By Anthony Barrows, MC/MPA ’13, Staff Writer
As a Gleitsman Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership, I had the privilege of spending spring break in New York City for our field experience. This four-day trip gave the Gleitsman and Zuckerman Fellows a snapshot of how America’s largest city grapples with some of today’s toughest public policy problems.
We met with leaders from across the spectrum of ideologies and sectors and spent much-needed time in reflection about how these approaches could inform our own leadership. Although each visit was incredible, I want to highlight a select few organized around four themes that emerged from our exploration: holistic interventions, community empowerment, the importance of the physical environment and the centrality of values to public life.
The most resonant lesson for me during the trip was that people and communities must be considered in their entirety. This approach is both transformative and deeply difficult. To use a medical metaphor, holistic interventions find ways to treat underlying conditions rather than fixating on symptoms.
Our very first meeting was with Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders. She calls their pioneering work “Holistic Defense.” Although the agency’s primary mission is public defense, they also employ social workers, advocates and organizers to meet the deeper needs that may have drawn their clients into the criminal justice system. It was inspiring to see people who acknowledge that justice is more than just enforcing the law.
Another enterprise involving criminal justice was Defy Ventures, an organization which believes that people with criminal histories have the capacity to translate their managerial, leadership and entrepreneurial skills into legitimate businesses. They look beyond people’s deficits to create capacity from their strengths. This requires the acknowledgement that even ex-cons have potential to make positive contributions in the community. And this may be the most profound shift a society can make, to find ways to for the disempowered and marginalized to contribute to a culture that traditionally leaves them behind..
The life of any city is shaped by its physical environment. Our meeting with Michael Arad, designer of the 9/11 Memorial, highlighted the power of public spaces and the struggle of using public processes to serve community needs.
Arad talked about the need to grapple with paradoxes inherent in a sacred public space like the World Trade Center site. This included the need to make “absence present” and to be “defiant without being bellicose.” Those contradictions are realized beautifully throughout his work in a way that words cannot capture.
We also toured the High Line – an urban park reclaimed from an elevated rail line – with urban designers and planners Justin Moore & Lee Altman. Although that public space serves a very different purpose than the memorial, it also has to balance tensions; in this case between economic growth and affordability as well as between development and displacement.
A fascinating aspect of the High Line is its attention to “active design” which aims to use public space to achieve public health goals by promoting physical activity.
A very different approach to public space came from the Creative Arts Workshop for Kids, which employs young people to create outdoor murals collaboratively designed with community members.
Our walking tour of murals in Harlem with founder Brian Ricklin gave us a chance hear from the youth and see their neighborhood and artwork up close. By getting kids and neighbors involved in shaping public art, they create an excellent example of democratic principles and art in cooperative action.
Another thread throughout the trip was the need to include the community in decision-making. The best example of this (and my favorite part of the trip) was the NYC Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council, composed of 20 talented high school students who aim to improve their city. Working with Coro New York, the Council advises Mayor Bloomberg on youth-oriented policy issues each year.
It was great to see young people valued for their expertise, ideas and capacity to enhance the well being of the city and its people.
The OpEd Project also works to expand the voices in the public sphere, with a particular focus on amplifying the perspectives of women. They help people normally excluded from thought leadership articulate their expertise and connect their stories to public opinion and public policy.
This project encourages commitment to more inclusion and engagement to create change that matters. Diversity of voices is the antidote to a poverty of ideas.
Generation Citizen also works to expand the voices influencing public policy by teaching high school students principles of civic action through democratic institutions. By employing college students as “Democracy Coaches,” the program gives young people an experiential lesson in civic engagement by guiding adolescents through an advocacy campaign that addresses issues directly relevant to the youth themselves.
I am a true believer in the need for a broader array of perspectives in public policy decisions and was pleasantly surprised to see so many people making that a reality.
Values in Public Life
The Kennedy School generally has a technocratic culture. This means that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture because we ask questions about technical and pragmatic solutions without reflecting on the implicit values that drive our society.
When we conflate means and ends, we fail to invest energy and meaning into our actual priorities. For example, I believe that we value capitalist competition not because it is inherently good, but because it can deliver us better lives.
When the means to achieving well-being are conflated with well-being itself, we quickly go awry. In essence, we must ask ‘why’ and not just ‘how.’
Bob Steel, the NYC Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Chairman of the Board of the Aspen Institute made an excellent case for the role of values in civic life. I was heartened by his commitment to exploring dissenting views on public policy issues and his passionate commitment to equality of opportunity.
Those values underlie the spirit of urbanism, which revels in the frisson of dissimilarity in close quarters and the creative tension it can provide. His conception of economic development includes livability along with more traditional business concerns and definitely steers his approach to public service into areas where political pragmatism might not.
Our meeting with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly also exemplified the need for values-based dialogue about government programs. Kelly faces the enormous task of ensuring public safety for a global city. This begs the question of how the values of security and liberty are being balanced against each other.
The Commissioner was very generous with his time and thoughts, but I left our meeting with concerns. His message seemed to be that security was worth any cost to privacy or freedom, but this thinking conflicts with my understanding of a democratic and free society. Democracy implies that people affected by decisions should have a voice in them, so I struggle to imagine how a policy like “Stop and Frisk” that instills fear and mistrust in young men of color could be seen to serve the public.
We must remember that legality is not equivalent to morality. Ultimately, I was pleased to be able to hear candidly from Steel, Commissioner Kelly and Joseph Lhota, a Republican mayoral candidate about these difficult issues, and to be able to ask tough questions. The privilege of our high-level access comes with a responsibility to further critical dialogue.
In the end, however, the most important aspect of this trip was certainly the time I spent with the other fellows. The bus rides, walks and shared meals allowed us to engage in conversations rarely afforded in the constant whir of the classroom or the Forum. Our dialogue, especially around issues where we disagreed, helped strengthen our ties by illuminating our individual perspectives and reaffirming something we all have in common: our passion for the public good.