They buy. We build. Our Way's Better.
Despite wasting vast resources on performative or poorly executed DEI initiatives, diversity & innovation and, by extension, impact in public policymaking remains stifled by homogeneity.
Leadership pathways and ‘real’ access to power remain ‘privileges’ of a very select few to give. With such a small pool of candidates, mediocrity among this group is rewarded, the status quo maintained, criticism is avoided through dismissal as impoliteness. Self interest supplants public interest. Little-to-no progress is made. Because ‘forward’ is not the goal when you’re happy exactly where you are. Stasis is.
Despite this lacking expectation of accountability or performance, policy & advocacy organizations spend the bulk of salaries and benefits on this group.
Meanwhile, little-to-no resources are spent identifying, engaging, training, developing, networking, coaching, mentoring and sponsoring the more diverse, young, creative, more practically trained scholars whose expertise will be called on to lead us into an increasingly uncertain future.
Giving the most resources to those who need them the least, and the least to those who need them the most is as absurd as it is inequitable. It’s a flaw in any design and this one is eating away at the heart of our American system.
Classrooms are cool.
The real world is cooler.
Even the best academic programs don’t teach the vocational skills necessary to hit the ground running as a policy pro. For example, a Master’s in Public Policy or similar degree will teach you political theory or give you an academic understanding of the policy process. But it won’t help you master practical skills like managing donor relationships, writing op-eds on demand, pushing past political difficulties to build a coalition, or engaging the media and legislators strategically and to maximum effect. Nor will it teach you the difference between purely academic and impact-driven policy research or how to anticipate the needs of varying audiences you’ll want to engage on discrete issues.
Worst of all, though, it doesn’t require you to engage with the communities your policies will affect or teach you the ‘insider’ knowledge you’ll need to navigate even the most difficult people and systems effectively.
Internships can help, but as any aspiring policy professional will tell you, in lots of cases, they’re unpaid entirely. When they do pay, it’s not a livable wage in expensive cities like DC or Boston, where most of the opportunities reside. All this means that if you aren’t already part of a very privileged group, the chance of a successful or lucrative career in public policy is likely out of reach. At the very least, it’ll often be a demoralizing slog.
Osmosis isn’t a training strategy
Even the most prestigious think tanks notoriously lack organized, results-driven and robust training, professional development and coaching capacity. In fact, in many cases, the sum total of their job-specific training for junior staff is an assumption they’ll learn by osmosis.
The failure of this ‘strategy’ is strikingly obvious in both exit interviews and online reviews, where the most common complaints from early-career employees are insufficient compensation relative to less-capable senior scholars; lack of consistent hands-on management and coaching; and a lack of training and professional development opportunities.
While many think tanks do provide some of these resources, opportunities are often inconsistent, misaligned to the practical requirements of the field or are unequally applied from organization to organization and person to person.
Without proactively identified outcomes, success metrics and clear promotion pathways, the quality of training and opportunity for advancement boils down to the luck of the draw. This is problematic across the board but, like everything else in society, it disproportionately harms historically or routinely excluded policy analysts.
In fact, the lack of appropriate representation they already face within policy leadership reduces their mentorship, sponsorship and coaching opportunities–and means that senior staff are left to decide who to support and develop based on affinity or other arbitrary preferences instead of capability and merit.
This is an existential crisis to the future of sound, evidence-based policymaking but it’s also a legal liability to organizations and undermines any stated diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
We're fixing the pipeline!
Achieving a more diverse, capable policy ecosystem is tough. Since they exist to produce research and educate people, think tanks are a lot like universities. Even an entry-level policy role requires some form of subject matter expertise, which is traditionally demonstrated by advanced levels of education.
But, as we all know, higher education is so expensive that even a bachelor’s degree is out of reach for most Americans, and the return on investment is increasingly uncertain given the rising costs and creeping missions that plague universities in the 21st century.
Getting the master’s degree or PhD think tanks prefer reduces numbers, diversity of thought and access even further.
