If You Fail, Fail Forward: Interview with AmeriCorps Alums Director

Ben DudaEchoing Green’s Heart at Work interview series highlights individuals whose changemaking paths we admire. Ben Duda (pictured right), executive director of AmeriCorps Alums, has been dedicated to service since childhood and has carved a path in civic engagement by working wholeheartedly with organizations that he cares about deeply.

How would you describe your career path in a tweet?
Mary Lou Retton, cow's eyes, Harris Wofford, volunteering & service? Ben Duda from @AmeriCorpsAlums career path #workonpurpose

How would you describe career path, using a few more words?
My career story is typical for many who have served in AmeriCorps—had been building up a set of assumptions in college, thinking I had a vision for my future. When I enrolled in Cornell, I thought law school was a likely next step. But, thanks to a professor who was a returned Peace Corps volunteer (and a lawyer) and a speech that Harris Wofford delivered on campus, I joined AmeriCorps after graduation. Serving in AmeriCorps permanently altered my career plan, pointing me toward a life of civic service.

Before we get into that, let’s go back even earlier—what did you want to be when you were young?
My earliest memory about a career aspiration was probably the 1984 LA Summer Olympics and wanting to be Mary Lou Retton or Carl Lewis. I used to re-create competitions in backyards with my friends. Both were exceptional athletes who accomplished a lot.

I loved to read. I may have wanted to be an author or a bass player in a very cool band. (I’d probably play barefooted and sing back-up.) But beyond those aspirations, I imagined myself going into business; it wasn’t a formed idea in my mind, I didn’t think about starting a business or even being a business-person, just going into business without really having context for what that meant.

What was your first job, and what did you learn that you still use today?
My first job was probably as an umpire for Little League, which I think fit into a community engagement model because those jobs were about being involved locally. It actually felt like a promotion. Otherwise I might have to work the snack shack with my mom after games.

But my formative work experience was at 18. I worked at a science kit factory the summer before college. I filled out a timecard for the first time, had a formal lunch break, and worked 8 AM to 5 PM in the shipping and receiving department. The company sent the cow eyeballs, frog legs, rulers, and acids to high school and college science labs around the country—it was a weird experience to ship boxes and boxes full of frog legs or put hazard stickers on containers full of sulfuric acid. But, I was on my feet all day, hustling—it was an important first job. I was influenced by my parents and that Buffalo, Great Lakes blue collar mentality that surrounded me. The idea was to get a summer job and make whatever you could per hour before college. The job was a lesson in physically hustling, working hard, and that being surrounded by friends/people you care about, in anything you do, can make a difference.

Could you tell us about those ah-ha moments that changed your path?
Two moments come to mind—the first experience was my internship the summer after junior year of college where I worked with a youth corps in New York. It was a highly diverse group of youths, one was the child of a physics professors, where another was a low income, teenage mother. We spent the summer completing service projects together around the city. We built a playground, worked on a streetscape project, among other projects; the entire experience was a very meaningful opportunity for service and leadership.

The second pivotal moment was hearing Harris Wofford speak on campus. He’s now 86 years old and was instrumental in founding the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, was a friend and advisor to JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., and is an incredible American. When Harris spoke on campus and shared his story and experiences, I was moved and inspired. After it was over, I collected some black and white government printed fliers for AmeriCorps. His presentation spoke to me; I had been searching for something and didn’t know what it was. After hearing Harris speak it felt like AmeriCorps was the answer.

And how did those moments influence your path?
The next two years after graduating, I completed more than 4,000 hours of service in AmeriCorps in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) as a corps member and then team leader. I served on a team of twelve 18-24 year olds. We lived for two to twelve weeks in different cities around the country and worked on housing issues, education, disaster relief and we served and worked alongside people in each of the communities. The entire experience was incredibly grounding. I maintain I likely learned more about myself and leadership at age 23 than I have since.

