Students and Alumni  

2018 Summer Fellows Blog

In Summer 2018, the Initiative sent Harvard graduate students to work in cities around the United States. Made possible by a gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the 17 fellows spent 10 weeks working on issues of importance to the mayors of their respective cities—everything from heat mitigation, to kindergarten readiness, to performance management, to equitable growth. The fellows came from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Harvard Graduate School of Education. They were each matched, based on interest and skill set, with a city where they could work with the mayor and other senior government leaders to make the most impact for citizens. The students chronicled their fellowship experiences, describing the work in their own words and illustrating the meaning they found in their summer.

To read more about 2019 summer fellowships, visit the Student Opportunities page.

Violence reduction in Baltimore, Maryland

MARCH 4, 2019

On a balmy July afternoon in West Baltimore, a couple weeks into my summer fellowship with the city, I accompanied a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department on a ride-along. The officer checked in with local business owners, investigated a stolen vehicle, defused sidewalk conflicts, and responded to an overdose while I, observing his work day, got my first real exposure to the community I was in Baltimore to help serve.

A West Baltimore neighborhood.
A West Baltimore neighborhood.

In the fall of 2017, Mayor Catherine Pugh launched the Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI), which seeks to coordinate on a daily basis the myriad law enforcement, outreach, and community engagement efforts of more than two dozen agencies in order to abate violent crime. The VRI takes an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to improving public safety, recognizing that crime is not just a problem for police; every city agency has a role to play. The VRI includes daily 8 a.m. briefings at Baltimore Police Department headquarters, afternoon conference calls, a humming email distribution, and weekly neighborhood walks to coordinate and concentrate law enforcement activities with service delivery (311, outreach) in the areas of the city with the highest rates of violent crime. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainable Solutions (MOSS, previously CitiStat), where I worked as a fellow last summer, is tasked with performance management and data analytics for the VRI. I was tasked with helping the office to strengthen the VRI.

The first challenge concerned data–the bedrock of any performance management system. Everyone agreed that the VRI should be data-driven, but depending on the agency, data–including crime data–could vary by quality and consistency. Based on dozens of informal interviews with managers and frontline staff, I redesigned parts of the VRI’s shared database system to streamline reporting and facilitate analysis of each agency’s activities. The effects were felt quickly, though I realized that good data hygiene would require constant attention.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

In addition to bolstering data infrastructure, I recommended process improvements that could deepen the VRI group’s learning and foster more nimble analysis. To create more space for problem-solving, I recommended that MOSS facilitate briefings focused on specific issues, like cleaning and greening, or deep dives on certain geographic areas.

I also helped facilitate a work group to explore the role that local businesses play in historically violent blocks and developed data visualizations that contextualized weekly neighborhood walks.

Urban gun violence is simultaneously urgent, fear-inducing, and technically and politically complex. Throughout my ride-along, I observed neighborhoods that have endured decades of disinvestment and decay, resilient communities that are surrounded by seemingly endless blocks of abandoned row houses and thriving drug shops. It would be easy to turn cynical, but I realized that, through my participation in the VRI, I could quickly connect the issues on the ground with the appropriate stakeholders in the city. Furthermore, I knew I would see those subject matter experts at the next morning’s VRI briefing. The stage was set for rapid, transformative action. And even though getting “the right people” together to respond on a daily or even hourly basis to crime is not an automatic recipe for success, the VRI’s cross-silo DNA illustrates an essential, evolving piece of the puzzle.

Early childhood education in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

JANUARY 31, 2019

As I stood under the “story tree” at the Knock Knock Children’s Museum, listening to Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s address, I turned to the audience gathered to watch her speak. Scanning the crowd of parents and children who had participated in the parent clubs of her signature education initiative, “Cradle to K,” I saw families sitting stock-still in rapt attention. I had arrived in Baton Rouge only three days prior and was, quite honestly, still skeptical that the city was the appropriate provider of a program to engage parents in improving school readiness. Seeing the tears streaming down a mother’s face as she thanked the mayor for helping her help her kids, it started to click.

Mayor Broome discusses Cradle to K in her office in Baton Rouge.