The Policy School at WMPC
We’re not afraid to put it bluntly: we’re not interested in ‘leveling the playing field’ because the game itself is broken.
Instead, we’re changing the rules–by directly privileging and resourcing historically or routinely excluded, early-career policy analysts and better positioning them for real opportunity, power and influence.
Instead of charging to teach them theory in a vacuum or forcing them through poorly paid, unregulated internships, they’ll spend a year with us as fully paid and benefited fellows. Here, they’ll learn while they earn, build their own portfolios, and emerge as far more capable, responsive and agile policy engineers than their traditional counterparts.
Who We're Looking For
We’re specifically seeking aspiring policy professionals from BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those with disabilities, and those who are neurodiverse or divergent.
We also recognize the unique contributions and skillsets of experienced ground-level practitioners without formal academic training and encourage them to apply.
Likewise, we seek all kinds of experiential diversity such as status as a first-generation college student, single parenthood, a childhood in foster care, a history of addiction, carceral system involvement or experience as a welfare recipient.
Basically, any experience or identity that serves as a historical barrier to privilege and power qualifies as valuable and trainable expertise here.
During their year-long fellowship with us, our scholars will rotate through both classroom instruction and vocational training modules. Each rotation and curriculum is based around the training gaps and lacking skill sets produced by traditional policy training. The techniques taught and pedagogies employed are devised as direct solutions to those known issues. As a result, WMPC fellows leave us uniquely capable in the real competencies necessary for policy impact, professional and personal advancement.
Salary and Benefits
- $50,000 annual salary
- Health insurance coverage
- Unlimited vacation
- Sick leave
- Credit toward PSLF student loan forgiveness
- Wellness and cell phone reimbursements
- (Eventually) fully subsidized residency in Policy Center housing (within walking distance of the Center to avoid the exorbitant expense of housing and transportation)
- Career placement assistance at completion of fellowship
- A portfolio of work you’ll create to build your own brand as a policy expert
- Access to a group of diverse and committed sponsors, mentors, trainers and coaches that cultivate and support your success and provide you with ongoing professional guidance and support
Policy School Rotations:
Business Development and Donor Relationship Management
Fundraising is how we secure the necessary resources to create sound policy and engage the right stakeholders. But, asking for money is notoriously uncomfortable and the challenges of today’s political and donor landscape to the integrity of objective policy research are profound. This is true even for seasoned policy professionals.
Courses and certificates in fundraising and nonprofit management are available, but most require out-of-pocket expenditures. To the extent they’re offered as courses in academic programs, they’re often treated as electives rather than core requirements. In any event, most of the options are geared toward business development professionals, so they traditionally cover ways to get money in the door, but not what to do once it’s there.
But for policy professionals, additional responsibilities exist to create and sustain meaningful and organic relationships; manage difficult or improper donor expectations; accurately estimate the true cost of their programs and plan strategically for other resources required. At any rate, finding any of these training opportunities and vetting their quality and return on investment would fall on the kind of dedicated, in-house professional training function that even the most respected and well-resourced think tanks don’t have.
At the WMPC Policy School, this portion of the curriculum will cover all these topics and more, and will be taught by the same experts and practitioners that others pay to engage. As an added bonus, our fellows will have ongoing access to these trainers and mentors for the duration of the fellowship and beyond.
After the instructional portion of this rotation, fellows will learn by doing; helping to identify and secure funding for their programmatic priorities, shepherding proposals through the process, managing donor relationships, and tracking and reporting expenditures.
These skills position them to ascend leadership ladders more quickly, as they’ll more often enjoy funding that follows them and lets them build and expand programs more quickly–or achieve policy impact faster and on a larger scale.
Media Engagement and Policy Communications
It’s no secret that super smart types don’t always have personalities (or the desire) for the camera. But they also don’t have training in how to use it to their advantage and avoid its pitfalls either.