I then worked for Citizen Schools. One of the most amazing parts about Citizen Schools and later KaBOOM!, was consistently learning and growing and being surrounded by a community of leaders and mentors to help me along my course, with the endpoint always TBD. I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins to study urban policy and we used Baltimore as our learning laboratory. While there, I worked for then Mayor, now Governor, Martin O’Malley’s administration. After grad school, my KaBOOM! experience, gave me important insight into the back end operations of a nonprofit and how a mission driven organization gets things done.

And all of that leads you to where you are today—what are you doing now?
I’m now the executive director of AmeriCorps Alums, a small organization with huge opportunity. There are over 775,000 alumni of AmeriCorps, and we believe there is huge potential to engage more deeply. It feels like my career is hustling now; connecting the heart of my and others’ service experience, as mentors, teachers, homebuilders, counselors, while using my head to understand how 1000 different AmeriCorps experiences in VISTA, NCCC, City Year, TFA, or a small nonprofit in Oregon, can knit together into a vibrant network that can make a difference in this country. My challenge is to lead this organization, AmeriCorps Alums and build off of the powerful impact of each person’s AmeriCorps experience, and connect that to a lifetime of service, leadership, and impact. 

What was your worst job?
I was a really bad waiter. At one point between NCCC and moving to Boston for Citizen Schools, I was a part-time fundraiser and was volunteering weekends as a Habitat for Humanity crew chief, but to pay the bills, I was a waiter. And I was pretty bad. One time, I dropped a hamburger in the middle of the kitchen and the cooks weren’t too pleased with that. It’s humbling to be so obviously bad at something. While I was waiting tables, I was dreaming about urban policy issues, so in that sense, the experience helped point me in a direction.

What is one film that significantly influenced your path and why?
The movie Traffic plays an important part in my personal narrative, because when it came out I was in my second year of AmeriCorps in San Diego, and had just spent much of my first AmeriCorps year in Cincinnati. So while everyone was watching Traffic as an Academy Award worthy film, I was connecting the characters and story to my experiences in those same streets and communities. We lived in the neighborhood featured in many of the Cincinnati scenes, and had seen drug deals but also knew strong individuals and leaders in the neighborhood who were invested in making it a better place to live.

What advice do you have for Millennials trying to access purposeful careers?
The biggest challenge for me was: “what to do with what I saw” through four years of direct service with NCCC and Citizen Schools. How to translate the “ground-level” experience to a career path. My advice is seek out smart people, and passionate organizations. Even if your ‘job’ doesn’t fill your passions, make sure your circle of friends, your community does. Volunteering with Habitat on Saturday mornings weekly while I was otherwise a little lost, becomes an important choice in hindsight. 

I’ve also become fond on the concept ‘failing forward.’ Like in sports where you want to play on your toes, not your heels. Finding opportunities to fall forward (even if you fail) is almost always better than being passive. I’ve seen this in reflecting over past (in)action that it’s better to be bold and reach your full potential by playing on your toes. It’s a mentality that I’ve tried to embrace here at AmeriCorps Alums; I try to push and test and that’s okay even if it’s not perfect—it’s better to do that than to be passive.

Any final thoughts?
To all the alumni of AmeriCorps out there, thank you for your service—you’re part of a community that’s over 775,000 Americans.

How do you fail forward? Add your thoughts in the comments or share them here.

Ben Duda is the executive director of AmeriCorps Alums. He joined AmeriCorps Alums from KaBOOM!, where he served as a senior program manager. Prior to joining KaBOOM!, Ben earned his master’s in public policy with a nonprofit management certificate from The Johns Hopkins University. While studying in Baltimore, Ben was a graduate assistant at an emerging innovation high school and was a Mayoral Fellow in Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration. Ben was a teaching fellow at Citizen Schools and he completed two years and more than 5,000 hours of service in AmeriCorps in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). While in the NCCC, he served in a dozen cities across seven states, building houses, tutoring youth, providing job readiness training and environmental impact. Ben, a Buffalo, NY, native, resides with his family in Atlanta, GA.

Connect with AmeriCorps Alums online or in your city, through AmeriCorps Alums chapters. Find out more here: