Celebrating Work and Managing Endings

On Day 1, the public forum, things went forward nearly seamlessly in our virtual environment. SOG faculty and staff presented on collective impact, summarized two-year project, and facilitated excellent break-out sessions with team members who had expertise on topics like transportation, housing, and employment and recovery courts. There were some hiccups with the keynote speaker, Sam Quinones, the author of the highly acclaimed book Dreamland. As a journalist, he had a specific perspective of the opioid crisis, which did not always mesh with the experience and expertise of these community teams. For example, he spent over five minutes talking about how the word “addict” should be used to describe people who use drugs or who have Substance Use Disorder (SUD), despite the fact that community members in the chat attested that it was stigmatizing language. Despite these issues, the first day was a great spotlight of the project as a whole.

The second day of the forum was a teams-only event, summarizing the results of their efforts in 5-minute presentations, as well as workshops to focus on their sustainability and further work moving forward. Although there were some minor technical problems with showing some of the first presentations, these were ironed out as the day went on. Teams praised each other’s accomplishments and videos, which allowed them to make even more connections among communities using similar strategies. The teams were also able to use breakout rooms to discuss public values, collective impact, sustainability, and more, and then debrief with SOG faculty as facilitators. It was not the ending that partners may have wanted; their work, and the forum itself, were greatly complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it seemed like a fitting celebration of the teams themselves, one of the ways that ncIMPACT is managing the end of such a momentous and publicly-involved project.

Creating a Community Resource

As my PWE enters its final few weeks, I have been working on finishing several long-term projects, including the presentations for the Opioid Response Project that I spoke about last week. My other major product for that project has been the Online Resource Library that will be put up on its current microsite, and eventually the permanent website that will launch sometime in late fall or early winter. This library contains well over a hundred resources, in ten different subject areas compiled over the course of the two-year project by multiple participants, including past research assistants. Its purpose is to codify the resources created and shared by our community teams, as well as ones that would assist communities in undertaking a collective impact-style response to the opioid crisis. Although there is a guidebook in production that specifically focuses on the implementation of a collective impact project, these resources are substance use-specific, and can assist organizations who are in any stage of addressing opioids in their communities.
While working on this product, there have been many thumbs in this metaphorical pie. Since this project involved many staff and faculty members from across the SOG, it has a series of subcommittees, including one for the website. But because the project is being managed through ncIMPACT, there is an input and review process there as well. This means that I have had to manage the expectations and ideas of many individuals as I create this product, including people who have not had the chance to see the library or been involved in its compilation. Although this has at times made creating this resource more difficult, it has also raised useful questions about its purpose, format, and realistic usefulness in the wider community. For example, these conversations led to the decision to add a brief context statement to each resource and category, so that users do not have to actually click on or read the resource in order to see if it is useful to them. This made the library a much more time-intensive product for me, but will also make it much more helpful to the public audience it is meant to serve.
Creating products for a general audience is something that I have learned much more about during this PWE experience. I have been involved in academia for almost seven years now, and see it as my future career. My perspective, writing, and priorities often reflect that bias. Although I realize the importance of public-focused work, I have traditionally felt uncomfortable creating resources for this audience. How was I supposed to know what people wanted or needed? How was I, with an outsider’s perspective, going to be able to create something that would assist communities in a real, tangible way? Working with ncIMPACT has given me a much more nuanced perspective of making research and project results accessible to those who they affect most. I still know that I have an outsider’s perspective, but now I am able to speak with professionals and clients to understand how resources like this one can best support them. I am also more able to put myself into the shoes of others, and think critically about how to most efficiently communicate this information to a non-academic audience. Being able to learn more about the crossroads of policy, research, practitioners, and communities is helping me grow as a professional, and put the “social” in social worker and the “public” in public administrator.

