To Be or not to Be; But make up Your mind.

This post was written by current #uncmpa student Stephen Thompson.

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Currently, there is a bill in the Florida state senate which has been called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Alternatively, it has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Officially, it is unnamed: you can read it here. This bill features a few different friction spots which folks are arguing over, however the big point of continuation lies between lines 75 and 78 which read, “A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” [This is where they’re getting the “don’t say gay” tagline]. As an MPA student, this bill caught my attention not entirely for the topic, but rather the text, [sub and metatext!]

There’s a lot of strong feelings on either side of this bill—you can find blogs, news articles, and “talking heads” from here to Tallahassee using ethos, pathos, logos, and any other rhetorical tool Aristotle could philosophize, to argue yay or nay, but this bill cuts to the core of public administration in a fundamental way. Yes, because it regulates the conduct of government employees [local government!], and yes because it resonates with free-speech-ers, but also because it calls for a public discussion of the competing values of public administration. These four values which pull in opposite directions on a X-Y Axis form the four quadrants of public issues: Liberty, Community, Prosperity, and Equality.

Breaking this down we can see how this question of “what can and what can’t teachers tell children?” lands in all four areas. Liberty; Everyone should be able to say whatever they want, using their own personal discretion as to what is and isn’t appropriate for the situation. Community; but maybe what doesn’t offend me, is downright vulgar to you, so maybe let’s agree on some basic standards. Prosperity; in order for children to succeed they need the best education for them, which may include parents and guardians teaching some topics in more intimate environments. Equality; on the other hand, maybe we should lay some basic groundwork down to ensure everyone knows at least the bare minimum on commonly discussed topics. [Wow, that was a head jerker].

Returning to the document in question [of which there are many questions], we can certainly see how some folks may feel the topic of gender and sexuality are mature concepts, better left to be discussed when a child is older. Conversely, some folks feel that gender is so closely intwined with identity that it should be discussed when children are first forming their own identities and imitating role models in their lives. All of that is well and good, but there’s another piece to this debate that seems to underlie the heated discussion. “…may not encourage classroom discussion… in primary grade levels, or in a manner that is not “age-appropriate…” For me this digs deeper to another fundamental concept of public administration: policy making vs. policy administrating.


Dusting off the age-old argument of “letter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law,” the more consequential question is, “who is interpreting the law?” Public administrators have an awful lot of discretionary power when interpreting policy. One person may interpret “encouraging discussion” as answering a student’s question—one as innocuous as “What does the rainbow flag on bumper stickers mean?” This may lead lawsuit-weary school officials to enact classroom policies which prevent teachers from using terms which acknowledge the concept of homosexuality [don’t say “gay!”]. Other school officials may decide that teachers are permitted to discuss “queer” or “non-binary” identities with students in 5th grade (considered a primary grade in Florida), even though this may differ from some parent’s interpretations of “age-appropriate.” Many times, policy makers enact laws which are vaguely worded specifically because they allow room for multiple interpretations [shoutout to PUBA 710: Institutions and Values], however the stakes become cataclysmically high when violating these laws could result in personal repercussions for individual government employees. Many administrators will opt for an overly restrictive interpretation, rather than expose their staff and organization to lawsuit, every time.

So, here in lies the question: If laws are vaguely worded to allow individual communities the flexibility to determine their own values regarding the finer points of the human experience, should those laws dictate the punishment for violating those statures? Building in civil redress certainly raising the stakes to the point that many profession poker plays would recommend folding; adding the topic to the list of banned discourse and moving on with the lesson plan. –And that is where lawmakers do their constituents a disservice. Allow administrators to set the parameters of policy and define the consequences, or explicitly layout out the penalties associated with a clearly defined policy. One without the other is the illusion of choice with a supersized side of subtext.

I personally hope this bill is voted down, regardless of politics, because it sets a poor precedent for future bills which erode the values of local government and community democracy. Public administrators have a hard row to hoe, whether they’re in the “sunshine state” or the “show me state,” but it’s these dedicated public servants which shape the daily lives and values of our communities. Shakespeare famously wrote, “To be or not to be.” Law makers should take a page out of his book [Hamlet, to be exact], because concise clear language tells the reader exactly where they stand and knowing where you stand makes it a whole lot easier to see where you’re going.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This post was written by current MPA student, Stephen Thompson.

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On January 6th, 2021 a group of protesters gathered around the US Capital Building and attempted to gain access to the building to disrupt the American democratic process. That was a significant day in American History. The recent anniversary of this pivotal date has me thinking about the current state of the American society. I’ll stop myself short of a soap box rant (I promise), but I think this incident brings some larger issues to light that are happening in our contemporary society which are about, or at least affected by government, both federal and local. There are some extreme views about this event, what it says, what it means, and what it was, which I want to steer clear of, given the divisiveness of online blogs. So, lets just look at some implications that this event might indicate about how citizens interact with their government.    

