From climate change to police shootings, policy students tackle urgent issues

June 27, 2017

Price students worked with clients from across California and the nation on their practicum projects.

By Cristy Lytal

During the year-long Policy Analysis Practicum, USC’s Master of Public Policy students served as consultants for professional organizations addressing today’s most urgent crises — from unemployment to rising sea levels to officer-involved shootings.

For each practicum project, small teams of MPP students from the Price School of Public Policy analyzed key policy questions for high-profile government agencies, educational organizations, nonprofits and private-sector clients.

Students worked with national clients such as the U.S. Congressional Research Service and FosterEd. California-based clients included the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Bridgespan Group, the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, the California Organized Investment Network, the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families, the L.A. Great Streets Initiative, the San Diego Workforce Partnership, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

One project, which focused on approaches to increase the supply of housing in order to retain California’s workforce, was recently featured in the news.

“A common thread among our students is their passion for making a real impact,” said Associate Professor Juliet Musso, who teaches the practicum course. “In each of these projects, they have the opportunity to make sound contributions – grounded in evidence and guided by research – toward solving an array of challenges.”

Examining officer-involved shootings

From left: Ellen Lawther, Jacob Denney, Celia Guo and Britney Wise (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

One MPP student team – named the recipient of the 2017 Biller Award for most outstanding practicum project – took a hard look at officer-involved shootings in Fresno at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. The student group consisted of Jacob Denney, Celia Guo, Ellen Lawther and Britney Wise.

“It’s been great to consult for an organization that’s doing really important work in social justice, not just in Fresno, but around the country,” said Lawther, who earned her MPP degree along with a Public Policy Advocacy graduate certificate in May. “We had a great relationship with the client, and it’s given us a bit of an insight into the ACLU and how they run. It also taught me the importance of making sure that public serving bodies are actually held accountable for their actions as public servants.”

The team found that in 2015, the Fresno Police Department had more officer-involved shootings, per capita, than any of the other 10 largest California cities. Eighty percent of the victims were African-American and Latino, and most of the shootings took place in lower-income neighborhoods.

The team detailed some of issues related to the Fresno Police Department’s actions, and outlined model practices from police departments in Los Angeles and Dallas. Based on this research, they recommended that the Fresno Police Department implement anti-bias and de-escalation trainings, mandate the proper use of body cameras, increase their diversity, and improve their community relations and transparency.

“We’re hoping to convert the students’ research findings into a report that we can use in our advocacy in Fresno,” said client Novella Coleman, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “I’m just super grateful for the USC [Price School of Public Policy] giving us their time and attention and expertise. And I was incredibly impressed by the students’ professionalism and the initiative they took.”

The students felt well equipped for the professional challenge, thanks to their MPP course work.

“There’s a bit of every class in the practicum,” said Lawther. “This really puts the value of your degree into perspective, and you know you’ve learned skills that really are valuable in the workplace and are totally 100 percent transferable.”

Riding the rising tides

Mengjia Yao, Robert Cudd, Sarah Ungureit and William Dunbar (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

The MPP team of Kevin Baron, Robert Cudd, William Dunbar, Sarah Ungureit and Mengjia Yao explored governance approaches to adapt to rising sea levels for their client, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency with regional authority over San Francisco Bay.

The student team evaluated several U.S. coastal cities: Baltimore, Md.; Boston, Mass.; New York, N.Y.; Charlestown, S.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and Olympia, Wash.

“I learned about the U.S. response at the state level, because there’s not really a response at the federal level at the moment, to climate change,” said Cudd, who reviewed various state adaptation plans for the project.

Based on best practices gleaned from their case studies, the team suggested that BCDC develop a system for collecting and analyzing new data on sea level rise projections and impacts. They also recommended that any sea level adaptation grant funding should prioritize the protection of coastal ecosystems. Lastly, they proposed a forum where BCDC and other stakeholders – including public servants, elected officials, nonprofits, private-sector individuals and community members – could exchange ideas.

The team delivered this research in a presentation and a 126-page report.

