Philippines Part 1

No better time to write about a trip than when you are still jet lagged from the journey. For the last 11 days I have been traveling (through slow, chaotic traffic jams) across the Philippines with 9 students from the Kennedy School. The trip was led by a group of students including the one-of-a-kind Philip Dy, an HKS student from the Philippines. We spent a large portion of our trip meeting with non-profits and service organizations located in both metro Manila and Culion, a small island community in a province south of Manila.Screenshot 2014-09-01 08.14.22

The trip marked my first time traveling to Asia and my first flight longer than 6 hours. In total, the flights from Boston to Chicago to Hong Kong and then Manila span a time frame longer than 24 hours. While the trip there went smoothly enough, Tom will tell you I’ve been a basically dysfunctional human for the last 2 days trying to adjust to Boston’s timezone.

On August 20th a handful of students all arrived in Manila’s NinoyIMG_4008 Aquino International Airport – named for a national hero and former Senator that was assassinated  in 1983 for opposing the Martial Law governed the state until the mid 1980s. His wife, Cory Aquino, became president after Ninoy’s death spurred a national movement for democracy in the Philippines.

We arrived around 2 in the morning ready for some much needed shut eye. Instead,  we were greeted by a spread of food prepared by Bernice’s mom (Philip’s mother-in-law). She fixed us a porridge which, if I remember correctly (as this point my lack of sleep was not helping my memory), is a late night snack Filipinos love. She laid out dishes with hard boiled eggs, scallions, shredded chicken, dried pork, dried mini shrimp, garlic, and fried tofu. She also prepared milk fish (Bernice’s favorite) and another pork dish for us. The meal of just the beginning of Bernice and her mom making us feel like we were part of their family. She later bought us souvenirs and helped us navigate the overwhelming seafood selections at the dampa.

This would not be the last time we were greeted unexpectedly by food. Filipinos basically eat 5 meals a day – breakfast, miryenda, lunch, miryenda, and dinner – with miryenda being the word for snack. Almost all meetings throughout our trip had some sort of food whether a KFC sandwich or fried bananas (yum).

After our late night meal at Bernice’s home, we were off to the Cenacle Retreat House where we would stay during our time in Manila. The retreat house is run by the Cenacle Sisters and is located close to the Jesuit university that both Philip and Bernice attended. Staying in such a peaceful place gave us a welcomed change from the hustle of metro-Manila. IMG_4151During our first full evening in Manila, we had dinner with HKS alumni that live in Manila and are working on a range of issues – education, public revenue, and law. We went to bed on our first night with full bellies and feeling incredible welcomed in the Philippines.

The next day we traveled to the University of Ateneo – where Philip attended undergrad – and met with staff and students from a study abroad program run through the University of San Fransisco. Instead of a traditional study abroad experience, students in the Casa Bayanihan program take classes while also doing extensive service work in the community. We got to visit the community they live in near campus and have lunch with all the participating students. I particularly enjoyed the conversation I had with a young, Filipino woman who joined the program after finishing her studies at Ateneo. We talked about the bakery her parents ran in her home province, her quest to use her business major to create larger good in her country, and her growing interest in hiking.

After lunch, we headed to old-town Manila for a tour of the Intramuros – meaning within the city walls. We walked through beautiful historic homes and the church and monastery of San Agustin. Close to 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic as a result of Spanish colonization in the 1800s. Unfortunately, the church and several other buildings were damaged during World War II because Japanese troops were located in the area. While we enjoyed the tour of old Manila, our tour guide may have stood out beyond the buildings. He referred to Jesus as “Mr. JC” and described how Filipinos told the Spanish “Hey, we are sick of you,”  when resisting Spanish rule. There were many grad students giggling at his presentation style, but he definitely kept us entertained.

Next, we stopped by the Golden Mosque – constructed in the 1970s as a welcoming gift to Libyan President, Muammar al-Gaddafi, although his trip never occurred.

And finally, after a long day, it was time to EAT again. We drove across town where we met Bernice’s mom and brother at a dampa for dinner. Dampas are large, open air fish markets located within a complex of restaurants. You pick the seafood you want from the market and then walk it over to the restaurant of your choice for dinner. We were completely overwhelmed by the all the choices, so Philip and Bernice’s family took charge of the selections while we headed up to a private room with a karaoke machine. We ended up with enough food to feed 50 people – crabs, shrimp, oysters, clams, squid, more squid, and individual coconuts to drink. The dampa was a really amazing experience even though we had enough leftovers for a week.