Successful policy impact requires skilled, strategic and targeted communications strategies. Experts always know what they want to say. But knowing how and when to say it, through what medium and in what place, and how to explain it to each specific audience is what distinguishes useful experts from tower-bound academics.
Our Media Engagement and Policy Communications rotation teaches our fellows how to incorporate proactive communications strategies into their policy work. It also trains them to understand the power and importance of meaningful relationships and open information sharing with all kinds of external media organizations as a way to increase audience engagement and impact.
The classroom portion of this rotation will be taught by working media professionals at various levels of their careers and by policy communications professionals working to amplify the products and profiles of their own scholars and organizations. Fellows also learn audience-driven, policy specific social and digital media strategies.
They will also spend time embedded in various media and/or policy communications organizations to train alongside these professionals as they navigate the challenges, demands and considerations that drive their own strategic planning and perform the day-to-day tasks these jobs require.
Learning these skills teaches early career professionals to build their own brand and profile faster and in a more targeted manner, giving them professional capital sooner than traditional scholars. Respected public profiles aid in fundraising, media saturation, and better opportunities to ascend into leadership positions on a shorter timeline.
Legislators are vital resources and supporters of think tanks because they rely on us to collect and present the subject matter data that informs sound legislation and helps them identify and meet the needs of their constituents. At the end of the day, creating people-centered policy often ends in the passage of legislation or in changes to improve the ways we’re regulated or how particular services and resources are distributed.
This is why maintaining close relationships to legislators at all levels of government is one of the most important activities a think tank can engage in.
But, there are also legal, ethical and political sensitivities and associated best practices that must be understood and respected to build and maintain trust with elected officials and their staff.
Taught by former legislators, staffers and nonprofit government affairs practitioners, the classroom portion of this rotation will teach fellows:
- when and how to engage appropriately with legislators
- how to help them navigate competing policy priorities
- how to work with staffers to educate and engage with legislators and constituents to shape human- rather than special interest-centered policy.
Vocational training in these areas is provided by the programmatic and community engagement work our scholars perform organically as part of their residency.
Civic and Municipal Systems Navigation & Community Engagement
Experts at traditional think tanks are often counterproductively one-dimensional. The most effective, inclusive policy is created by those who have a unique blend of academic and practical training.
Traditional education gives context. It teaches history, frameworks for thinking and broad overviews of particular fields. It also provides the vocabulary to discuss these things with others who share this context.
But ‘public’ policy specifically requires one to work for–and with–those who don’t share this context. And, at heart, ‘policy’ is about real people and real systems. Not theoretical ones. It’s about the present and the future. Not the past. And it’s about demonstrated results, not the pursuit of knowledge for its–and one’s–own sake.
Nevertheless, universities and think tanks focus almost exclusively on academic credentials and training, and demonstrate productivity with products meant only for them. This means they’re only talking to each other–but speaking for and about the rest of us. And, the farther one advances into academic expertise, the more distant from the practical they have to become.
This Catch-22 is one of the main reasons public policy is so disconnected from the people it affects. It’s also why public trust in research and objectivity is frighteningly low.
If our role can be saved, we need better-trained experts who have experience with the systems they work in and engage directly with the communities they serve.
Our fellows achieve this balance in one of two ways. Many come directly from the communities they serve. Those who don’t, will obtain this practical training by engaging directly with those who do through community outreach and or walk-in clinics that are open to the public. This will make us the first think tank in the country (that we’re aware of!) that is directly accessible to any member of the public.
This model democratizes the privilege of access and provides direct help navigating broken or opaque systems. It also helps mediate disconnects or communication gaps.
When we can’t help, our fellows will learn to connect clients with other organizations, municipal offices, services or people that can. Then, we’ll help follow up and push progress forward as necessary.
This teaches our fellows a broad range of systems (and people) precisely by navigating them. Through real-time ‘triaging,’ they learn to prioritize, strategize and operationalize their approaches–at any level–of a wide range of issues.
