By Greg Hardesty
All her life, Marianna Babboni has tried to be a bridge builder – “a connector of sorts,” says the first-year master’s degree student at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Babboni was born to an Italian high school teacher mother and an Italian-American businessman father in the marble mecca of Carrara, Italy. Raised in multicultural Miami from age 4, she arrived in the diverse metropolis of Los Angeles in 2015 to attend Occidental College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in diplomacy and world affairs.
Seeking out people of diverse cultures to forge connections of mutual respect and understanding always has come naturally to Babboni, who’s fluent in Italian, English and French. Her passion for social justice comes just as naturally.
Now she’s building bridges of a different sort, both professionally and in graduate school.
Since April 2020, Babboni has worked as a project manager at Public Exchange, a program run out of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences that connects academic researchers with policy, industry and nonprofit partners that need expertise to tackle complex challenges.
In Fall 2022, she started working on her Master of International Public Policy and Management (IPPAM) at USC Price. Because she’s taking only one class per semester while working full time, she expects to complete her degree in 2025.
“Several of my projects at Public Exchange involve making recommendations for policy change, so I felt I needed to dive deeper into the field of public policy to make sure our projects are catering to the needs of our partners and that our expertise is as applicable and relevant as possible,” Babboni says.
Prior to joining Public Exchange, Babboni briefly worked for Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of International Affairs Nina Hachigian and at the Santa Monica office of Human Rights Watch.
“Those were phenomenal experiences,” Babboni says. “I learned a lot about what it means to be a civil servant and practice public diplomacy. These environments were energized by a commitment to public good and social innovation, inspiring me to explore how academia could tackle similar social issues.”
Babboni has worked on food insecurity and climate communication projects at Public Exchange, but her main undertaking there has been the USC Urban Trees Initiative, which partners university experts and students with the City of Los Angeles to guide the growth of an urban forest of shade trees – an initiative that involves USC spatial scientists, earth scientists, landscape architects and other experts.
In just three years, Babboni worked with a multi-disciplinary research team from across USC to exponentially grow the Urban Trees Initiative, says Kate Weber, a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who runs Public Exchange.
The initiative, which began as a $50,000 pilot project, is now a $2.7 million multi-year endeavor with funding to plant 400 trees in underserved neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
“She’s a born builder and thrives in an entrepreneurial environment,” Weber says. “Her creativity, commitment to social impact, and acumen for managing large, complex projects have been foundational to our success.”
“It has been a treat to watch Marianna grow into a leadership role, taking on ever greater challenges. Her future is incredibly bright,” adds Weber.
Babboni says she enjoys the blend of the theoretical and practical in her master’s degree classes, which attract high-level professionals from around the world. Her cohort includes around 45 students.
“My fellow students are all working professionals, often civil servants in their home governments,” she says. It was important for her to engage in comparative governance work because she believes “today’s biggest challenges require innovative solutions from across the globe.”
After she earns her master’s degree, Babboni hopes to expand her work at Public Exchange into large-scale international collaborations – for example, bringing together cross-sector solutions for urban forestry from Mexico City to Manila.
Meanwhile, she’s off to South Korea this May for vacation. Inspired by her classmates working for the National Assembly and the City of Seoul, Babboni will be visiting Asia for the first time.
Don’t be surprised if, while there, she engages in a little bridge-building.