Our next day brought another trip to Anteneo, a lunch with the vice mayor of Quezon City, and – most important of all – the group’s discovery of the “Selfie Stick”. I’ll leave you with a Selfie Stick teaser. More to come.IMG_4099


The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

“I wish God gave green noses to undecided voters, because between now and election eve, I’d work only the green noses. I wish God gave purple ears to nonvoters for my candidate on election eve, because on election day I’d work only the purple voters.”

Matt Reese in The Victory Lab

For the last several weeks, I’ve been combing through Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Issenberg traces the recent history of integrating data into political campaigns. The book features both the conflict that data sometimes creates amongst the political establishment and the value it brings to understanding voters and potential voters alike.

The sheer size and analytical depth of the 2012 presidential campaigns are often referred to in mass media in broad terms. But Issenberg and Jonathan Atler, author of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, provide a more detailed view of the analytical rigor of the Obama campaign. Atler details that to collect information on voters in contentious states, the campaign would place “4,000 to 9,000 phone calls a night. The calls, which eventually numbered nearly one million, sampled ten times as many voters a night as a standard pollster surveyed in a week.”[1] The Obama team had to have the technical capacity to store the results of these calls and the staff capacity to interpret the results into a strategy for allocating resources daily.

Beyond polling potential voters, the campaign also developed detailed profiles of their supporters and would-be supporters. Data collected by the Obama campaign could make promotional materials like television ad buys exceptionally targeted. Atler describes that the campaign “could calculate that less likely young voters in Madison, Wisconsin, watched college football, or undecided older voters in Toledo watched Judge Judy, or that persuadable veterans in Tallahassee watched the History Channel.” With this knowledge in hand and message testing to different audiences, the campaign could focus their messages to very specific, desired populations.

But advanced data and targeting are relatively recent phenomenon in presidential politics, and many state and local campaigns still struggle to generate the resources or the capacity to hone messages to desired audiences as described above. Issenberg takes readers through some of the key evolutions that have led to the data integrated into political races today, not all of which are political in nature.


While not the only dates captured in the The Victory Lab, I chose these not because they are necessarily the most significant people or times, but because I think they give a sense of how far data and targeting has come in the world of politics since the 1960s.

1962: The U.S. Postal Service rolls out zip codes that “split the country into 36,000 zones and assigns each a 5 digit code.” For-profit businesses now have a new geographic boundary by which to compile customer data and begin to be sort individual preferences at this smaller geographic level.
1974: The National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) pushes the norm of how voters are categorized in efforts to move more voters to the polls on election day. The NCEC maps political geography through 3 categories:
  1. “A democratic performance index” which predicts how well a democrat would perform on the ballot in a particular precinct;
  2. “A persuasion percent” which shows how much an area fluctuated between parties; and
  3. “A GOTV percent” which measures how much the voter turnout fluctuated from election to election.
These data points were all crafted down to the precinct level and soon adopted as a key tool of the Democratic National Committee.
1980s and 1990s: Hal Malchow, a Mississippian and  political consultant,  starts what we now call A/B Testing  through snail mail. Malchow “would send out slightly different letters to multiple groups of recipients, and then identify which brought in the most [campaign] money.” As Malchow aims to integrate his work into large-scale campaigns, he bumps up against the political consulting establishment which he believes is threatened by this new technique. Malchow voices his frustration with this politics saying it is “only industry in the world where there is no market research.”
1990: The first time U.S. Census releases data by “block groups” for the entire nation, not just urban areas. This gives researchers and campaigns the ability to see characteristics like poverty, income, race, household size, or nationality for much smaller areas, and campaigns begin thinking about how to use this data to inform strategies for voter turnout and voter registration.
1999: Yale University researchers, Alan Gerber and Donald Green, run randomized trials to determine the most effective methods of voter turnout. They find that visiting the home of a registered voter is much more influential in getting them to vote than phone calls or postcards. Issenberg mentions that this shakes up the consulting world – particularly for consultants making their money in phone or mail outreach.
2002: Alex Gage further pushes the use of data in campaign targeting. As a political pollster, he is pulled in for Mitt Romney’s race for Massachusetts governor. For several years before 2002, Gage had worked to link consumer data with more traditional data in voter files. Put together these sources made for a more robust picture of voters. In 2002, Gage creates a “rank-order of the [Massachusetts’] nearly 2 million independents based on their openness to Romney.” He discovers that people ranking high on this independent conversion scale were also HBO subscribers, and the campaign then “sends brochures to everyone shown in [his] files to be a premium-cable subscriber.”