Most importantly, dealing directly with the community teaches them the value of kindness, compassion, inclusion and responsiveness at the ground-level of policy. It humbles them, reminds them who they work for and gives them a vested interest in the outcomes they help achieve.
As we serve the community, the community provides us with a unique level of access to the kind of raw data and feedback that uniquely positions our policy analysts to identify emerging policy issues or failing systems faster, and then to build solutions-driven policy from the ground up.
This kind of novelty in research places WMPC fellows at the avant-garde of the policy front on most, if not all, issues. And when the time is right, they use their unique understanding of the policy cycle and systems to achieve broadly supported results faster.
This isn’t teaching and talking in an ivory tower. It’s vocational policy and public service work in the real world–where almost all of us live.
Creating, Deploying & Achieving Impactful Policy
Much of the work traditionally trained policy experts do doesn’t achieve real impact. This happens because, even as they think of themselves as superiorly-capable to universities, think tanks can’t seem to keep from mimicking them–including their greatest areas of weakness.
Anyone who’s attended college has had at least one professor who was advertised as a brilliant researcher, but couldn’t explain even the most basic concepts to a room full of undergraduate students. Sadly, those with advanced credentials in public policy are often similarly ineffective at summarizing, explaining or persuading–in any language except ‘Wonk.’
Further, to whatever degree they learn research methodologies through their academic work, they struggle to know when and how to apply them to actual policy questions in real time and without a qualified trainer to guide them. This results in ‘research’ that asks overly broad or academic questions and contributes mostly to knowledge production.
It also wastes time, energy and valuable resources as they spin their wheels producing work in a vacuum rather than for a targeted purpose or audience in mind.
For example, long-form research production and writing is the prevailing and persistent currency of the academy. But in the real world almost nobody reads long-form research writing anymore–and most people never did. Nevertheless, since the academy is where traditional policy scholars and donors alike are trained, they often believe that’s what they have to produce to sound knowledgable and legitimate.
But this is almost always counterproductive because academic research is exclusionary and inaccessible by nature. It has a very particular and limited audience and mostly doesn’t consider any outcome or implementation. Not only that, policymaking often happens in real time and changes quickly. Time consuming quantitative studies or book-length qualitative analysis mostly isn’t possible and would only be useful as part of a much broader communications strategy anyway.
Not to mention it’s already harder than ever to rival the glut of short-form mis- and dis-information that’s specifically tailored to the attention spans, anxieties, fears and frustrations of the very people intellectuals keep talking over.
Too commonly, the outcome is ‘deliverables’ that don’t deliver much other than a scream into the void, a line item on a grant report or a pat on the back for the individual who wrote it. It also means that, in many cases, people advertised as experts might ‘fake it’ but won’t really ever ‘make it.’ Even as they sit collecting dust on think tank payrolls.
This makes the ability to strategize based on current reality rather than nostalgic and arbitrary ideals the single most valuable skill today’s policy scholar can bring to the table.
Accordingly, the classroom portion of this rotation will train WMPC fellows to identify and perform right-sized research types and methods based on the specifics of the policy problem at hand.
Instead of cherry-picking data to prove a predetermined, ideological outcome (as many think tanks do today), our scholars learn to reintroduce the scientific method into the policy-specific context. They derive their recommendations from the best objective data, collaboratively derived and interdisciplinary best practices, and a deep and continuing engagement with a variety of audiences and stakeholders.
Unlike ideologically funded policy fellowships, we don’t teach our scholars to present propaganda and call it objective research. We teach them to present objective research in the compelling format of propaganda.
Likewise, WMPC fellows aren’t trained to manipulate others as a way to push policy that benefits us or our donors. They’re trained to work alongside and with community members to help create and deploy policy that works for those who need it.
Finally, we don’t tacitly or explicitly encourage them to ignore or villainize people who don’t agree with them. Instead, we inspire them to seek out tough challenges with alternate approaches and let the strength or weakness of their proposals play out for themselves. To do this, we train them with the mediation and arbitration skills that help root out the real source of impasse which, at the local and regional level, is very unlikely to be a desire to advance political dogma.