Their research will have the potential to inform climate change policy not only in the Bay Area, but also in other parts of the country.

“We need to discover what other states are doing that works, and we want to share that information nationally,” said client Larry Goldzband, executive director of BCDC. “The students were both inspiring and respectful, an awesome combination. Of course, they are also smart — a requirement. They asked good questions and then provided solid suggestions about how to proceed with the project, and we worked on those process questions collaboratively.”

Connecting youth with opportunity

Clockwise, from left: Anisha Hingorani, Monica Santander and Felix Rodriguez

MPP students Anisha Hingorani, Mingyi Li, Felix Rodriguez and Monica Santander performed an analysis of San Diego County’s “opportunity youth,” 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school nor employed.

At the request of their client, the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the team reported that opportunity youth represented 9.7 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds in San Diego County, or 43,210 people, in 2015. A disproportionate number of opportunity youth come from poor and minority backgrounds.

The team did an analysis of the projected return-on-investment of workforce development services for opportunity youth. They also made recommendations to better connect opportunity youth to services — including ride-share transportation, child care, outreach materials in additional languages, better data collection, and more services in the East and North areas of the county.

“We enjoyed working with the USC team,” said client Sarah Burns, research manager at the San Diego Workforce Partnership. “They were always professional, responsive and adaptable. The team’s work contributed to a study we published in conjunction with a few other research agencies, and is helping to inform county-wide strategies for combatting youth disconnection.”

According to the students, several MPP courses were critical to producing these results: Multivariate Statistical Analysis; Methods for Policy Analysis; Foundations of Policy Analysis; Public Policy Formulation and Implementation; and Policy and Program Evaluation.

Applying these classroom skills in a real-world context was “really hard work,” Santander said. “Things will go wrong. You have to have perseverance and patience, and be creative in problem solving.”

Now, Santander feels well prepared to pursue a career in the field. “It did advance my particular career goals in working on child welfare issues and youth outcomes,” she noted. “I am better equipped at using policy analysis tools in the context of at-risk youth interventions.”

Serving those who serve

From left: Nicholas Weinmeister, Majken Geiman, Kristen Nystrom, Laura Covarrubias and Edgar Ortiz (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Another MPP team studied the effectiveness of the “10,000 Strong Initiative,” a program committed to the hiring of 10,000 veterans in Los Angeles County between 2013 and 2017. The team prepared the report for the Center for Innovation and Research (CIR) on Veteran & Military Families at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and for the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative, comprised of local stakeholders and representatives from more than 400 organizations serving veterans and military families.

The team – featuring Laura Covarrubias, Majken Geiman, Kristen Nystrom, Edgar Ortiz and Nicholas Weinmeister – found that the initiative increased the number of veterans employed within Los Angeles County, and enhanced collaboration among veteran service organizations. The team also identified opportunities for improvement, particularly in publicizing programs and services that reintegrate veterans into civilian life.

“I have been involved in the veteran space for several years now, so this project was particularly enlightening for me,” said Geiman, who earned her MPP along with a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security and Public Policy in May, while working for the U.S. Army Reserve, and the Mission Continues, an organization that promotes volunteerism by disabled and wounded veterans. “I think I can speak for my whole team in saying that we will be able to better serve future clients and maintain an open line of communication, having completed this first project.”

One of the project’s clients – Nathan Graeser, community program administrator at CIR – called working with the students “a great experience.” He added, “We worked with them, but actually most of their interaction was with a lot of our other veteran employment service providers here on the ground, and with the 10,000 Strong Initiative. So it was a little bit of a hybrid client relationship, because their client was this larger effort that’s happening.”

According to Geiman, working with multiple clients was a valuable experience: “Our team learned a lot about juggling expectations, remaining flexible and communication.”

