An Allin Update: In 4 Acts

It has been a while since I’ve updated on our Boston adventures, so away we go!

Act 1: ImprovBoston

In the true Gleitsman Fellows spirit several of the fellows headed out last Saturday to observe the budding leaders of Boston’s comedy circuit. Improv Boston, located in Central Square, put together a great line of still-developing stand up comedians for a full, but cozy audience. Each comedian gets about 5 minutes to strut their stuff.

My favorite was the guy who talked about how he just started dating a white girl. He calls her up to see what she is doing, and she says she is taking her dog to the vet. “I’m so sorry. What’s wrong with it?” he asks. “Oh nothing,” she says “Just taking him in.” “White people take their animals to the vet when nothing is wrong with them?!” He busts out laughing. This is a Fact. Truth.

My family has done it. And it was absolutely hilarious. Why do people take perfectly healthy animals to the vet? The comedians at Improv Boston definitely don’t get it.

Alex, Jenny, Tom, Robert and I all had an awesome time, and I would recommend it for an affordable, accessible Saturday night plan. The venue also serves snacks and beer, and it would be a solid after dinner activity. For all your comedy dorks out there, they have a Magic the Gathering improv show this Friday.

Act 2: Birthday Dinner Singing

Two of our favorite people at the Kennedy School, Will Denn and Kousha Navidar celebrated their birthday within two weeks. Adding mine into the mix during the same time period, made for a fantastic excuse for a dinner party. Fresh pasta, salad, and Ina Garten’s Baked Brownie Pudding, made for full, content bellies. We even had the chance to sing happy birthday to ourselves all at once. The night made Tom and I really grateful for so many of the quality people we’ve been able to build relationships with thus far in Boston.

Act 3: The Never-Ending Winter

We’ve had our fair share of snow during our first Boston winter. We’ve actually had more snow than Tom or I have seen combined in our entire lives. There have been several morning where we are both trudging to Harvard Square together chanting “Why am I going to work right now? Why am I going to school right now?” We have been good winter sports, but even Southerners with thick skin need a little reprieve. March is coming this weekend. Please send warm thoughts here for us.

Act 4: Games & New Friends Keep Us Warm

Now, you think I’m going to talk about new human friends. You’d be wrong. Tom and I got to meet two of our online dog crushes last week, and they fully lived up to the hype. Paco (white) and Azuki (auburn) are the pets of Diane and Jen respectively. Two (human) friends we met during our adventures in Somerville. Both of the pet/owner combinations were able to come out and meet Charlie, and I fell even more in love with both of them. So did Charlie.

Finally, our other (non-human) new friend is Area 4 pizza in Union Square. Listen up people. They have the trifecta– baller pizzas, coasters with riddles to solve, and pre-1995 video games for you to play. Go. Enjoy. And be sure to call Tom and I and invite us before you do.

Until Next Time!


Larry Summers and The Unwinding

A few weeks ago, Tom and I attended an event at the Kennedy School that continues to replay in my thoughts.

Larry Summers and David Gergen

Larry Summers and David Gergen

Larry Summers, Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, and David Gergen, Communications Director for the Reagan White House, sat down to discuss the “State of the Economy“. A video of the conversation will show you that Tom and I sat on the front row. But more importantly, I left reflecting on their words and making connections with books I’ve read, class discussions and my 26 years in the South.

A Side Note: Story Time With Larry Summers

If you can’t watch the entire talk, I would recommend at least watching the first 10 minutes. Gergen and Summers reminisce on the first time they met … During the Reagan Administration, a 28-year-old Summers traveled to D.C. to serve as an economic adviser to Ronald Reagan. David Gergen, in a communications role for the administration, oversaw a group of economic wonks as they developed talking points for a pesidential speech on the economy. Gergen is forced to nudge Summers and the other economists from talking about “inflation with regression analyses”, to “bar graphs”, to (finally) a simple line chart. Larry Summers tentatively agrees to a simple graph if Reagan will say it was calculated through a “moving average filter”. An exasperated Gergen responds: “Larry, the President of the United States  is not going to use the term ‘moving average filter’ in his five minute address.”