Mayor Broome began the Cradle to K program in Baton Rouge just a few months after her tenure as mayor-president began last year. The fact that only 44 percent of the city’s children enter kindergarten having met developmental benchmarks was central to her campaign. The event at the Knock Knock museum was the culmination of the first year of the initiative, comprising a social media strategy, reading corners at WIC clinics, and a series of guided conversations at the Cradle to K Parent Club events, all intended to strengthen the culture of parenting in Baton Rouge.

School readiness is a difficult space to make an impact, particularly on a city-wide scale. Interventions like universal pre-K are invaluable but expensive, especially for a city with limited means. Even if the funds were available, however, universal pre-K is unlikely to solve Baton Rouge’s school readiness woes because so many of the city’s children have already missed critical developmental milestones by the time they are old enough for pre-K. Unlocking the full potential of a child’s brain requires starting from birth, something that relies on what Head Start calls children’s “first and most important teachers,” their parents.

Baton Rouge children and their parents at the East Baton Rouge Public Library.

Cradle to K programming follows the school year schedule, so our summer work lay in evaluating the pilot year and helping chart a course forward that would expand both the reach and the depth of the program. Research shows that parents, particularly those in low-income communities, are more likely to trust parenting messages that come from other parents in the community, so we envisioned a future in which alumni of the parent clubs were trained and supported to facilitate parent club events in their own communities. Additionally, we knew that a major difficulty for parents is that they receive many conflicting parenting messages. It was important for us to align all of the different organizations serving parents in Baton Rouge around a common language and a common vision for the future of parenting.

Both of these objectives, though, would require training, which, in turn, would require research. Cradle to K had been built around what it calls its “parenting pillars”: patience, curiosity, and conversation. These are ideas that the specialists running the programs understood through their work. Training parents who were not necessarily specialists in these pillars, though, and aligning agencies around a shared vision, meant that we needed a clearer understanding of what exactly it meant to practice and model patience, encourage curiosity, and teach through conversation, as well as specific impacts that these actions would have.

To her credit, Mayor Broome demands that any work coming from the city is rigorously grounded in research and backed up by data. The core of my work this summer was ensuring that Cradle to K was exactly that. I performed a review of child development literature and worked with the rest of the team to ensure that the planned growth of the program aligned with what science tells us encourages healthy child development, as well as what the data shows is right for Baton Rouge, specifically.

My summer started under the story tree, observing the mayor’s speech at a celebration of the parents who had placed their trust in her initiative. It ended with a stakeholder meeting of the 25 different agencies who had made that initiative possible. Baton Rouge certainly faces challenges moving forward, but it is a place of tremendous promise. There is a palpable sense of excitement about the future, and as the Cradle to K Coalition met to chart a course forward for the children and families in Baton Rouge, I felt that excitement more than ever before. As I think back to my time in Baton Rouge, I feel it again. Big things are coming for Baton Rouge, especially for its children and families, and I am extraordinarily proud and grateful that I got to be a small piece of that.

Steven’s work in Baton Rouge was also written about last fall in the Harvard Gazette.

Affordable housing in Charleston, South Carolina

JANUARY 30, 2019

Defining the Problem

During my first day working in the city of Charleston, I was able to participate in a workshop for a highly contentious redevelopment project. One of the engagement sessions was with community stakeholders, and the conversation quickly turned to community concerns with the state of Charleston’s housing affordability. During the beginning of the session I remember one of the participants crying out, “Who is protecting the people who live here and have lived here for decades so they do not get priced out?” While it is typical to hear sentiments like this in meetings happening around the country, I couldn’t shake this question as I started my fellowship.

When I first began my work in Charleston, the project brief was creating a strategic vision for public housing redevelopment. However, after seeing the extent of the affordability crisis in the city, interviewing a wide range of stakeholders involved in housing development, and gaining a deeper understanding of the issues at hand from city officials, it became clear that the most impactful project I could work on would be helping the city come up with a comprehensive strategy for affordable housing. And it was with this mindset that my project evolved into an initiative called Housing for a Fair Charleston (or H4FC).

The strategic plan for the project included laying out the values underlying the project; using salient data points to define the key challenges and barriers; compiling a collection of policy and education tools to address key cost barriers and public attitudes/stereotypes about affordable housing; developing a spatialized strategy for applying the tools to different neighborhoods in Charleston; creating an implementation matrix; and playing out the plan in a few key sites in the city. While the final deliverable was a report, the hope was not only to create a document of findings, but also to provide a catalyst for the city in moving to mitigate its affordability crisis.