I grew up in Northern Virginia, about 40 miles from Washington, DC. I went to the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and other federal buildings on numerous field trips starting in middle school. My father worked in the Pentagon, which I visited many times growing up, and whenever relatives came to visit it seemed like we all had to pile into my family’s minivan to give an impromptu tour of the nation’s capital (cue impression of bus megaphone: On your left is the Lincoln Memorial!). As a child I complained to my mom, “Why do we have to do this every time someone comes to visit us?” My mom would patiently explain to me, “Not everyone is lucky enough to live so close to the Capital. Some people only get to see these places once in their life.” I would think to myself, “I wish I was one of those people…” As I got older, I understood what she meant, and I was able to take advantage of my proximity to DC. I learned that Washington, DC is a real place, and the people who work for the federal government are real people.  

As my mom keenly pointed out, many American citizens only get to visit DC one time in their life, let along visit enough to have a season pass at the museums or learn the incredibly confusion naming devises used in the spoke-wheel layout of the streets (designed to confuse invading armies and 18-year-old going to concerts at the 9:30 club). It saddens me that for many of the protesters who attended the January 6th protest and subsequent insurrection event, this might have been their one visit to the Capital.  For some, they may only have been familiar with the layout of the city from playing the post-apocalyptic, first-person shooter game, Fallout 3. Perhaps, to some they felt like they were playing a game, because the government is such a distant concept to a lot of Americans. To many Americans, government is an ephemeral group of people who make decisions that both heavily impact and hardly reflect the everyday lives of ordinary people.  

Even as an MPA student I can admit, sometime the notions of legislation, congressional approval, executive orders, and federal oversight are too big and cumulous-like to grasp. I am glad I have my pervious experiences to fall back on, during the seemingly never-ending political debates around economic stimulus plans, infrastructure investment proposals, regulatory oversight discussions, and pandemic management ideas. For someone who hasn’t ever been to Washington, DC, who hasn’t ever met a federal worker; doesn’t know anyone who works for Congress, I could certainly understand how they might disassociate the federal government from “reality.” With all the political divisions over the last several years, the chaos of the pandemic, and the incendiary rhetoric of message board radicals, it isn’t hard to see how someone could feel very angry, scared, and helpless against the government.  

“Against the government.” That’s how those persons felt on that Wednesday. They were so disassociated with the democratic process, they felt like the government was against the people; not for, by, and of the people. Please don’t misinterpret my sympathy for disenfranchised people with agreement or justification of their actions. What happened at the Capital on January 6th, 2021 was not democracy, was not civilized discourse, and was not acceptable, however, I think it was symptomatic of a greater problem in American society. –And addressing problems in our society is one of the jobs of the American Government. Now, I don’t mean to say that those involved in the Assault on the Capital shouldn’t be punished, and justice shouldn’t be delivered for an egregious affront to American Democracy, but once the sentences are passed out, there is more work to be done. We, all Americans have more work to do. We need to both embrace the imperfect system of Democracy and to improve that system. We need to remind ourselves that government is made up of us. It is not an “Us vs. Them” thing. It’s a “we for us” thing, and that starts by talking to our neighbors, co-workers, and community members. Volunteering at polling sights on election days, speaking our minds and listening to one another. Democracy is messy and consensus is hard to achieve, but the alternative is what we saw on that infamous Wednesday in 2021. The alternative isn’t an option.  

In reflection, I don’t think we’re “too far gone,” and I don’t think those domestic terrorists represent any significant portion of the US population, but I do think they are a wake-up call. We can’t turn away, isolate, and ignore the divisions between us any longer. It is time to talk, listen, and learn from one another. So, to paraphrase Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor [and make our national a better neighborhood].”     

New Year, new you?

This post was written by current MPA student Stephen Thompson.

———————————————————————————————–After the excitement of the holidays has begun to dissipate, and the novelty of seeing my extended family has all but worn off, my attention is beginning to turn to the upcoming Spring Semester. If you’re in a similar situation, you know the exhaustion of doing all the things you never have time for, mixed with fatigue from baking, social engagements, cooking, pre-holiday shopping, family time, post-holiday sales, and more social engagements with the family. Now, we find ourselves ramping up for the new year [When does the vacationing start on Winter Vacation?]. The MPA program’s focus on Leadership and self-development has me thinking about the tradition of resolutions. If you’re feeling intimidated about coming up with a resolution for 2022 [“2020, Two” I’ve heard it called], I wanted to pass on some sage wisdom I’ve learned regarding self-improvement plans. Here are three tips for setting goals/resolutions for the new year.