Summers notes that it was an important contribution to his political education, and he has been learning from Gergen ever since. For any policy wonk or person that deals with policy wonks, you know this story is symbolic of too many messaging interactions. For any person that doesn’t fit into these categories, you now think I have a terrible sense of humor. Both are accurate.

Summers on the Changing US and International Economies:

Moving on… my education from Larry Summers started with this discussion. He spoke on the weak economic recovery after both the 2001 and 2007 economic downturns. These weak recoveries are something many of the us in the advocacy community have been writing about often over the last few years because of the effects on working, low-income families. Summers also reflected on the changing nature of the U.S. economy. Where the transition was once from agriculture to manufacturing, today a major economic concern is the loss of the U.S. manufacturing base.

However, Summers pointed out that the manufacturing decline, while more severe in the U.S., is also true in places Americans might not expect. Like China. China’s manufacturing employment peaked in 2006.  I had not known that Chinese manufacturing employment was on the down slope. However, I have often heard  of the significant gap in labor costs between the U.S. and China. The link above takes you to a report showing that “Chinese hourly labor compensation costs in manufacturing were roughly 4 percent of those in the United States and about 3 percent of those in the [European Union] in 2008.”

Summers used Chinese employment to underscore that the U.S. isn’t alone in declining manufacturing employment (though in the. He compares the shift away from U.S. manufacturing jobs today to the shift away from agriculture as a dominate industry in the early 1900s. One of the things I valued most about Summers comments was his ability to take Gergen’s questions about today’s economic trends and couch them in previous shifts we’ve experienced as a nation. For the many students and younger audience members in the room (including me), these connections are exceptionally helpful and served as a reminder to look to the past for examples of how to support working Americans through large economic transitions.

Summers Remarks on Manufacturing and The Unwinding

Screenshot 2014-02-24 20.44.03Manufacturing employment is down relative to a decade ago all across the nation. Both North Carolina and Mississippi, two states in which I lived, are still grappling with the loss of manufacturing jobs and searching for ways to rebuild the sector. Initiatives like the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance have emerged to help communities and workers cope with the loss of their jobs and equip themselves with new skills.

One of the most compelling pieces of writing I’ve seen on how the loss of manufacturing jobs exposes communities is The Unwinding, by George Packer. Packer’s National Book Award winning work carves out the stories of several Americans and their changing work, personal lives, and communities from the 1980s to 2010s.

The story of my favorite character, Tammy Thomas, starts when she is a teen growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy takes on work in the manufacturing sector at an early age after being raised by her grandmother in what was a then a stable Youngstown suburb. Packer follows Tammy’s story through having children, moving between manufacturing jobs, declining wages, eroding benefits and ultimately unemployment. Located in the heart of the Rust Belt, Youngstown lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and with them, the city’s tax base, property values and resources for infrastructure upkeep. Tammy’s story shows how one young woman endures the harsh transitions in a city ravaged by manufacturing loss. However, her story takes a hopeful turn –for both herself and her children.

I would strongly encourage people to read The Unwinding. Packer does an exceptional job of taking the ups and downs of individual’s lives and braiding them into the broader trajectory of our nation’s economy, political and social systems. If you live in Cambridge, I might even loan you my copy.

I left the Summers’ discussion with more questions than answers. How do we prepare ourselves, working adults and younger students for the always changing nature of our world’s job markets? As an HKS student with the opportunity to reflect on these challenges, what’s the best way to get the most out of  our time here? Should we all drop coursework at the School of Government and run for the Computer Science Department and STEM fields? (Kidding.) Gergen and Summers both ended the discussion with the message that the hope for solving complicated challenges comes from those with lower ages than their own. Those solutions aren’t coming from me (yet). But I do think the challenge for all of us is to reflect on the insights of these thought leaders and meld their insights with our lived experiences. Then we might have a shot at solving some problems.

So let’s get to solvin’.

Until Next Time,


PS- As a member of the Tarheel nation, I’m obligated to announce that last week UNC beat Duke. Tom and I celebrated. And made our poodle miserable in the process. IMG_2341

My Current Obsession: Braids

I know it is a bit strange to go from posts on Los Angeles and technological change to hair braiding, but welcome to the brain of the 27-year-old woman/student that I am.