Working with Clients during Covid-19

In theory, helping the teams create a 5-minute, multimedia presentation would have been fairly easy before COVID. They likely would have visited Chapel Hill during the summer for meetings, and I could have set them up for audio or video recording with professional equipment at the SOG. Worst case scenario, I may have had to make a road trip to the communities in order to co-create the presentations. However, COVID-19 has made client relationships much more complicated, especially in communities that may lack strong broadband access or public health infrastructure. Many of the individuals and organizations in the ORP are doing double duty as COVID-19 contact tracers, care providers, or policymakers. They are often extremely busy, even overwhelmed, with pandemic-related work, which makes finding time to meet difficult.
Additionally, travel restrictions and bans on in-person meetings have made all of our work on the presentations virtual. Instead of a day’s worth of recording, I have to schedule weeks of time in which I provide drafts to project managers and teams, they record audio, and I put the final products together. This has made working with clients much more difficult than it likely would have been without the influence of coronavirus. However, the teams have also expressed their gratitude for my help during this time, as they are overworked and already coping with drastic changes to in-person programs and services, including drug courts, syringe exchanges, and medical care and counseling. Although the pandemic might have made it more complicated and time-consuming, it has also taught me how to work with diverse clients virtually, and has thereby been a valuable professional experience both now and in the future.

Self-Care, Work-Life Balance, and Working from Home

This week was my eighth in my PWE, and I have just over a month to go to finish my MSW-required field hours, as well as my MPA program requirements. The School of Social Work field placement system relies on a thorough learning agreement and a mid-year and final competency evaluation that measures my abilities and growth throughout the placement. When completing it with my supervisor and field instructor this week, I was able to reflect on my progress, work products, and experiences with ncIMPACT so far this summer. Although I have been involved in multiple interesting projects that are expanding my hard skills, reflecting this week has allowed me to evaluate my soft skills growth, as well.

The MPA PWE process is meant to place students in outside organizations not only to help us learn about public administration, but also to help us grow as professionals. I have traditionally struggled, in personal, professional, and academic contexts, with saying no and managing my workload so that I have a healthy work-life balance. This summer, being on multiple projects has given me a substantive workload with meaningful tasks, but has also required me to prioritize some projects over others due to deadlines, organizational importance, or other factors. Thankfully, I have had guidance from my supervisor and field instructor as I navigate establishing reasonable boundaries for myself, even if that sometimes means saying no to additional tasks that are unrelated to my main projects.

I have also been able to establish a healthy work-life balance despite the fact that working from home makes distinguishing between the two much more difficult. Encouraged by my team, I have established distinct hours during which I complete my PWE, and off hours where I don’t complete work and usually do not check my email. This is a huge shift from our suddenly remote spring semester, where I struggled with establishing a daily routine while taking classes and working from home. I have also implemented regular self-care, including (mostly digital) time with friends and loved ones, as well as leisure time to unwind. Since COVID-19 is not disappearing before August 10th, I know that creating this routine during my time with ncIMPACT will assist me in doing the same in the fall semester and beyond.

Conferences in the Face of Covid

Screenshot of the NCLM virtual conference, CityVision.

This week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the NC League of Municipalities CityVision Virtual Summit, their online answer to their normal annual conference, cancelled because of COVID. I was able to hear speakers on diverse topics, including communication and emergency management, economic development for municipalities, and leadership and management during times of transition, fear, and uncertainty. The League did an excellent job of reimagining their conference content in an online format, including Zoom presentations and panels and pre-recorded lunch and learn modules that allowed attendees to learn more about very specific topics.

What stuck with me the most after attending the three-day event was that despite the incredible work that governments are doing to try to mitigate the effects of the virus, there is so much that we cannot control. Certain uncertainty, which Dr. Jim Johnson of UNC Kenan Flagler spoke about, is going to be the state of our society for the foreseeable future. Of course, this is not new; the uncertain is a part of life itself. However, the coronavirus has made this uncertainty more pronounced and powerful.

So how do we cope with this certain uncertainty? There isn’t really a clear answer. There are preparations we can make to avert a similar crisis in the future. There are relationships we can build and priorities we can reconsider in order to determine what our communities need right now. But really, we must learn to be flexible, forgiving, and empathetic in this time of severe, communal stress. And until we can all sit in slightly uncomfortable chairs and watch PowerPoints on projection screens again, at least we have virtual professional support and togetherness, thanks to Zoom and a little imagination.