1. You don’t have to

Many people feel pressured to pursue “progress,” in the new year. There can be existential pressure to “be a better you,” or change your life or habits when the calendar strikes one each January. For some folks this is an energizing feeling, which motivates them to start reading for pleasure again or dust off that exercise machine, but for others this feeling can be anxiety or depression inducing. If you are in the latter camp, it is perfectly OK to abstain from reform. If you like your life, as is—that’s a gift all by itself! Or perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed by work or school [For example, my research project is due at the end of this semester], and all you can do is just keep on keeping on, that’s ok, too. Resolutions are for you, and for you alone, so if you won’t enjoy the challenge, you’re allowed to say “no, thank you” to New Year’s resolutions.

2. You don’t need to submit your resolution for approval

Often times people feel their resolutions need to be big enough to qualify as a New Year’s Resolution. There can be pressure to make a big change like losing a lot of weight or kicking a stubborn habit [any nail biters out there?], but resolutions are not a go big or don’t bother getting off the couch kind of thing. They’re about motivating you to make a change that will improve your life. That change can be as small as walking for 10 minutes on your lunch break or giving up one of your Saturdays to do an activity you’ve been putting off for a while. If you’re one of those people that worries your resolution is “too small” or “doesn’t count” let me, be the first to assure you there is not a self-improvement primary election in which you need to qualify in order to get on the ballet for betterment. It’s a democracy of one, and your vote is the only one that matters.

3. Resolutions are non-binary

Somethings are yes or no, to be or not to be like McDonald’s breakfast [10:30 sharp BTW] or binary code however most things, including New Year’s Resolutions are not. I often hear friends say “oh, I’ll never be able to do it, so why try?” or “I slipped up on Wednesday, so I guess I failed.” Resolutions are not check boxes on a form. It is not either do or do not [Sorry Yoda], trying still counts! The process of setting a New Year’s Resolution is all about the resolve. If you want to quit drinking soda with your lunch, but you’ve had a really stressful day and you could use a pick-me-up, its ok that you “cheated” today. Resolve doesn’t mean, “Opps—now I failed. It means “Opps—I slipped, but I’m getting back on the path.” In case you haven’t heard it enough: We’re in the middle of a pandemic, cut yourself some slack! The only real failed resolutions are the ones which you abandon. Additionally, its ok to take a break on your resolution if your schedule won’t accommodate five gym visits this week, or if you’re going over to a friend’s house and you know they are serving pizza for dinner—as long as you come back to the plan. Just make sure you and hit the play button again, after your pause your resolution, and it most certainly still counts!

As we head into a new year its important to take stock of ourselves and our lives. It is important to evaluate what’s working and what needs a little work, but what’s working needs just as much attention as what’s not. New Years Resolutions are a great tool to help you build the life you want to have, but it’s important to pick the best tool for the job, and you certainly need to calibrate the tool to the task. So, whether you opt into new year’s resolutions or opt out this time around; Happy Winter Break and have a happy New Year!

Christmas in July? Or July in December?

This post was written by current student Stephen Thompson.
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While hanging up Christmas lights this week, I had a thought. I was dressed in flip flops and a t-shirt, which made it easier to navigate the small forest of potted plants which dominate my fiancée and I’s first-floor apartment patio. One of our retired neighbors stopped by to talk with us while we strung lights in the outline of our storage closet door frame. My neighbor, Tom, talked about fishing, holiday travel plans, and the weather—really, he talked about the weather’s effects on the first two. “Climate change is real,” he concluded. That’s a statement I’ve heard frequently over the last couple of years. My thought: what responsibility do public servants have to be caretakers of citizens verses faithful bidders of the people’s will?

My neighbor Tom is an intelligent, wise, 81-year-old man. Like many people in this county, he’s a skeptical, seeing is believing kind of person. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After a couple of trips around the block myself, I tend toward the “show me the money” side of the spectrum. The trouble with the type of proof which is in the pudding, however, is that you need to eat the pudding to see the truth. This brings me to a crucial question about representative democracy (the flavor of democracy the United States features). Is my representative’s responsibility to vote on legislation in congress as I would vote or as I should vote? Of course, the ideal manifestation of representative democracy is that those two are the same, however people and societies are far more complex than School House Rock ever led us to believe (“I’m just a bill [which could have dramatic effects on the lively hoods, personal safety, and liberties of millions of people across this county] on Capitol Hill).