I haven’t always had long hair. But now that I do, and I live in the unending, hair torturing Boston winter, I have become fascinated with all the ways you can twist, braid and pin hair. This is in part because of how easy it is to find great tutorials online.

My hair obsession started with the blog Uber Chic for Cheap. This precious young mom, 12225545223_b8d60f05a0_bMadeline, posts great shopping deals and occasional hair tutorials that are easy for her to try in the few free moments of her day. Searching ‘hair’ on her blog brings up the tons of ideas…though my favorite is the Simple Gibson Tuck. I use the twist she illustrates in the video to start all kinds of braided hairstyles now. I use it so much that a friend, Mindy Waldrop, now calls it the ‘”Sarah Allin side braid”. I use it multiple times a week to get my wavy hair off my face, so I can worry about understanding tax and transfer policies (yeah…) instead of worrying how my hair looks.

I wore this fishtail chignon from Madeline’s blog to our friend’s Matt and Kaila’s wedding, and it was great for getting my hair securely pinned out of my face in an elegant way, so we could dance the night away. She also has a great braided bang tutorial for the shorter hair doers out there.

While Madeline’s blog continues to be an inspiration for all things hair, I’ve also found some beautiful tutorials that arent’ too complicated that anyone could try. Many of them come from a wonderful post of 30 Beautiful Braid Tutorials on the Artzy Creations blog. I am most fired up to try the french braided ponytail tutorial…and I can already tell it is going to take more than one try to get it since I won’t be able to see what I’m doing very well. However, I imagine it will stay together pretty well during the blizzard-filled walk to campus and back which ranks it high on my list.

If all the twists and braids seem overwhelming, you could definitely start with this Unicorn Braid Bun (2 points for intriguing name of a hair style). It just has a normal ponytail and two twisted pieces to make up a bun instead of one. You can do it.

Sometimes you also just need to sport a big, long braid for a day filled of grilling out, 4-wheeling and fun.

Finally, I can imagine you would read this post and think one of three things:

  1. I’m not good at doing hair, so there is no way I could do these ideas;
  2. My hair is too short!
  3. I’m a dude, and I can’t believe I read far enough to get to this list.

Now, if #3 if your problem, here is a great article on hockey that you might enjoy more. With the exception of adorable pixie cuts like my friends Morgan and Rachel have, I won’t take #2 for an excuse either – there are lots of fun tutorials out there for shorter hair. Find them! And post them in the comments section here for others. Finally, if #1 is your hiccup, think about how much time you spend blow drying or straightening your hair every day, or how much time you just spent reading this blog. You could have been practicing some braids and twists all of your own.

So check out these 30 braids and get crackin’.

Until next time,


The MoveOn Effect: Reflections on Online Advocacy and Fundraising

Note: This post is an assignment for Nicco Mele’s Kennedy School Course: From to Obama 2012: Digital Strategy in Political Campaigns

Last week, I participated in a mid-year fellows retreat with the Center for Public Leadership. The day focused on giving students an opportunity to reflect on their goals and futures and craft our thoughts on what it means to be a “leader” during and after our time at the Kennedy School.

Our first assignment was to pick a button from a full table that best reflected our photo-9fellowship journey thus far. I decided to pick a button that read: “I’m much cooler online.” I started by clarifying my choice– I also desired to be cool in person. However, the button shaped one of my goals for coming to the Kennedy School in the first place­– becoming a more effective, strategic communicator on public policy issues.

A key part of this goal has been a series of classes focused on online advocacy with Nicco Mele. Over the last few weeks we have been reading David Karpf’s book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.

Karpf uses several examples of websites that have disrupted political advocacy and fundraising to illustrate the changing environment of political and issue based campaigning in the United States. He brings in DailyKos, MoveOn, New Organizing Institute, ActBlue, Red State, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and many others to describe this online evolution and its implications for politics, fundraising, staffing, advocacy and organizing.