These evolutions in political data highlight several themes: the tension of bringing new technologies into an established campaign environment, the roll of data in generating increasingly refined profiles of voters, and the value of randomized trials in proving the effectiveness of different campaign strategies.


Of these self-selected highlights, I find those that detail new sources of public data – the formation of zip codes or more refined Census groups – the most interesting because I regularly used public data for advocacy and education on state policy issues in Mississippi. The emergence of block data from the U.S. Census has been really helpful for bringing life to issues because advocates are now able to visually depict a trend across areas of interest like cities or counties.

One of the first ways I saw Census data mapped in a compelling way for issue advocacy was at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. In the mid-2000s, the Center wanted to decrease the prevalence of payday lenders in high poverty areas because of the high cost of borrowing through these businesses. To illustrate the overlap between poverty concentrations and payday lender locations, the Center pulled local level poverty data from the Census and color-coded the neighborhoods by their poverty concentration (see red, yellow and green below). The map provides a more persuasive way of communicating the idea that high poverty communities have closer access to a high cost loan product than the lower cost, more traditional loan products of other financial institutions. The Census Bureau also provides the map templates for the data for free on their site, making the construction of maps even more accessible to individuals and non-profits.

Screenshot 2014-04-08 12.01.37

Block data is also helpful to non-profits or local agencies that provide services to communities in need. If an afterschool program targets one particular neighborhood, that program can start to understand the financial situation of households in their area through looking at Census data. By accessing block data online, non-profits can answer questions like: Approximately what portion of families in our service area rent their homes? What is the average household income of households? How many families are two-parent households? Or What portion of homes in this neighborhood have a car? By reviewing this data, non-profit leaders can then start to narrow down potential services that would be important to their community and then follow up with residents directly through surveying of their own.

So while Census data has surely provided a new layer of information on voters and non-voters, it has also provided a way for leaders of cities, non-profits or state agencies to assess the needs of communities as well.


The revolutionaries are taking a politics distended by television’s long reach and restoring it to human scale – delivering, at times, a perfectly disarming touch of intimacy. – The Victory Lab

As the era of data in politics continues in the early 2000s, Issenberg follows Alex Gage’s work targeting independents and persuadable Democrats on the 2002 Romney campaign for governor, and then traces Gage’s transition to the 2004 Bush presidential campaign where he incorporates similar micro-targeting strategies. By merging both consumer and voter data, Gage and others could determine the characteristics of voters likely to vote for Bush and then seek out non-registered or non-voting residents with similar characteristics. Campaigns could also increasingly customize messages on TV, through mail, or through canvassing that they believed matched the issue preferences of particularly individuals.

Issenberg details that by the late 2000s, political consultants on the other side of the isle were also crafting tools of their own. In 2007, a team of political consultants, labor leaders and researchers created the Analyst Institute, an institution with the aim of merging research on behavioral science on voting with democratic campaign strategy. At a similar time, Catalist also joined forces with democratic races. The formation of both institutions signaled that data in politics was both profitable and increasingly demanded.

President Obama’s 2012 election campaign used the work of consulting partners like these, but also had a large, in-house team of staff members focused on digital strategy. Atler notes that “The [Obama] digital team assembled in Chicago was in fact three teams – Digital, Tech, and Analytics – with interrelated and often competitive functions.” There was a large difference between the Romney and Obama campaigns in theirScreenshot 2014-04-07 18.02.09 budget for digital, and that showed in outcomes measures like their number of donors and the size of the campaigns’ email lists. During the 2012 race, President Obama’s campaign signed up 16 million email list members to Mitt Romney’s estimated 3 million.[2] The Obama campaign also reported four times more donors than the Romney campaign in 2012 – 4.4 million to 1.1 million respectively (see graphic).