One interpretation of our governing system might suggest that our representatives’ job is to be more educated and steeped in policy implications than the average American has time to be. We voted them into to office, to make decisions on our behalf, because we don’t have the time or resources to educate ourselves about those decisions. This is certainly the approach we take regarding the executive branch. The president and west wing staff make hundreds of decisions a day in our steads. We elect the president and grant them our nation’s proxy vote. On the other hand, isn’t congress supposed to check the executive branch’s power? Shouldn’t congress be the will of the people, in light of the assumption that the president is the “spirit” of the people? Many state and federal legislators take that view. It is the job of the politician to vote as each of their constituents would on any given issue. Some politicians, though, take this charge to mean they should educate their constituency. That is, their voters would choose this option, if they were privy to the information those representatives are.

Bringing this back to my conversation with Tom, I wonder if the public servants of the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s let us, the people, down with their collective resistance to ecological policy over the decades. Ruling out super-packs, corporate donors, and other controversial applications of our representative democracy, if we assume that federal and state legislators have acted purely as we citizens have directed them, is that how it should work?

As I’m starting my second year of the MPA program, these are the types of questions I’m pondering, and exploring. How does one equably apply democracy? We know the letters of the laws which govern representation, but what is the spirit of those laws? My fiancée and I finished up our conversation with Tom and plugged in our lights. It is unseasonably warm for December, but the lights bring a festive spirit to the patio. There are some big questions with which public servants have to wrestle, but for now, let’s look forward to a brighter new year.

Tiny Homes for Raleigh, Giant Leap for Local Government

This post was written by current MPA student Stephen Thompson


Tiny homes coming to Raleigh, NC

If you’re like me, you have only a cursory understanding of “tiny houses,” –the somewhat recent trend in single family dwelling construction which features structures of about 600 square footage or less. This movement has been sweeping the first world by storm for the past decade and it’s hard to have not encountered the term at least once via conversation, real estate focused television programs, or obnoxious magazine covers in the supermarket. I’ve primarily seen it discussed on TLC-style reality TV shows which focus on younger couples looking to downsize their consumer-centric lifestyles and “get back the basics.” Noble as that motivation is, it has always felt very bourgeoisie to me. Just the notion of, [read in a posh Northeastern accent] “I’ve had so much access to stuff in my life that I’m just tired of buying things, so I’ve chosen to purposefully not buy as many things, because that will make me a better person.” In spite of my cultural objections, the city of Raleigh did something recently which made me see tiny houses in a different light.

This week the city council of Raleigh, NC unanimously approved the use of “tiny homes” within city limits, a building regulation not often approved by cities. As an MPA student, this piqued my interest. The city council is promoting tiny houses as an affordable option in the midst of the triangle-area housing crisis, which has many first-time home buyers priced out, and those who can afford the inflated prices having to put in offers on homes sight-unseen, due to sky rocketing demand. Even before the pandemic the tri-city area was listed as one of the most expensive markets in the county. Since the Covid scourge, it’s not uncommon to hear about houses selling before they even get to their first open house event. Reporting on the council’s decision, WRAL noted that a new construction tiny house with 300 square feet in the Raleigh area can sell for as little as $65,000—water and electric hook ups included. With this new zoning regulation going into effect in 90 days, this one council vote is poised to have a big impact on the economics of local homeownership. I have to say, this application of a modern trend sounds like something that can really make a difference in this area.

Land and home ownership is often the first way families can acquire and build generational wealth in this county and with so many young families being priced out by the pandemic-boom, this is beginning to become a serious threat to millennials and Gen Z’ers wealth acquisition. In regard to the long levity of a city or community, drops in homeownership—frequently the most valuable asset upon which residents pay property taxes, means less money for municipal budgets and public services. Meanwhile, less generational wealth results in more folks using the aforementioned underfunded public services. To subvert a common expression, a falling tide strands all ships. The city council are wise to take note of this problem down the road and take “tiny” steps [excuse the pun] to fix it early.

Public servants in the 21st century are faced with new and unique problems markedly different from those of previous generations. To address these new situations, we have to use new tools. I applaud the Raleigh city council’s out-of-the-box approach to this public issue, and I look forward to seeing if this lets a little air out of the ballooning housing market bubble. I’m going to be in the market for a house in a few years and who knows, maybe a tiny house could make a perfect starter tiny home.