David Karpf starts his book with a detailed description of, but waits until the second half of his book to walk through why online platforms began to significantly reshape political advocacy. He hypothesizes that being out of presidential and majority federal power spurred the advancement of online advocacy among progressive advocates. “The electoral and policy losses of 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections prompted calls for new ideas, new strategies, and new organizational arrangements within the American Left.”

With several political loses on the federal level, Rob Stein started traveling and presenting to potential financiers on the need to build up a stronger progressive infrastructure in 2004. Karpf quotes Stein persuading would be donors with data points like “the Right spent $170 million on national and local think tanks and the Left spent $85 million.” Democracy Alliance was born from Stein’s work in 2005 and became a large fundraising base for progressive policy and infrastructure in the United States, though what they fund is somewhat opaque to those outside of the invitation-only membership.

However, Democracy Alliance is just one of the early evolutions in the progressive online movement. (as the title suggests) is the primary model Karpf looks at to describe critical evolutions in online advocacy and fundraising. capitalizes on three important features to increase its influence on policy and political decision-making on behalf of progressive priorities:

  1. Gaining email ‘members’ authentically;
  2. Converting email sign-ups into action (sign a petition, give money) and;
  3. Using the platform as a media channel to persuade and inspire individuals.

Karpf believes that has been so successful in gaining members and building influence because it is “issue generalist.” In contrast to the Sierra Club or the National Women’s Law Center, quickly moves between policy and political issues that are in the spotlight of public attention and leverages that attention to increase fundraising and membership.


On any given day, covers many distinct stories on their site, each connected to a current issue in the political sphere: a video of Robert Reich describes the war on the working poor, a banner touts MoveOn’s work to promote piece with Iran, an update on voting rights legislation. This layout of stories reflects the issue generalism Karpf attributes to the site’s success.

Karpf touches on the implications for organizations, like the Sierra Club, that aren’t issue generalist but are still trying to compete for scarce fundraising dollars in a world where mail fundraising is dwindling. While Karpf acknowledges the dilemma, I wanted more from his analysis.


He briefly touches on organizations like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)– a progressive leaning policy shop producing in-depth analysis on public support programs, public funding, taxes. Even climate change is listed as an area of expertise on their site. He notes that CBPP is part of the progressive base, but doesn’t talk too specifically about how the think tank fundraising model may also be affected by the shifts in online giving.

Does the issue generalist model apply to CBPP fundraising? What are the implications of funding changes for organizations like these that also provide critical expertise to state-level partners doing advocacy?

Karpf outlines that many long-existing organizations working on political issues have fundraised effectively through mail and built up a potentially oversized organizational infrastructure ­– buildings, staff, multiple offices, etc. CBPP also falls into this category. It was founded in 1981 and now houses dozens of policy experts in their Washington, D.C. office.  CBPP does have a “donate” tab on their website, but efforts to fundraise do not drive their email headlines or policy analysis in the same way that MoveOn crafts its frontline messages each day.

Moreover, CBPP is not just fundraising for itself. The organization also financially supports 41 state-based organizations that conduct analysis on parallel issues coming up on the state level through their State Fiscal Analysis Initiative.

I found myself wanting to push Karpf’s thoughts beyond the notion that organizations without large email lists and a focus on member engagement are struggling in the online financial environment. If CBPP struggles to fundraise, it also affects state organizations and their funding streams. How are philanthropic partners stepping in to fill the gaps? Is it sufficient and are those foundations facing the same donor dilemmas? These trends reverberate beyond political influence on the national level, and potentially stand to weaken the infrastructure on lower levels that are working on issues. In the absence of other money paths, it becomes not only CBPP but the organizations it supports that are caught in the crosshairs.


I also found myself wondering how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) fits into Karpf’s discussion of organizations using online platforms and the shifting models of organizational membership. Currently, ALEC drafts model legislation for conservation representatives. This model legislation can then be adapted for use in state capitols nationwide. If you are not a state representative, the lowest membership fee is $7,000, and in 2012 they generated over $7 million to support their work through contributions and membership dues. ALEC continues to leverage substantial resources through membership to support a powerful tool for policy influence. ALEC is also substantially more exclusive than the MoveOn model. Unlike MoveOn there are no email sign-ups on the main website or petitions to sign.