Project Breakthroughs

Some of the lower-income areas of Charleston.

The question of whose responsibility it was to confront and address Charleston’s affordability crisis would become my central problem for my project. After I presented my initial project report draft to key city officials, the director of the Department of Housing responded with the following remarks: “I think we underestimate the importance of having a body working on this subject every day and having someone who just gets it—the interconnectedness and intersections that take place in housing work.”

Armed with this critical feedback, I realized the single most impactful action item I could advocate for in the short term was a new city official who would wake up every day thinking about the housing affordability crisis and would be committed to implementing the plan I was starting to build.

By the end of my 10 weeks in the city, I was able to both make headway on content for the plan and create a proposal for a Director of H4FC, a new position to be placed in a strategic initiatives department in the mayor’s office. After my final presentation, the mayor was excited about my proposal and is currently working on making this new position and department a reality. I also signed on to spend six additional months completing the strategic plan for the city as I complete my graduate studies.

Project Reflections

This project is still in process and the full scope of its impact is still being determined. In the short term, I believe the impact of my work was putting a spotlight on some capacity barriers in the city when it comes to implementing robust affordable housing policy. In the long term, the impact of my work will hopefully grow into a larger initiative that moves the needle in mitigating Charleston’s housing affordability crisis.

Personally, this experience has had a profound influence on my career path in both where and how I practice design. With this opportunity, I was able to witness the impact I could have by bringing my voice, perspective, and expertise to the Charleston community, and this has confirmed my attraction to working in small and mid-sized cities. Second, the unique combination of my position as an external consultant to the city and my background as a designer allowed me to recognize my passion for diagnosing barriers that often don’t get addressed, and dreaming up an innovative vision that the city may not have considered before.

I hope that my work with Charleston has inspired and will continue to inspire the city to think and dream boldly, and, in return, this experience has inspired me to think and dream boldly about my career.

Natasha’s work in Charleston was also written about last fall in the Harvard Gazette.

Early childhood education in Mesa, Arizona

JANUARY 29, 2019

The educational, social, and economic benefits of high-quality early childhood education are well documented. After a 2016 report by a local task force revealed that only 36 percent of four-year-olds in Mesa, Arizona, have access to any form of early childhood education, Mayor John Giles took action.

Under his leadership, local government officials, nonprofit executives, and public school personnel rallied to develop a solution to the lack of affordable early childhood education options. In the spring of 2018, they ran a demonstration program with 50 low-income families in Mesa, called Mesa K-Ready, to prove that a cross-sector collaboration could provide effective early learning support. Working with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, I was selected as a summer fellow to evaluate Mesa K-Ready, and to help those implementing the program understand the quality of the program and how to successfully expand it.

After working closely with city staff to develop an evaluation design and research questions, I began poring over the data. Students had used tablets with learning software at home, and their families had been offered weekly support by an experienced educator to learn how to help their child learn. Families were invited to community events at libraries and museums in addition to being offered social service support and vouchers to the local food bank. I received a wealth of information from the program coordinator about student growth on pre- and post- tests and how much their families participated in each program component.

While the rigorous data collection was admirable, their non-experimental nature and the small sample size seriously limited my initial efforts at quantitative data analysis. I shifted my evaluation to consider qualitative evidence more seriously, and began a lengthy process of interviewing stakeholders and participants. I sought to understand the program’s development, goals, implementation, and reception by the community. The interviews were critical for putting the numbers in context. Through them, I also learned more about Mesa’s particular needs as a community and how program implementation could be altered to meet those needs more effectively.

During interviews, I realized many stakeholders at the table lacked agreement about which methods and metrics were most effective in monitoring program implementation. Mesa K-Ready asserts that offering educational resources and coaching to families builds parents’ capacity to be a partner in their child’s education, leading to positive long-term outcomes. However, program staff had not yet discussed the underlying assumptions in that belief, or developed ways to measure whether or not the program was achieving its goals. In a meeting with my Harvard faculty adviser, she suggested that offering a draft “theory of change” document to the staff would provide them with an opportunity to have focused discussions about metrics and targets.

I worked with the team through several iterations of a theory of change, ultimately landing on one that focused the scope of outcomes to what the program could reasonably claim responsibility for, and helped to focus the program activities and metrics on a series of outcomes that would not only benefit the community, but also help the program to evaluate its own impact. As a senior city employee said, this process helped the staff to focus and have conversations they needed to have.