Tax Exempt Churches and the Competing Values of Public Service

This post was written by current MPA student Stephen Thompson


Keeping up with the local news is something that’s always been important to me, and my time in the MPA program has only solidified that commitment.  The values and concepts in the program are helping me to see the news within my community through different lens and from new perspectives.  Using concepts taught in the program such as the competing values of public service and the public private dichotomy, I’m starting to ponder questions, which I hadn’t considered before.  For example: 

There is a new church opening on the northside of downtown Durham this winter called Pioneer Church.  Taking a somewhat unique approach to sanctuary this church will function as a community space/store/coffee shop during the week and transform its storefront area to a place of worship on the weekends.  This new organization is getting a lot of attention for its choice of “up and coming” neighborhood, and its stance on LGBTQ+ rights (Indyweek released a very informative article last week HERE).  The church has announced that the storefront portion of the business will be separate from the religious organization, and only the church will be tax free (presumably responding to community grumblings) but this actually raises a recurring, but still very important question for public servants: Should churches still be tax-exempt in 2021? 

Public Service is a multi-faceted discipline (just ask Dr. Stenberg, shoutout to PUBA 709) but one of the basic concepts is that of the competing values of Liberty, Community, Prosperity, and Equality.  These values are two sets of diametrically opposed values which are fundamental frames through which public issues are viewed.  Liberty—freedom, choice, and individuality; Community—safety, security, and social order; Prosperity—Efficiency, Economy, and productivity and Equality—equity, fairness, and justice.  These competing values exist on opposite ends of two spectrums.  The further you move toward community, the further you move away from Liberty.  The more regulation that is put in place to protect equality, the less prosperity (on an individual level) is felt.  Any given public issue does not necessarily engage all four values; however, every public issue does involve at least two opposing values.  Whether its speed limits on highways, or food safety regulations on prepackaged food, these values are battled out from small, townhall meetings to the floor of the capital building in Washington, DC.  

The question of whether or not churches should be given tax-exempt status, actually touches on all four of these competing values.  At one end you have the equality aspect.  This country was founded on and continues to defend religious freedom, and separation of church and state.  Therefore, if you give one church/religious order tax exempt status, you have to give it to all churches.  If you turn the other check though, church coffers represent an enormous amount of untaxed revenue which could be quite prosperous for American citizens though public services.  Certainly, no member of any church wants Uncle Sam to skim off a portion of their sacred offering/donation, however collectively speaking this is a large source of income which is off limits to state and federal governments.  This “godsend” (so to speak) could be used to fund public services enjoyed by members of all faiths (or even non-practicing individuals all together).  Looking at it from the secondary perspective, individuals do have the right to worship how and wherever they please in this county.  That’s a God-given liberty (I’m full of puns), but with so many forms and denominations of religion in this country, perhaps social order might dictate that since no one church has special privileges over others, maybe no churches shouldn’t get special privileges, at all. 

I’m not necessarily arguing that churches shouldn’t receive tax-exemptions; many of them do contribute to the public good by funding homeless services or operating food pantries, etc.  After all, secular nonprofit organization such as the Arts Council I work for are afforded tax-exemption for the public good they serve.  These are examples of the public-private dichotomy, organizations which are privately run but provide services which support the public good.  Regardless of the conclusions, I do think that decisions for and by the public should be reconsidered every few years.  As citizens, we have a duty of conservatorship of our county, and routinely checking in on our traditions and long running practices is a chore we often forget.  Our law books are bloated with outdated codes, and long since irrelevant laws, however many of these wouldn’t have the significant effects on public services which reconsidering the tax-exempt status of churches would on our communities, both locally and nationally.  So, whether it’s a new spot in the neighborhood, or mega church in the Midwest, it’s worth a discussion about how we as a community of citizens want to allocation our limited resources.  Not a sermon, just thought (from an MPA student).  

Student Spotlight: Mallory Verez

This post was written by current MPA student Stephen Thompson.

Current student Stephen Thompson interviews current student Mallory Verez


In my last post I started to explore one of the unique things about MPA students; that we’re all so diverse, but with some very strong through lines. Continuing down the rabbit hole, I had the pleasure of talking with 2nd year, dual degree (MPA and Law) student Mallory Verez. I’ll have to get around talking with another MPA@UNCer (online student) one of these days, but this week I was thrilled to talk to Mallory about why she chose the MPA program, how public administration fits into a law degree (or the other way around), and how to get past the devil that lurks in the details.  

Mallory is originally from Pittsburgh, PA, but completed her undergrade degree at High Point University in December of 2017. After graduation she returned to the Steel City, eager for some real-world experience, which she found in a service year position with Public Allies where she was placed in an afterschool program focused on youth development. Mallory had finished her undergrad degree knowing that she wanted to continue her studies with the eventual goal of working in neighborhood legal services, but her experiences in the afterschool programs widened her perspective and inspired her to look for a public administration program, as well. Much like Valerie Sauer (see my previous blog post), Mallory began to see the siloed systems of public service worked more as barriers than channels for underserved demographics. After her year was up, she decided to look for a dual degree program.  