ALEC has some components of Karpf’s online success model. You could argue they are issue generalists in that they are covering a range of legislative issues through their development of draft bills. However, there strategy doesn’t seem to focus on building a large list or fundraising through a new model. Membership comes through a traditional fee structure, and while they encourage members to take action, the membership is a much more elite, targeted group­– current and former public officials.


Regardless of whether an organization falls on the progressive or conservative side of issues, Karf asserts that it continues to be the “wealthy, well-educated and white” people who are politically engaged through online platforms. He goes on to say that “for the poor, the elderly, and the poorly educated, digital tools only create further distance between themselves and the trappings of wealth and privilege.”

I don’t think Karpf is necessarily wrong with this assertion, but I do wonder if it has to be true. Why can’t we collectively think more about using online platforms to engage all individuals across the income and education spectrum? Often grassroots organizing around issues of worker rights or immigration rights involves using on-the-ground staff to reach out to communities of low-income, working families that don’t fall into the category of wealthy, well-educated, or white. There are certainly examples of using online platforms in campaigns to increase voter engagement and make organizing of traditionally underrepresented groups more effective.


One strong example of engaging non-traditional groups is the Parent’s Campaign. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, the Parent’s Campaign has spent years traveling across the state, conducting presentations and gathering email addresses to build Screenshot 2014-02-10 17.29.10a network of K-12 education advocates (Photo). Their email list is now 60,000 strong– very large for a state with 3 million people total. Anecdotally, the organization brings in many populations not traditionally present in advocacy, particularly women from across the income spectrum.

Like, the Parent’s Campaign’s 60,000 members are defined through email address acquisition. The Parent’s Campaign publishes a Legislative agenda, generates fact sheets, keeps representatives’ voting histories, and most importantly, issues calls to action through email. When a troublesome bill advances too far in the legislative process, the Parent’s Campaign sends an email to their 60,000 members and normally quiet legislative offices are bombarded with phone calls. Legislators strongly dislike it. Campaign members are active and keep calling year after year because the Parent’s Campaign leadership has delivered some powerful legislative defeats, and members feel there voice being heart on the state level.

Though just one example, I do think the Parent’s Campaign provides evidence that with the right issues targeted and a successful advocacy strategy, non-traditional populations can be effectively politically mobilized.

I view the lack of engagement for whole population subsets (poor, low educational attainment, elderly) as a challenge to better shape the issues and channels for advocacy to fit the interests and lives of a broader group of individuals. The challenge will come from bringing more tech savy people than me into the conversation to answer lots of questions. Do petitions need to be delivered through some path besides email? How do the calls to action operate on a mobile device? Are calls to action really effective in getting the attention of public officials, or is a lack of outcome from these tactics really what is driving apathy from particular populations? Do any of these currently successful online platforms consider surveying groups outside of their current audience?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. However, during my time in and after graduate school, I hope to make a concentrated effort at answering some. Why? Because in rural environments there seems to be great potential to capitalize on the efficiency of online platforms to strengthen political engagement of populations traditionally left out of the discussions in state capitals. Karpf notes that “political mobilization is seldom spontaneous,” and anyone working on policy knows that to be true. However, I think it underscores all the more the importance of building up a solid organizational infrastructure around the policy issues for which you advocate, so that when an opportunity presents itself, you are able to leverage support.


Outside of the questions on how to engage non-traditional populations, email continues to be the more effective online method for reaching a targeted audience. One of the best resources for non-profits on email is the E-Benchmark Study (Yes, of course you have to give your email to get it!). Now in its 7th release cycle, the report gives metrics on email open rates by sector and by size of an organization. It also supplies baseline information for how often readers click on links in emails, take an advocacy action, or respond to fundraising requests.Screenshot 2014-02-09 17.24.31

Regardless of the email type (advocacy or fundraising), between 13% and 14% of recipients open an email. The response rate between fundraising and advocacy varies substantially – 0.07% of email recipients respond to a fundraising request compared to 3.5% that respond to an advocacy request. Additionally, the vast majority of online contributions to small organizations (94%) come from one-time donors. The lesson learned for me was that Karpf correctly claims that a big email list is essential in a successful online advocacy or fundraising model.  


