at school!
IMS: You have clearly led a Life Through Service
AZ: Yes, and I don’t think I necessarily connected working in government to that idea until later in life. There are so many different ways to lead a life through service. The values that you are instilled at IMS are about being part of a community, being a teammate and how you can make someone’s day better. It’s all about service and giving back. That is something I remember very distinctively from my years at IMS. And that value of helping others is something I took with me and has been a key part of my decisions and career since graduating.
IMS: Do you have advice to current students?
AZ: I really encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities provided at IMS. I believe that a lot of my leadership skills came from being involved in different groups, sports teams, theater shows, and from being around so many different people, and incredible leaders.
Outside of IMS, I strongly recommend volunteering, at whatever age. Working with people in your community, and understanding how you can make a difference, whether it’s volunteering at a food shelter or on a local campaign, is very powerful. You will learn skills that are invaluable in whatever path you choose and that is part of how you can begin or continue to live a life of service.