Looking for a dual master’s programs in public administration and law certainly narrowed the pool of schools, but after some research Mallory found herself enrolled in UNC. She acknowledged that her aunt used to work for UNC when Mallory was growing up, so she had some familiarity with the area and the school from family visits. But, as any grad student will tell you, after finding the program and getting accepted, the real work begins. Mallory and I commiserated over the loss of our once delightfully open evening schedules, now filled with readings, papers, and classes. Still, in that conversation I found another common thread with her and Valerie, as Mallory talked about the community of the MPA program and dedication of the School of Government faculty.  

Mallory is a full time, on campus student, so her program is divided into four years; a year of the MPA program, two years of the Law program, and the final year with a mixture of MPA and Law classes. In the fall of 2020, amidst a global pandemic, Mallory moved to Chapel Hill and started as a first year MPA student. She relayed the general air of uncertainty which permeated the campus that first semester, but more than that she felt an overwhelming sense of community and understanding which her professors extended to her and her fellow cohort members. “Dr. Berner’s willingness to talk to me about,” she paused, “anything!” and be “someone who was in my corner the whole time,” was really a lifeline. Mallory confessed that she was glad she started with the MPA program, because the Law cohort is much larger, and there are more students to contend with for professor attention.   

Last summer Mallory completed her Professional Work Experience (a requirement and rite of passage for us MPA students), at the Triangle J Council of Government, as the housing intern, where she “did lots of legal research,” as she put it. Research heavy as it was, the experience also introduced her to the wide range of nonprofits in the Triangle Area. She’s even planning on sticking around the area after she graduates to gain more experience at the myriad of interesting and distinctive nonprofits in our area.  

As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Mallory if she had any advice for prospective MPA students (as I am wont to do), and she had some sage advice: “Know why you want to be doing [the program]. It is so easy to get lost in the complexities. Don’t let [all the details] pull you [away] from what you want to do.” I have to say, if I had to distill down the message of the MPA program into one sentence, that about hits the nail on the head. Know why you want to be doing what you’re doing. As I wrap up my 3rd semester in the program, through the details of the course work, and field specific knowledge I’m gaining, I’m starting to see this greater message. The complexities of public administration (of which there are many!) can easily become tree after tree, after tree, which prevents us public servants from seeing the greater forest of our efforts, however I think I’m starting to learn how to navigate this jungle of policy. And with that piece of wisdom from Mallory, I’ll sign off for this week. Remember to keep it all in focus, and drink plenty of water—after all, finals are coming up!  

MPA Student Spotlight: Valerie Sauer

This post was written by current MPA Student Stephen Thomson.

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Current MPA student Stephen Thomson interviewing current MPA/MSW student Valerie Sauer.

This is my 3rd semester at UNC and at this point I’ve started to notice something really interesting about the MPA program. There are so many diverse individuals, with different career trajectories, but somehow, we’re also so similar. To further understand this paradox, I decided to sit down with a couple of fellow MPA students to explore how our diversity ties us together. This week I got to talk with first year (first semester, even!), Valerie Sauer, currently the one and only MPA/MSW dual graduate degree student at UNC.  

Valerie attended Appalachian State University before transferring to UNC and earning her undergraduate degree in Political Science, with a double minor in Public Policy and Hispanic Studies in 2016. Building on her internship and volunteer experience in social services, Valerie began working as a client services coordinator for the Family Justice Center in Alamance County, NC. In that role she worked directly with individuals seeking help for a wide range of situations from domestic abuse to human sex trafficking—Valerie handled the walk-in client. The first center of its kind in North Carolina, the Family Justice Center serves as a “one stop shop” for the myriad of government organizations individuals need to interact with to obtain help with their situation. After a year and a half there, Valerie was offered the Director of Education Programs position with the Compass Center in Chapel Hill, where she split her time between direct client work and community education. Valerie said she loved this work, but after several years of working with clients “interacting with systems that didn’t serve them” she felt moved to be part of systemic changes in the social services field—And with that, she turned to her alma mater, UNC.  

Valerie’s mother and father both work in Public Administration, and from an early age Valerie was drawn to helping people in need, first in her home of Scotland County, NC and then as an undergraduate student interning with the Compass Center (the same one she returned to work at in 2018), and the Police Department. Over the years she interacted and helped a lot of individuals struggling with domestic abuse. She also saw a broken system which was not designed from a victim’s perspective and often became burdensome to individuals already down and out. Valerie’s direct client work at the Family Justice Center and the Compass Center afforded her valuable knowledge about the ins and outs of social justice in North Carolina, but as the Director of Education Program she gained a whole new perspective.  