Email isn’t the only powerful mobilizing tool in online political advocacy. Thousands of people politically engage through blogging as well. To rank and track the political blog environment, David Karpf developed the Blogosphere Authority Index. By measuring web traffic, hyperlinking, and community activity, he is able to generate a top 25 ranking of authority. Although Karpf has taken the ranking offline temporarily, he shares several findings in his book from previous index rankings.

One of the most striking is that there are few, if any, centrist blogs. He also asserts that progressive blogs are more influential and are often based on building communities of bloggers and bridging information together. In contrast, conservative blogs are designed less for fostering community and instead are more independent and institutional. In 2012, Hot Air ranked highest among conservative blogs while The Talking Points Memo and DailyKos placed highest on the progressive side. Karpf’s analysis on blog influence also lifts up that the power of an online community should be assessed by outcomes affected and not necessarily by the size of the network.


Screenshot 2014-02-08 14.45.44

DailyKos Recommendation Feature

DailyKos represents what Karpf calls a “Hub blog”. Modifications made to a software platform allowed what was once a simple blog for one blogger to grow into a huge collection of writing activity online. Any person can create a diary on DailyKos. As diarists build a reputation and history on DailyKos, they can be promoted to star diarists. The Daily Kos also has a recommended feature  that allows any contributor’s work to rise to greater readership. Karpf underscores that the power of DailyKos comes more from community than the writing itself. Users and diarists go back and forth and create a compelling package of progressive writing and thought.

However, Karpf points out that DailyKos doesn’t only have diarist contributions, they also solicit the perspectives of readers through asking whom they would endorse in particular races. The site also works with ActBlue, a Democratic online fundraising platform, to allow readers to donate money to support their chosen candidate. Karpf underscores the funding influence these endorsements can have by labeling the benefit a “Kos bump”.


Beyond DailyKos history and logistics, I found Karpf’s profile of Nate Silver the most interesting part of this section in the book. Nate came into the political arena after developing a statistical methodology for forecasting baseball player performance and value. He then found a way to use the model in political forecasting and shared results as a diarist on the DailyKos. The recommendation feature on the DailyKos lifted Silver to greater attention, and he now blogs for ESPN and the New York Times. Karpf then talks about the additional validity Silver gained from having an “institutional blog” on a more proven publication like the New York Times.

The story of the DailyKos drew me in because of what felt like the magnetism of a hub blog platform. Below the national level, I haven’t seen a similar community of politically like-minded individuals come together in a structured blogging community. On DailyKos, there is a Southern Action Group that funnels blogs on Southern political topics into one space, but the headlines felt a bit over-the-top and participation is somewhat limited. Nonetheless, this might be a good platform for contributing longer pieces on state level issues in the South.

My hope in the long-term is to consider how hub blogging by invitation (at first) might be a way to generate a more united, state policy platform for progressive policy perspectives. Perhaps one way is to start by inviting individuals with expertise on policy areas to become regular contributors similar to the “star diarists” on DailyKos and then open up a wider blogging platform for interested readers and contributors. I’m especially drawn to the DailyKos diarist model because of the potential to discover invested individuals on the state and local level who may be under the radar and not currently have an option for vocalizing their perspective.


Finally, I also valued The MoveOn Effect for its description of how online platforms are cultivating offline communities. Both and the New Organizing Institute are resources I will use in the long run to bring individuals together and share pressing policy issues. There are a limited number of meet ups listed in Jackson. I’m not yet Screenshot 2014-02-08 09.18.33sure it is a go-to tool for the area, but as opportunities for generating interest in issue campaigns emerge, it will be a valuable (and free) platform. New Organizing Institute also sends a ‘Tip of the Day’ email with pointers for bringing organizing efforts together and successfully reaching campaign goals.

After reading Karpf’s book, I have no doubt we are in a period of great flux in our online and organizational worlds. Our challenge is to take insights like Karpf’s and use them to generate more effective, compelling strategies for advancing both high quality leaders and policy perspectives in an increasing online world.