Equity and Data-Driven Policy

Equity is a word that is floating around more in media coverage and professional discussions as Black Lives Matter protests continue this week. There are calls for dramatic policy changes to local, state, and federal governments around the issue of policing, but also other areas that can dramatically improve the lives of the historically oppressed – education, employment, social programs, and housing among them. In connection with my post last week, about making systemic change, I chose to write about a tool that can assist policymakers in creating more equitable policy, as well as an example of ncIMPACT’s current work in this arena.

One solution in the equity toolbox is to rely on data-driven policy in order to concentrate resources in the most needed areas, rather than relying on tradition or the judgment of those in power. This data does not just consist of surveys or graphs, but also listening to communities and respecting their expertise and self-determination in order to create policies and programs that fit them and their needs. Although this is often more time-intensive, policy made without the substantive participation of key stakeholders is often less effective, and may not have the intended outcomes for which it was created. ncIMPACT’s study designs often rely on mixed-methods and participatory research in order to discover needs and pilot solutions to equity-related problems, and I am fortunate to be working on several of them this summer.

A screenshot of NVivo, the software I am using to code qualitative responses to the COVID-19 survey (Source)

One such project is the survey that ncIMPACT conducted with local government officials to discover the impact of COVID-19 on their organizations and communities and see how the School of Government can best respond. I will be completing the qualitative analysis of several open-ended questions for the 200 or so respondents from 89 NC counties. This survey will give us the chance to measure, in semi-real time, the impacts of COVID on a state-wide scale, as well as in regions with diverse economies and risk factors for the pandemic. Being able to complete work that will likely directly impact the SOG’s programs and products during this time is a very fulfilling professional experience. Although it may not directly be related to racial equity or police reform, COVID is already having disparate impacts on communities of color, which is likely to continue even after a vaccine is available. Understanding how local governments are responding, and what support they need, is a unique role the SOG can play in mitigating the negative effects of the pandemic and making North Carolina a more equitable place.

Speaking Out and Making Change

Writing this blog has been difficult this week, as our country cries out in pain and anger and demands change of our institutions. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in Minneapolis and Louisville have inspired global protests, including in all 50 US states. There are hundreds of thousands of people demanding justice in cities all over the country, including Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and more in North Carolina alone. All of this is, of course, in the context of the systemic racism experienced by people of color – violence from police, but also disparities in every major health and wellbeing indicator, the trauma and chronic stress of interpersonal and institutional racism, and the reality that to many Americans, their lives matter less than their white counterparts. And I want to make it clear: Black Lives Matter, and it’s our responsibility as individuals and professionals to change the systems we work in to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive.

Working for a governmental organization is hard right now, as someone whose partner, best friend, and colleagues are Black. I recognize the complicity of all of our governmental institutions in racism, simply because of our nation’s history as one built on genocide and slavery. And I honestly didn’t know what to write about for MPA Matters that would not seem either tone deaf or overly political. I was worried not only that my words would not be sufficient, but also that they may not be appropriate for this platform. However, I argue that as we MPA students work in our PWEs this summer, that it is our duty to not only observe government’s functions and build our own skills, but also challenge the assumptions on which these organizations rest.

That challenge may not be the same for everyone; as an employee of the School of Government, my work must remain understandably policy neutral in order to engage elected officials and administrators from all corners of our state. And ncIMPACT’s work, including all of the projects on which I am working, are focused on making the lives of vulnerable populations, including Black North Carolinians, better, safer, and more prosperous. I can take some comfort in the fact that my efforts will effect some change, for individuals and communities if not the systems themselves. However, there is so much more to be done, personally, professionally, and institutionally, to address my and our roles in white supremacy and anti-black violence. My hope is that after the protests are over – when police have put down their tear gas and rubber bullets – that we all maintain the same level of urgency we feel now for change, unity, and the value of Black lives.