The Obama campaign’s decision to invest heavily in analytics also created a culture of message testing that ultimately led to the strengthening of their online fundraising efforts. An online report by Engage Research, “Inside the Cave: the definitive report on the keys to Obama’s success in 2012,” features an example of an Obama campaign email with the subject line “I will be outspent” that raised overScreenshot 2014-04-07 20.43.54 $2.6 million dollars. A remarkable finding on its own; but the email made an even more compelling case for A/B testing of subject lines. Had the campaign sent out their lowest performing email subject line that day, they would have raised $2.2 million less. Examples like these underscore the potential consequences of messaging for any national or state campaign.

Both Issenberg and Atler point to the Obama campaign’s efforts to hire staff from outside of the traditional political campaign environment as critical to developing a more competitive digital strategy. Innovators from Google, Threadless, Accenture and others brought a new lens to the Obama campaign that many deem instrumental to the campaign’s success.


As you read through Issenberg’s account of how campaigns are becoming more sophisticated in their use of individual information, it’s hard not to think about how data of campaigns fits into a U.S. political system that has a widening gap between public leaders on the left and the right.

Tom Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, often emphasizes in his American politics course that the current partisan divide in our nation’s politics has not always been the case (important for someone like me with the political memory of less than 20 years). Below, a slide from his course uses data from the Pew Research Center to highlight that the way Democrats and Republicans view particular issues – the size of government, social safety nets, and equal opportunity – is now (red bar) more divided than it was 25 years ago (blue bar).

 Screenshot 2014-04-08 13.04.05

Patterson has also shown how our media outlets increasingly attract politically divided audiences, from MSNBC and the Daily Show on the left to Fox and Rush Limbaugh on the right.[3] Patterson’s slide below reveals that 80% of Fox News views are conservatives and close to 80% of MSNBC viewers are liberal.

Screenshot 2014-04-08 13.01.17

While these divisions in perspectives and TV viewership may not be particularly surprising to some, it does beg the question of how a national political dialogue that becomes increasingly divided affects our political campaign environment. More particularly, it is worth reflecting on how an increasing division between two parties potentially influences how effective data can be in helping target and win over uncommitted or independent voters. If both parties take positions on further ends of the spectrum from one another, and the political dialogue becomes even more contentious, does recruiting independents or non-voters get harder? If it gets harder, does that increase the need for a political strategy that is beyond what consumer and voter data can supply?

Some of Issenberg’s thoughts in the MIT Technology Review reveal that the level of data we have on individuals may be good enough to transcend the national rift between parties by persuading individuals through local connections. Issenberg quotes David Simas, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research, as saying: “What [data] gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign. You know the people on your block. People have relationships with one another, and you leverage them so you know the way they talk about issues, what they’re discussing at the coffee shop.”

However valuable a local touch is in campaigns, I would be willing to bet than an increasingly divided political environment and the gridlock in Washington, D.C. are shaping the number of independent or non-voting residents in this country. I would also predict that voter apathy may be a barrier to victory that is harder for data and analytics to resolve in 2014 and 2016.

Until Next Time,


Note: This post is an assignment for Nicco Mele’s Harvard Kennedy School course: “From to Obama 2012: Digital Strategy in Political Campaigns” it reviews Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab and reflects on topics covered in class.


[1] Atler, Jonathan. 2013. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY.

[2] Engage Research. Inside the Cave: The definitive report on the keys to Obama’s success in 2012.

[3] Slide taken from Dr. Thomas Patterson’s February 6th, 2014 Kennedy School class lecture on Congress and political parties. Data from the Pew Research Center.

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,


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!


Digital Media & Amplifying Policy Analysis

In the 21st century, it will be increasingly impossible to do political analyses without discussing social media dynamics as an integral part of the story. ––Zeynep Tufekci

I’ve mentioned before that one of my aims during my Kennedy School time is to think more deliberately about how to communicate well-crafted policy solutions to a broader audience.

This week our MPP Digital course had a series of readings that focused on the Arab Spring. Basem Fathy reported on how email and social media interacted with the offline growth in Egpytian protests from 2000 to 2011. Zeynep Tufekci, a UNC professor, walks through how the internet – and particularly Twitter – was/is a path to disseminating information when journalists or protestors encountered the dangers of arrest during protests.

While I admit the Arab Spring and my broader Kennedy School goals are very different from one another, Tufekci talks a great deal about how to focus attention on a topic – in her case a reported arrested during Egyptian protests – in an increasing chaotic social media universe.