Until Next Time,


On Homelessness…

One of the most exceptional parts of the Kennedy School are the students that surround you in the classroom. I’m very grateful that one student reached out and asked me to join a small group of students that regularly discuss issues of poverty and anti-poverty policy. We meet weekly and each person takes a turn setting the readings.

This Sunday I had the opportunity to set up the group’s topic. I recently blogged on my meaningful trip to Los Angeles this January. During the trip, we spent an afternoon on Skid Row touring health clinics, shelters and permanent housing. My time on Skid Row was so striking that I left with more questions than answers. I chose to focus our group’s discussion on homelessness in Los Angeles, and state and local interventions for reducing homelessness.

I’ve included the selections I made for the group. Part 1 provides background from short radio pieces, and then in Part 2 I pull in some more in-depth articles from the New York Times on homelessness nationally. Part 3 includes plans from the LA United Way and policy recommendations from the Economic Roundtable. These are not meant to be comprehensive, but instead provide a baseline for conversation about homelessness, large cities and sustainable solutions.




Hope these are helpful and provide food for thought on a complex and pressing issue for many of our communities.Until next time,


Going to LA: A Trip of Extremes

In January, about 30 students from the Kennedy School traveled to LA (California, not Louisiana, for Southern readers) for 5 days of exploring the city, its leaders and its organizations. It has taken me this long to blog about it because: 1) They were 5 very full days rich with inspiring people, and 2) I absolutely needed photographs from the Center for Public Leadership to show some of the people and places.


What continues to be striking is the range of perspectives we received. From the Chief of LAPD to the Guerilla Gardner and Homeboy Industries, we observed dedicated individuals working on homelessness, prisoner re-entry, healthy eating, K-12 education, and immigrant’s rights.

I spent a large amount of time on our trip trying to grapple with the size of LA. I worked on state level issues for a population of 3 million in Mississippi, and in LA we were observing local-level services for a city of 3.8 million. In the beginning of the week, the feeling of working on issues over such a large area felt overwhelming. Heck, getting from LA to Compton on the freeway felt overwhelming. On our second day, we met with the Chief of the LA Police Department. As he talked about his career, he described the dozens of different roles a police officer can serve in across the city. I left our meeting with a respect for managing systems so large.

But our trip to LA was full of contrasts. While we might leave with respect for LAPD’s management and scale, we were also confronted with frustrations with LAPD in neighborhoods across LA. Gang injunctions, unsafe neighborhoods, violent crime and skepticism of the police also came out in other conversations with advocacy organizations. These differing stops were a reminder that working on issues in the public space often means incorporating differing perspectives and taking each into account during decision-making and problem-solving.


By far one of my favorite decision-makers and problem-solvers from the trip was Mayor Aja Brown. At 31, she became the Mayor of Compton, CA. Compton is bigger than the largest city in Mississippi (where we use to live), AND she is only 4 years my senior. (Can we say role model?) She spoke to us passionately about her plans for Compton and compellingly about how her background in urban planning informed the way she thought about ‘smart’ development for her city.

When Mayor Brown spoke about the decision to run for mayor, she underscored that it was never in her plan. She was a numbers person, a powerpoint person. Eventually she came to the realization that she needed to be the one to step into the lead for Compton. When I asked her about what she didn’t anticipate about being mayor, she said she knew what it was like  from her previous work in city administrations, but that she didn’t anticipate that she would never again be able to go to the grocery store or Target during normal hours without being recognized.

I left our time with Mayor Brown really excited for what young, informed leaders can do in our nation’s cities, and I’m excited to follow her leadership and career going forward.

The staff at CPL also intentionally built contrast into the parts of LA we visited and the types of organizations from which we learned – from Participant Media to Los Angeles Alliance for A New Economy.

We spent a powerful morning with Susan Burton and the staff of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. Susan spent 15 years in and out of the criminal justice system and has now built a non-profit focused on housing and uplifting women trying to rebuild their lives after time in the criminal justice system.