At the Compass Center Valerie went out and talked with community members, everyone from middle and high school students to police officers and medical students. She went to schools to talk to youth about healthy relationships and to meet with professional to tell them about the programs available at the Compass Center. This new role of indirect or pre-victim service helped her to see the system within which she worked and understand that while “individuals in these systems wanted to help… the system wasn’t designed to help [the victimized] individuals.” As she told me this paused. Mid-hand gesture and poignantly said, “and that’s why I’m here.”   

I asked Valerie about the transition from full time employment to full time, on campus student and she acknowledged the shift in cultures. For example, Social Services professionals have been talking about equity and social justice for a while, but some of her public administration colleagues are new to the conversation. She added that one of the things she enjoys so much about the MPA program is the smaller class size, which has allowed those tough conversations to be more impactful. As a dual student Valerie will be on campus, full time for three years. This first year is as an MPA student, the second year will be a Social Work student. She said she’s glad her first year is in the MPA program, because her cohort has really helped with the emotional transition.  

As our conversation drew to a close, I couldn’t help but ask Valerie about her mother, Lydian Altman, teaching professor for the School of Government and about her family’s history of public service. Valerie laughed and we joked about how her enrollment in the program might look like nepotism, but given Valerie’s impressive resume and professional drive, it would be hard to suggest she wasn’t in the program on her own merit and on her own path. Waxing retrospectively, she said she understands her parents much better know, and shared that she has already begun to see that the values she was taught growing up and those held dearly by public administrators. 

Reflecting on our conversation, there something which Valerie said which I think cuts to the core of our conversation. “It’s the people who really make the difference for me,” she said while talking about the School of Government’s facility. And while, yes, we do have great faculty, I feel like that sentiment translates to what’s different about the comradery in this MPA program. I also feel like that sentiment sums up my personal motivations for enrolling in this program. Maybe it’s a common feeling among students studying Public Administration, but for me it’s the people who really make the difference. 

UNC MPA Alumni Spotlight: Lyman Collins, Arts Evangelist, Class of 1986,

This post was written by Stephen Thompson, MPA Current Student


In 1986, Lyman Collins was finishing his Master of Public Administration degree from UNC. In 1986, I was but a twinkle in my mother’s eye. In the years that followed Lyman would go on to work in and for the arts at nationally recognized schools such as the University of Virginia, Western Illinois University, and UNC-Greensboro. I, myself would go on to be born, eventually learning to walk and talk. In August of this year I was introduced to Lyman through my UNC mentor (another MPA alum); Lyman was my mentor’s mentor. I was excited to talk with my grand-mentor about how the MPA program shaped his approach to public administration, how he’s seen the program evolve over the years, and what advice he has for scrappy young 1st years like myself. Ever an insightful figure, Lyman shed some light on how connections are made in the public sector, emphasized that hard data is what wins over public officials, and to always keep an eye out for opportunities.

What drew you to want to be a mentor/what keeps you coming back?

When I entered the MPA program (back in the stone age….) I was the only one in my class looking for a career in the arts – and, while the faculty was supportive of my direction, it was a rare one. Serendipitously, the NC Center for Public Policy Research was focusing on arts policy in state government and had a graduate assistantship opportunity available. I wrote three articles for their publication NC Arts Insight: “The North Carolina Arts Council”, “Baskets & Ballet: Making Arts Policy in North Carolina” and “Federal Budget Cuts to Culture: How Keen the Axe?”. A few years later an MPA student reached out to me as she had used info from the articles in her research. It was great to know there were others in the program with a goal of arts administration. Since then, as there have been more and more such students, I have been happy to provide perspectives and encouragement. I firmly believe the arts to be an important part of government services at all levels and am glad to continue to help graduates spread that message.

How have you seen the program change over the years?

The most obvious change, of course, was going to a full two-year curriculum. […] It does seem like the program is broader now and accommodates more and more students who are not necessarily looking to just become city managers.

What trends do you see continuing in the future for Arts Advocacy/Public Admin?

Overall, I have seen more and more municipal governments come to understand the role the arts can play as part of expected levels of service. More and more you can see that parks and recreation departments have added “cultural resources” (or something similar) to their titles. Or sometimes cities have established stand-alone cultural services departments. Also, it has become much more common for there to be a wider array of government grants (at all levels) available to support cultural programs.

