Gephardt News

All Politics is Local: Public Service Fellows Working in City Departments Share Learning and Advice

Public Service Fellows cohort; pictured left to right: Abbie Teurbe-Tolon, Madisen Janssen, Kyah Bridges, Zach Kassman.

Last summer, the Gephardt Institute introduced the four outstanding members of the 2019-2020 Public Service Fellows cohort (read the story here). Abbie Teurbe-Tolon, Madisen Janssen, Kyah Bridges, and Zach Kassman began their 10-month tenure as fellows by serving as generalists in the St. Louis City mayor’s office, working on a variety of tasks as they began to familiarize themselves more with public service in local government. At the summer’s end, the fellows dispersed into City departments of particular professional and civic interest. In this story, the fellows share what they’re working on currently, their impressions of the cohort experience, and advice for those looking to get more involved in local government.

The Gephardt Institute, in partnership with the Brown School, oversees the Public Service Fellows Program, which is designed for social work and public health graduate students to deepen their knowledge and skills for public service in local government. In addition to leadership training, mentorship, professional development, and experiential learning opportunities, each fellow is placed in a practicum position within St. Louis City government. Each fellow’s current work demonstrates their unique interests and the diversity of opportunities within the field of public service.

Abbie Teurbe-Tolon is working at the City Health Department on a variety of projects related to health and equity. She works on the maternal mental health project’s pop-up research squad. As a part of the information-sharing and public health initiatives of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Counsel, Abbie is helping to think through the streamlining of the criminal justice system, from arrest to release, in order to provide a full continuum of services to individuals in the system. She is also involved in the City’s implementation of Cure Violence, a model that originated in Chicago and has had global success, with the aim of reducing homicides in St. Louis. As her fieldwork continues, Abbie will also be conducting research on sexually transmitted diseases through a partnership with the Health Department and Washington University Medical School.

Madisen Jansson is continuing her work in the mayor’s office as a part of the communications team. She is responsible for preparing press releases, writing remarks and speeches for the mayor, attending aldermen committee hearings, and debriefing with the liaison to the board of aldermen on how legislation impacts the mayor’s office.

Kyah Bridges currently works at the Department of Human Services, focusing on issues related to housing and homelessness. Among several projects, she is researching and making recommendations for a move-on strategy, which aims to provide short-term housing to facilitate the transition to independent living. Kyah is also studying eviction rates for the city with the Housing Authority to see if there is any relation between Housing Authority eviction and the rate of homelessness. Finally, Kyah is researching and preparing recommendations for a landlord incentive fund which would incentivize renting to hard-to-house populations.

Zach Kassman is exploring issues surrounding vacancy in his work at the St. Louis Development Corporation. Alongside his supervisor Laura Ginn, Zach is working to launch a pilot program for Proposition Neighborhood Stabilization. Prop NS was petitioned by voters in 2017 and passed on the ballot, putting $40 million into a program to stabilize vacant houses owned by the City. Currently, Zach is working to identify houses that would be good candidates for the program. Vacancy Collaborative, an organization composed of government, nonprofit, for-profit, and community-based organizations, is involved in many conversations about this program, ensuring that community input is incorporated into the process.

Although the practicum experience is central to the Public Service Fellows program, the fellows also benefit from a robust cohort experience as they build relationships with each other, share successes and challenges, and learn together. Over the summer, the fellows all worked together at City Hall in the mayor’s office. This fall, though they see each other less frequently, they continue to stay connected. Coming from her last practicum experience where she was the only student, Kyah shared, “I didn’t know how valuable it was to have a cohort. You debrief, bounce ideas off each other, share experiences, and act as a sounding board. It has definitely been enhancing to the experience overall.” The fellows bring different interests and areas of expertise to their work, which has proven valuable for group learning. As Abbie said, “It’s great to be able to work with the cohort, because they have a different perspective on many issues. We bring different lenses to the work we do and how to think about different problems.” Zach agreed that the fellows’ differing specializations have helped to frame his own work. For instance, Zach’s MSW concentration is in social and economic development, while Abbie is a public health student. “Getting the public health perspective on issues of vacancy has been really valuable,” Zach said. “I’ve learned from talking with people from various backgrounds and getting their input on topics. There’s a definite camaraderie within the group.” Although their perspectives and focuses differ, the fellows have the shared experience of working within the context of St. Louis City government. Madisen shared that “even though the rest of the fellows aren’t with me every day, they still understand the players and the structures of city government. City government is complex, and it’s nice to have people to talk about it with and process the experience.”

Just as the fellows differ in academic and professional experience, they also come from different regional backgrounds, which inform their experience of the program as they get to know St. Louis in new and different ways. Zach is the only native St. Louisan in the group. When discussing issues, he is often able to contribute background knowledge, having seen the issues evolve over many years. Zach also shared that he has interacted with his hometown in new ways: “I’ve explored more parts of the city and had more opportunities to engage with communities that I otherwise would have had to try harder to access.”

Kyah has observed similarities between St. Louis and her hometown of Chicago, noting the parallel struggles for both cities following industrialization. “I’ve gained behind-the-scenes knowledge that’s helpful as a social work student thinking about how to impact big issues and identify where the barriers to progress really lie,” she said. Abbie agreed that she has gained a deeper understanding of the City. “My thoughts are more nuanced now, and my investment in the city has increased. I want to keep learning and following issues in St. Louis.” Similarly, Madisen’s experience has deepened her ties to the city. “This experience has made me a St. Louis person,” she said. “I’m committed to staying now, and I’m invested in the city’s success.” The fellows will continue in their current roles through April 2020.

Interested in getting more involved in local government? The fellows shared their advice for practical steps that citizens can take.

Abbie: “There are simple things that people can do to get more involved. All public meetings are listed on the City website. You can attend alderman meetings to get an idea of what’s going on. Vote in local elections and do your homework beforehand, researching the ballot and the issues at stake.”

Kyah: “Community members play a large role in St. Louis in holding appointed and elected officials accountable. Young people can play a really important role in energizing the atmosphere and bringing new ideas to the table. My advice to students is to put to use what you’ve learned in the classroom. Through this program, I’ve been able to apply the theories and the history that I’m learning, which enhances both my professional and academic experience. When you put your learning into practice, you’re able to be a better-informed citizen, and having an informed populace is critical to having a functional democracy.”

Zach: “Get off campus and explore different areas outside of the WashU footprint. Try to follow local government through the news and pay attention to what’s going on. Engage in communities by attending community meetings and finding out what communities’ needs and goals are beyond the university. Listen to local residents and learn what they would like to see happen in St. Louis.”

Madisen: “Go to committee hearings. They’re all public and available on YouTube. The full board meetings on Fridays are open to the public. Follow local news, and vote in local elections. In St. Louis, the board of aldermen do a lot of constituent services, so it’s important to know who your alderperson is. It’s easy to follow federal and even state-level issues, but sometimes people forget that local policy really matters.”

The Public Service Fellows Program, part of the Engage Democracy Initiative, is generously funded by Bruce Levenson, AB ’71, and Karen Levenson.