Informing Congress about a crisis

From left: Alicia Gonzalez, Yaqin Liu, Janet Li, Tony Hui, Professor T.J. McCarthy and Bárbara Higuera Pérez (Photo by Dave Scavone)

MPP students Alicia Gonzalez, Bárbara Higuera Pérez, Tony Hui, Janet Li and Yaqin Liu studied U.S. retirement wealth for their client, the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“I had high expectations for this group of USC students, which they easily exceeded,” said John Topoleski, analyst in income security in the Income Security Section of the Domestic Social Policy Division of CRS. “I very much enjoyed seeing the students meet the challenges of understanding the topic and policy issues, and then moving on to work with complicated data. They were enthusiastic about the project from start to finish.”

The student team reported that 52 percent of U.S. households over age 55 have no retirement wealth in either IRAs or defined contribution plans such as a 401(k). Those most likely to possess retirement wealth are white, married, college-educated, high-income people between the ages of 55 and 64. Disparities follow the lines of race, income and education.

To address this challenge, the team made several recommendations, including automatic enrollment in IRAs, automatic escalation of employee contributions, and reforms to tax policy.

The team shared their findings in Washington, D.C. at a presentation attended by 25 people from all divisions of the CRS.

“Working for the CRS was an incredible opportunity,” said Li, a dual degree candidate in Price’s MPP and Master of Planning programs. “I have considered working for a federal agency like the CRS, the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, or the Government Accountability Office as a potential career path; so being able to get a glimpse into a typical project at CRS was very interesting and demonstrated how the MPP program had done an excellent job in preparing us for a job at one of these agencies.”

The 2017 MPP Practicum projects were:

“Reducing Officer-Involved Shootings in Fresno, California: A Report Prepared for the American Civil Liberties Union”
Client: American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
Students: Jacob Denney, Celia Guo, Ellen Lawther, Britney Wise

“Improving Social Mobility for At-Risk Youth in Los Angeles County”
Client: The Bridgespan Group
Students: Rachel Huguet, Thai Le, Fang Li, Elsa Carolina Mantilla Garcia, Katharine Stofer

“Building California’s Future: Approaches to Increase the Supply of Housing to Retain California’s Workforce”
Client: California Foundation for Commerce and Education
Students: Ahmad Dahdoul, Juanito Maravilla, Timothy Norton, Charlene Unzueta, Meidi Xu

“Policy Alternatives Analysis of the California Organized Investment Network”
Client: California Organized Investment Network
Students: Kathryn Burke, Robyn Burleson, Raul Martinez, Caroline Servat

“Assessment of Post-9/11 Veteran Employment in Los Angeles: Prepared for the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative and the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families”
Client: USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families
Students: Laura Covarrubias, Majken Geiman, Kristen Nystrom, Edgar Ortiz, Nicholas Weinmeister

“Changes in Retirement Wealth Among U.S. Households”
Client: Congressional Research Service
Students: Alicia Gonzalez, Bárbara Higuera Pérez, Tony Hui, Janet Li, Yaqin Liu

“Identifying Policy Gaps in Foster Care System: A Research Report Prepared for FosterEd, the National Center for Youth Law”
Client: FosterEd
Students: Yadira Antonio, Uyen Do, Guozijun Jiang, Safa Lele, Elizabeth Prosch

“Evaluation of the Los Angeles Great Streets Great Businesses Program”
Client: Great Streets Initiative
Students: Christina Baghdasarian, Ali Limonadi, Hong Shi, Abigail Volkmann,
Kenan Zhang

“Connecting to Opportunity: Understanding the Barriers to Education and Employment for Youth Ages 16 to 24 in San Diego County”
Client: San Diego Workforce Partnership
Students: Anisha Hingorani, Mingyi Li, Felix Rodriguez, Monica Santander

“Report on Sea Level Rise Adaptation Governance Approaches”
Client: San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission
Students: Kevin Baron, Robert Cudd, William Dunbar, Sarah Ungureit, Mengjia Yao

“In Pursuit of Economic Opportunity: Assessing the Economic Opportunity: Assessing the Efficiency of Contract Procurement as an Economic-Development Strategy in the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone”
Client: South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone
Students: William Baskerville, Chris Copolillo, Andrew Olenick, Leonardo Poareo, Victor Sanchez