One of the most visible trends has been the growing number of public art programs across the country. This aspect has become more and more associated with good planning and effective ways to create a sense of place. In some places (Cary is one example) having a municipal public art program has encouraged private developers to incorporate public art pieces into their developments. Probably the most publicized trend is the emphasis on the arts as an engine of economic development. … [T]he most recent [American’s For The Arts] survey … was released in 2016 and showed that for North Carolina the non-profit arts industry employed almost 72,000 people with a total spending of $2.1 billion which generated almost $107,000,000 in state government revenue and an additional $94,500,000 in local government revenue. Obviously, the pandemic has had an effect […] but I think it is safe to say that the arts will be back as an important economic driver.

What is some advice you’d give current MPA students looking to get into arts advocacy?

Make sure to understand the growing role the arts are continuing to play in local government. Be prepared to articulate how the arts really are a vital (and increasingly expected) part of governmental responsibilities. To that end, make sure to do the research with arts professionals and artists in your communities. Also understand the national picture – and Americans for the Arts is an excellent resource in that regard: www.americansforthearts.org

What is your next personal/professional goal for 2022?

Upon my retirement, I acquired the moniker “arts evangelist” which is an apt description of how I hope my post-career career pans out. I have always believed in the inherent power of the arts and have been exploring projects to keep my focus on spreading this gospel. To that end I have continued to be involved in a variety of arts related activities and organizations and use that involvement to help others find their voices. I hope I can continue to be a resource for young professionals and others looking to keep motivated in their careers. My most recent examples include service on the board of directors for Triangle ArtWorks, service on the planning committee for Arts North Carolina’s Arts Day next March and volunteer coordinator of the North Carolina Presenters Consortium’s Art Market in November.

Hispanic Heritage Month – Educating Myself on its Evolution

September 15th is the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, a 30-day period which runs from September to October. If you’re like me, you may have been vaguely aware of this cultural celebration, but relatively uneducated on its history and significance to both Latinx communities and the greater community of the United States. Let me take this moment to self-identify as a cis, white, straight, male (this is surprising to no one). As such, I decided to educate myself about this cultural celebration, and upon earning my PhD from Google I wanted to share a couple of the broader points.  

First and foremost: why does this “month” span two half months? Well, that’s actually kind of a long story…

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (career highlights include: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, creating Medicare and Medicaid, and being played by Brian Cranston in an HBO movie) created Hispanic Heritage Week to honor the cultures and contributions of the Hispanic people. He selected the week which included September 15th because Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua all celebrate their independence from Spain on this date, in addition to Mexico and Chile’s independence days, Sept 16th and 18th respectively. This heritage week would go on to become a month two decades later when President Ronald Reagan signed it into law on Aug. 17th, 1988.  

HOWEVER, let’s give credit where credit is due; the idea of making the heritage week into a heritage month was first proposed by California Representative Esteban Torres (we Stephens have to stick together). Unfortunately, Representative Torres’ initial bill failed to garner support, but the idea did stick around long enough to be added to another bill which was the one that Reagan signed into law.  

So now we have National Hispanic Heritage Month, but some people call it Latinx Heritage Month. What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino/Latina/Latinx?  

The term Hispanic dates back to the 16th century and holds two common definitions. According to Merriam Webster: 1) of, relating to, or being a person of Latin American descent and especially of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin living in the U.S. 2) of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain. Was that an “ah-ha!” moment for you? It was for me. In the later part of the 20th century Americans began using the term Hispanic to distinguish peoples from Central and South America from people living in the Central (or Mid-Western) and Southern United States, however the term “Hispanic” literally referred to people and cultures which trace their lineage back to Spain. Given the problematic and violent historical relationship between indigenous peoples in Central and South America and Spanish Conquistadors, it’s not hard to understand why folks proud of their heritage would reject this term in favor of the geographically oriented term “Latin.”   

Short questions have long answers, huh? Well, there’s one more part…  

Historically, the word “Latino” has been used to generally reference peoples living in and tracing their cultures and lineages back to Central and South America, however the ending “o” is the masculine suffix in Spanish, so this literally means “Latin men.” The feminine suffix in Spanish is “a,” hence “Latina” means “Latin women.” This is sort of like how some people use the generic pronoun “he” for a stranger, even though this is incorrect (at least) 51% of the time. So, the term “LatinX” was developed to include all Latin people.      

In short, September 15th – October 15th is a great excuse to support a Latinx-owned business, seek out art from a Latinx individual, or to simply education yourself about the world spins for other people. Thank you for coming on this journey with me. I hope you learned something and learned to consider some things a little differently, I know I did.   

Check out the UNC Carolina Latinx Center’s Event Calendar for some educational and FUN events happening around campus over the next month.