In the final weeks of my project, I finished writing a program evaluation that balanced numbers, surveys, and interviews to demonstrate to stakeholders the quality of Mesa K-Ready as it was implemented in the initial pilot. Through outside research, insights from the data, interviews with community members, and my own training in education policy and data analysis, I issued a series of actionable recommendations for improving program quality and bringing the program up to scale.

In a series of meetings with various stakeholder groups, I shared the results of my evaluation in order to solicit feedback and generate discussion about next steps for Mesa K-Ready. New partners were brought on board and offered even more creative and cost-effective solutions to some of the problems that Mesa K-Ready faced in its initial implementation. The program staff received community feedback and immediately began collaborating to address the barriers to success that I helped to identify in the program evaluation.

Mesa demonstrated its commitment to quality and cost-effective service by requesting a program evaluation in order to better understand Mesa K-Ready’s effect. The cross-sector collaboration is already making great strides to communicate about the critical importance of early childhood education in Mesa. Through dialogue with the community, Mesa K-Ready can only continue to improve its service to the families of Mesa.

Equitable economic opportunity in Grand Rapids, Michigan

JANUARY 28, 2019

Grand Rapids city leaders knew their city had an inequality problem. Residents frequently talked about 49507, the zip code where most people knew there were higher rates of poverty and a higher concentration of people of color. City leadership had stacks of reports on disparities across the city, including poverty, educational attainment, access to jobs, and zoning regulations. In 2016, asked to choose the Mayor’s Book of the Year, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss chose “A City within a City,” a historical account of African-Americans’ exclusion from city housing, schools, and jobs.

But Grand Rapids leaders also knew their city was making a comeback. After being hit hard by the Great Recession, by 2018 the city was experiencing high levels of economic growth and a hot housing market. The downtown area, which had once been a ghost town, was now seeing a “building boom” of new businesses, homes, and entertainment venues.

One page of the economic opportunity dashboard created for Grand Rapids.

What Grand Rapids city leaders had not yet figured out was how to use the momentum from the city’s growth to help address its inequality problem. Mayor Bliss and her administration wanted to create more equitable development, close the economic opportunity gap in the city, and make a lasting impact on disparities, but did not know where to focus resources. As part of her efforts, the mayor turned to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, and I was sent to them as a summer fellow to help.

Although the private market influences many of the decisions related to who is benefiting from development, city government has some influence especially when it comes to granting tax incentives and creating development initiatives, like pipelines to employment. My mission was to investigate those topics and answer the questions: Who is benefiting from the investment that the city supports through tax incentives and development initiatives? How can the city invest more strategically to support projects that help reduce disparities?

To do this, I combined census data with the city’s data on its tax incentives, abatements, or reimbursements to create an economic opportunity dashboard. The data tool highlights the disparities in the city, including the geographic nature of inequality across neighborhoods, and maps investments, jobs, and wages at a granular level. Using the dashboard, it is easy to see where public investment is and is not taking place, and how that aligns with neighborhood rates of unemployment or poverty. The dashboard helps city officials to understand how their investment might impact disparities, or which incentive-eligible projects might have the largest impact on inequality.

After seeing my presentation of the dashboard, City Commissioner Joe Jones called the disparities “heartbreaking,” and noted that they “speak to the level of urgency we need to engage in to really address this.”

Presenting on the dashboard at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance in Fall 2018.

“It’s one thing to hear the data; it’s a whole other thing to actually see the data,” he said. “In order for us to keep down the path of wanting to be a world-class, medium-sized city, we’ve got to find a way to be intentional about trying to get at that and drill down at that issue.”

Mapping the data was eye-opening, but spending time in the community was even more valuable for my project. As I got to know neighborhood business and civic leaders in Grand Rapids, I realized how important community input is in the development process, especially in neighborhoods that have experienced historic disinvestment and marginalization. As I formulated my final recommendations for the city, I kept returning to the idea that in order for development to be equitable, it is necessary to empower these communities in the decision-making process.

Using my research as a foundation, Grand Rapids is well on its way toward a more equity-driven development strategy, as shared with me by Economic Development Director Kara Wood. With Mayor Bliss as a champion, the Economic Development Department is now undertaking an equitable economic development strategic planning process.

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