Project Management

Memorial Day weekend was a welcome break from a busy two weeks at my PWE. One of ncIMPACT’s staff members is ill, changing our team’s work flow. Suddenly, an important work product for the social capital project needed support, and it fell on my shoulders to complete a draft of a literature review in just a couple of days. I also picked up other responsibilities on both the social capital and EITC project which required me to attend an additional series of meetings, pulling my time and attention in multiple directions as we worked to complete the review. I felt not only the pressure of deadlines, but also pressure to step up as a new part of a small team and assert myself as an organizational representative.
On Thursday of last week, I was talking to a friend who asked me if I was enjoying my internship. I immediately launched into an explanation of all the Zoom meetings I had, the deadlines I was up against, and the stress I was feeling because of it all. I waxed poetic about the additional stress of COVID-19, and how I hadn’t even had the chance to meet my coworkers because of it. After letting me vent, he said, “Okay, but are you enjoying it?” I paused for the first time in several days to actually think about that question. Sure, I was busy and maybe even a little overwhelmed by trying to adapt to my new role in the team so quickly. But did that mean that I wasn’t enjoying my time with ncIMPACT? Did it mean that maybe I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time?

Despite the stress of last week, reflecting on my experience allowed me to realize that this is exactly where I want to be right now, COVID aside. My supervisor and field instructor supported me both personally and professionally, including letting me flex my hours to work longer on some days so I could leave early Friday for a weekend away. Anita, ncIMPACT’s director, trusted me enough to let me attend an outward-facing meeting with clients as the only ncIMPACT representative because of my performance in earlier project meetings. And research partners valued my input during our interactions that they were responsive to a proposal I made to potentially augment a study design to collect key informant data, since COVID was affecting our ability to collect it from community members in a timely fashion.

Having more on my plate can be, rightfully, a source of worry. However, it really means that I am being allowed to dig in to the content and management of projects, meaningfully contribute to work, and grow as a social worker and public administrator. Being a part of a team that is as invested in my development as they are the outcomes of my work has been invigorating and encouraging. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll get to sink my teeth into this summer.

Making an Impact

ncIMPACT Initiative is an applied public policy team that works with public officials to develop collaborative solutions to North Carolina’s wicked problems. They use an interdisciplinary approach, data driven high-quality analysis, and innovative practices to implement, evaluate, and publicize these solutions while remaining politically and policy neutral.

This is where I’ll be doing my Professional Work Experience.  My introduction  with ncIMPACT is a Zoom call with my new supervisor, Emily, on Monday at 9 AM. It’s the second to last day of exams and I’m still turning in a final tonight, but my MSW-MPA requirements mean I’m working 600 hours this summer; there’s no time to take a week or two and recuperate. The whirlwind of getting onboarded to a new organization coincides with the relief of finishing off an unusual and difficult semester, thanks to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work and life so thoroughly that transitioning from academia to work is almost effortless, at least logistically. I’m still working from home, likely through at least the end of May, if not longer. Instead of Zoom classes, it’s Zoom meetings as I get acquainted with ncIMPACT’s work and the projects I’ll be working on this summer. Part of the SOG, ncIMPACT runs applied public policy and research projects all over the state, building collaboratives in order to implement solutions to complex community problems. I’m curious to see how ncIMPACT straddles the academia-practitioner divide, aiming for direct implementation of research rather than the traditional route of academic publishing.

I’ll be working on at least four different projects this summer: their UNC-TV series, the Opioid Response Project, their federally-funded social capital project, and the EITC in NC project. Run by two different project managers, Emily and Brooklyn, these interesting projects will keep me busy as I work with a variety of staff and clients. I’m thrilled to have found an organization that will allow me to stretch both my social work and public administration muscles, doing research, policy, assessments, interventions, and evaluations of communities and systems.

In my first week, I’m already writing blogs for UNC-TV, attending virtual town halls, and getting involved with a literature review process for the social capital project, plus a variety of meetings to learn more about how I will be contributing to each of the four projects this summer. I can’t wait to see what I learn and accomplish as I look towards my final year of grad school. Let’s get started!