Susan Burton and an organizing staff member

Because of my previous work with GED programs and community colleges, I was particularly drawn to Susan’s thoughts on how women she worked with were supported in returning to school. Often, resources and support on college campuses are slim. Financial aid may be limited, and some social support programs are not available to women leaving prison. At the same time, returning to school is a large life adjustment for many adults. Susan verified that processing financial support is especially hard for women in the program, and just that week she had bought books for a woman who was waiting on financial support that hadn’t come in in time to buy her books before her classes started.

Finally, regardless of which organizations we met with, I was struck by similarity. I was struck by how similar the obstacles leaders faced in LA were to Louisiana or North Carolina or Boston. And I was struck by how in each of these places I have experienced communities of leaders that informally shape a network of people that collectively have tangible, positive impact on communities. The organizations we visited were scattered all across LA and working on distinct issues, but collectively, our time visiting with each of them gave a sense of communal action and progress that is leading to greater good.

It goes without saying that our time in LA left a mark, and I continue to reflect on many of the individuals and organizations we met. I hope these small pieces of our trip give you a sense for the good work being done and what we learned from our time. I could say more, but I’ll leave you with a few more photographs from our AWESOME week. Many, many more photos can be found here. One hundred percent of the credit for these fantastic images goes to our dear friend, Tom Fitzimmons.

I’d welcome thoughts, comments or other ideas of organizations in LA about which I need to learn more.

Until Next Time!


On Beginnings

I considered naming this post ‘On New Beginnings’, but I started classes this week and received a long lecture in my American Politics course on writing concisely from Thomas Patterson. He pointed to several examples redundancy:

We face a serious crisis. They proposed a new initiative. People can’t access basic necessities.

The real truth is that when I personally reviewed my own writing the end result often included the phrases he mentioned. So now I have Professor Patterson’s voice echoing when I consider blog titles. (As if I didn’t already have enough voices in my head) American Politics is just one of the five classes I started this week at the Kennedy School. The semester began with a bang with discussions on the Move On Effect, drones, ethics and taxing corporate bonuses.

This will be the second semester I take a course with Nicco Mele . This semester’s course focuses on using the internet in political and advocacy campaigns. Nicco works full-time outside of the Kennedy School and still finds the time to teach a course each semester. The class provides a great opportunity to learn from a practitioner in the field in the midst of all things academia. His class last semester also forced me to start this blog, so obviously I’m a bit hooked on the subject matter.

The first days of a semester are chaotic at HKS. Students are trying to determine their classes. They register, then bid points for classes, then register again if they don’t win their bids. Last night a student shared she ran to ten different classes this week because she was unsure which she would ultimately get in… an extreme example for sure, but I was tired just hearing her explain the dilemma.

In FAR more exciting news, this week also marked the beginning of Tom’s job at Full Contact, an advertising agency in downtown Boston. Before Tom started, I was already hooked on their campaign for Their “For Locals, By Locals” campaign takes ordinary Boston events but flips them with out of the ordinary outcomes. My favorite TV ad features a Boston man shoveling snow out of his parking space and then giving it away to a random car passing. Check the videos out. They will certainly make you laugh and give you a sense for the awesome creative IMG_2064environment Tom joined this week. He will work on strategy and new business development and is really excited for the opportunity. I, however, am less excited that I now have to do half the dishes.

To celebrate his first day we had a scrumptious dinner with Nick and Becca and a well deserved champagne toast!

Finally, 2014 brought some exciting contributions from my work with the Harvard Kennedy School Review – a policy journal and blog by HKS students. Our team put together a series of posts that featured policy predictions for Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Eight students shared their perspectives on K-12 education, higher education, military affairs, the environment… and the list goes on. I was really proud that the KSR engaged so many student voices and published a series of great posts. We also live tweeted the State of the Union which for normal humans sounds completely dull, but for policy wonks is the twitter opportunity of the year! Kidding…kinda. If you would like to see some of the work of HKS students, I’d highly recommend taking a look! It is a strong start for the Kennedy School Review which I hope we can continue throughout 2014. Screenshot 2014-02-01 13.54.45

And of course not all things in our lives are new. The dog park adventures remain, and this week Charlie’s new bestie became a Wheaten Terrier as you will see below.

Until Next Time!