Thanks to the corresponding vocational training provided by their self-guided programmatic work, our scholars’ policy strategies, solutions and other activities aren’t created in a theoretical vacuum. They learn to plan, prepare, produce and deliver highly targeted policy research for every stage of the policy cycle and for a wide variety of audiences and uses.
They also learn to align products and other activities more deliberately with strategic and programmatic goals and existing resources; to collaborate more effectively across departments and disciplines; and to grow their policy work proactively and strategically.
Unlike many traditional think tanks, we specialize in cures–not bandaids. And preventative treatment. Our scholars are trained to view failure tolerance as a necessary and instructive part of the policymaking process. When new data is presented, they learn to quickly aggregate and synthesize, determine successes and failures without ego, and adjust future policy and processes accordingly.
Our graduates won’t go out into the world afraid to admit mistakes. Because they’ll be uniquely trained–and eager–to fix them.
Thanks to their work directly with the community, instead of reading textbooks with sample data, they’ll collect real, ground-level data our trainers, researchers and mentors will teach them how to use to identify unique, emerging and more immediate policy priorities, and tailor activities and products to real people and the daily issues they face.
This portion of the fellowship will be led by WMPC’s president and supported by a host of diversely representative practitioners, subject matter experts, researchers and publications professionals. Fellows will also benefit from our proximity to the Five College consortium and its vast network of resources as they learn to more seamlessly integrate theory with practice.
Partnership & Coalition-Building
For those without the exclusive access and resources that accompany extreme privilege, the best way to amplify our voices and strengthen our impact is to join forces, coordinate efforts and support each other in whatever ways we can.
To do this, the most competent policy scholars must learn to identify, develop, maintain and grow a robust network of partners, supporters, collaborators and adjacent organizations of all kinds. These relationships help us:
- more accurately aggregate need
- devise holistic and interdisciplinary best practices and solutions
- connect people with services and systems
- access and amplify the soundest, best available data for others to use
- identify data we haven’t yet collected.
Unfortunately, the realities of funding, politics, positions and even personalities make it hard to establish and make coalitions and partnerships operational. As a result, many that would have been uniquely impactful flounder or die on the vine.
To address this, the classroom portion of the Partnership & Coalition-Building rotation will teach WMPC fellows how to apply organizational best practices in the context of policy coalitions. Specifically, they learn to identify and vet the most promising opportunities and then to structure and maintain the processes required to:
- set clear goals
- flesh out decision-making parameters
- establish roles & responsibilities
- operationalize their activities.
The class is facilitated by scholar-practitioners who have used these strategies in contexts like nonprofit leadership, research production and community organizing.
At the same time, vocational training is provided in this area by WMPC’s think tank operations. Our direct engagement with individuals and groups in Western Mass provides the mechanism for identification, outreach and continued relationship building with partners.
The programmatic work our scholars will undertake as part of their policy training provides natural opportunities to work together with partners on products, events, education and outreach.
Fellows will also have access to our entire network of board and advisory committee members. This provides them with the kind of useful context only practitioners can provide. It also democratizes the privilege of otherwise exclusive access that traditional scholars enjoy.
At the same time, the people they meet and organizations they engage with will grow and strengthen each scholar’s own professional network–not only in their field of choice, but in a broad range of related ones. This guarantees they’ll have more opportunity for competitive employment and advancement once the fellowship is complete.
WMPC is also fortunate because the concentration of colleges, universities, and technical and trade schools throughout Western Massachusetts gives our fellows direct access to subject matter experts, mentors, research and other resources.
This establishes WMPC as a hub and places our scholars at the center by teaching them to connect people with resources through deep and enduring reciprocal relationships.
Support the next generation of policy scholars.
Contribute to our inaugural cohort of three policy fellows to begin in 2024.