May 24, 2019

Welcome to Ask the Expert, our blog series that interviews professionals from different industries, spanning from fiscal policy wonks to leaders in civic engagement, to learn more about their career paths and advice for the next generation of leaders involved in the Up to Us Movement.

Tony Pennay - Chief Learning Officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

Tony Pennay is the Chief Learning Officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute where he and his team work with more than 60,000 students and 2,000 teachers annually. In addition to his role at the Reagan Foundation, Tony has served at the Chair of the Education Committee for the American Alliance of Museums and is the Chair of the Awards Committee for the National Council for the Social Studies. Tony was also the recipient of the 2012 Civic Action Award from the California Council for the Social Studies.

Tell us about your job – what do you do?

I am the Chief Learning Officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which has offices onsite at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, as well as a team in Washington, D.C. I get to work with an amazing team of educators to help cultivate the next generation of citizen-leaders. Our programs serve students in different ways, such as a week-long high school leadership camp, an annual Leadership Summit, a national speech and debate competition, and a semester-long program in Washington that has served students from more than 150 colleges and universities around the world. We also award more than $1,000,000 in scholarships each year through our programs. 

What advice do you have to for the next generation of leaders who want to become more civically engaged?

First, find an issue you are passionate about. I really like Simon Sinek’s TED talk on “Start with Why?” His theory is that great leaders and great movements don’t start with what they do, or how they do it, they center themselves on why it’s important in the first place. At the Foundation, we encourage students to find their “why,” and then act on it. 

Second, raise your hand. You can’t just roll out of bed and make change happen because you want to, so raise your hand, volunteer, find other students and community members who share a passion, and be willing to show up. 

Finally, roll up your sleeves. Raising your hand and being willing to do the work is a start, but actually rolling up your sleeves and doing the work is necessary for true change and civic engagement.

What qualities do you think make a good leader?

It’s something we think about quite a bit here at the Foundation, because we are working to cultivate the next generation of citizen-leaders. Here are my top three qualities:

  1. Vision: President Reagan talked about America as a Shining City on a Hill whose best days were ahead. Simon Sinek talks about starting with Why? Great leaders can paint a picture of where we should be and motivate others to follow them on a pathway to get there. 
  2. Collaboration: President Reagan said “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Good leaders know how to collaborate effectively with others. They are constantly looking for ways to connect people, ideas, and action. 
  3. Humility: A good leader is humble in the face of the responsibility they bear as a leader. He or she should listen to the ideas of others, realize they won’t always have the best idea, and will do what they can to support and help those who work with them to grow. 

What can the young leaders involved in Up to Us do to help create the sort of country they’d like to live in?

Speak up, get involved, participate, and advocate for the ideas and policies you believe in. After the constitutional convention, a spectator asked Ben Franklin whether we had a Republic or a monarchy. He famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” In a government like ours, the power of the government is vested in the will of the people, and if you don’t show up, if you don’t participate, if you don’t vote, if you don’t hold officials accountable, then you aren’t doing your part to “keep it.” 

What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Take better advantage of being young. As a student, you have great access to smart, thoughtful people like your professors, teachers, community leaders. I wish I had spent more time visiting professors to discuss big ideas, getting involved in big issues in my community and better tapped into the wisdom of teachers and my family. In retrospect I’m not sure my time watching TV or playing video games was nearly as beneficial as I imagined a few decades ago. 

What advice do you have for the young leaders involved in Up to Us looking to secure internships or their first job?

Reach out and go for it. Send an email to someone in the position at the organization you are interested in. No matter how it turns out, be respectful and professional. When I was a senior in college, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. Internships probably would have helped. I served on the student government my senior year, and before school started, everyone in a campus leadership role shared their summer experiences. Most had amazing internships with great organizations. When it got to me, I shared that I spent my summer internship with a prestigious sandwich making firm. Though I enjoyed the sandwiches, I am not sure I set myself up for success post-graduation. Through our partnership with Up to Us, I’m excited to have students involved in this year’s Leadership and the American Presidency program.