One challenge of new media environments is that they scatter attention and consequently tools and channels which can unite and focus attention are key to harnessing their power. Hashtags and trending topics are one way in which people can focus among the billions of tweets floating in cyberspace. In fact, a key dynamic in  “social media” is that it works best when coordinated with “focusers”.

Obviously, in the environment of policy analysis/advocacy there is a need for more than focusers, but I do think that Tufekci’s point that there must be a way to centralize the flow of information and create an identifiable word or resource that people know to access to monitor the debate on an issue.

Tufeki’s words aren’t the only ones bouncing around in my head this week. Tammy Haddad ­­– a D.C. based media and production guru – also visited the Kennedy School this week. Her experiences in television and video media lead her to emphasize the importance of video and a messenger in advancing a political or policy message.

This is easier said than done for many state-based policy groups with limited resources and capacity. However, the reality is that generating video content and pushing it out are less expensive than a decade ago.

Ethan Zuckerman points out in his 2011 Vancouver Human Rights Lecture that:

Participatory media is makes it possible for people to create media at very, very low cost. And then if they are able to use that complicated network (of more traditional media outlets), it is possible sometimes, and not always, to get that media out and get it amplified to the point that it reaches enough people that you are able to have a coordinating function.

Both Zuckerman and Haddad have hit on the theme of groups generating their own content through media creation and then using social media/email to promote the content. Eventually, more traditional media outlets with larger audiences may pick up the content, but the platform where groups share their analysis and perspectives can also be accessed by interested individuals.

In the quest for state-based examples of this approach, I came across NC Policy Watch. The site, which is aligned with the North Carolina Justice Center, has video content, op-eds, editorial cartoons, images, and blog content that all align around key advocacy priorities for the NC Justice Center.  Their video content includes experts from both the Center and partner organizations and effectively puts a face with many key issue areas.

Screenshot 2013-11-05 09.38.37

Between readings, class and visiting experts, this week provided lots of food for thought about how to better communicate substantive policy issues. I’m excited to learn more as these 2 years at the Kennedy School continue.

Until Next Time.



Note: This post is for Nicco Mele’s course – Media Politics and Power in the Digital Age – at the Kennedy School of government.

A Tale of Two Weekends

Tom and I have had two whole weekends of fun since our last post! Unfortunately, our weekends of fun were spent apart. This weekend Tom has been in Roanoke, Viriginia at the CityWorks (X)po. The tag line for the weekend is “A Gathering to Share Big Ideas for Better Cities.” While I was sipping wine alone at our dining room table, Tom was sending me pictures from Ed Walker‘s rooftop apartment and chatting it up with my HKS professors. Tom was living the dream.

Zika, Irene, Dina, Miya and Joanna

Zika, Irene, Dina, Miya and Joanna

Since Tom was out of town, I took some time to fulfill some personal priorities for my time in Cambridge. Saturday night marked my first Massachusetts dinner party. No boys were allowed (except Charlie). We had my mom’s yummy stuffed past shells and a great salad. Charlie largely behaved himself thanks to a Target bone purchased earlier in the day, and all six of us has a great evening of stories about skydiving, shark watching, and bungee jumping. I have no plan to do any of these things after hearing their tales. Needless to say they were a group of intelligent and bold women who made my home feel full even when Tom was away.

Charlie and I also got to check out some particularly interesting characters at the dog park. There was a great dane and a schnoodle named Einstein.


Charlie also got to go to Friday’s HKS Quorum Call and became a complete ladies’ dog (credit to Chris Myers for the name). He got lots of treats from fellow students and dug one too many holes in the HKS lawn. He will definitely make another appearance soon.

Last weekend I was very fortunate to travel to Cape Cod with some fellow Kennedy School students. We spent a weekend focused on leadership development, but there was some fun spread across days as well. We did improv exercises and got to travel to David Gergen’s home on the Cape for a night of kayaking, volleyball playing and lobster eating. I had never had a lobster before (or at least one I had to break open!), so I was a bit overexcited about the process. The other students humored me by taking my picture with the lobster before I dug in. Our time on the Cape was very special and helped me form closer relationships with the CPL fellows. Plus, playing volleyball with David Gergen on your team never hurt anyone.

Next weekend our close friend from Jackson, Mindy Waldrop, is visiting Boston, so get excited for shots of us gallivanting around town.

Until next time!