2013 PFIG Recipient Will Warren
Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
Leadership and Public Policy Major
2014 Graduation Year
Internship: Urban Institute Metropolitan Housing & Communities Center
Notes on the first week
Starting an internship is an exercise in learning and a not-so-gentle reminder that the world does not, in fact, revolve around us. We drop in, hardly announced, to a world that has been in operation since President Johnson’s decree in 1968 and will continue after our departure in mid-August. My first week was filled with background reading and catch-up. I was thrust into meetings requiring the immediate mastery of myriad acronyms. HUD: United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. LTO: Long Term Outcomes. MTW: didn’t catch that one. Hundreds of pages of briefs were read and diligent notes were taken.
Starting an internship requires a different sort of learning too. Having spent the last three years in Charlottesville I’ve struggled to learn a new city as well. The distinction between the L2 and L1 buses, the uncivilized insistence needed to board the metro, the $1 difference between Trader Joe’s and Safeway. The evenings are filled with exploration and discovery. Trying new restaurants, free movie screenings, and a farmer’s market that holds its own against the City Market fill the time outside of work.
Ever since the presence of free, or at least privately funded, labor has spread around the office I’ve found myself inundated with work. Eager to please and reluctant to say no, I’ve found myself working on a variety of projects ranging from data analysis to literature reviews. While I progress in fits and starts, truncated by questions, I feel that I’m learning a great deal. While creating hundreds of graphs based on school data has grown predictably repetitive I have become quite adept at Excel. I’ve worked hard to prove my worth with strong and clear writing. It feels illegitimate to use the word, but I’ve impressed my “co-workers” with the memo-writing skills honed during my past year in the Batten School. Starting in on my fourth Hemingway book of the summer, I’ve grown fond of the declarative sentence.
My “co-workers,” to use the word again, are exceedingly kind. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with national experts who have expressed genuine interest in my thoughts and opinions. I’ve experienced the weekly diversion known as “wacky snacks”: a time for colleagues to emerge from their offices—mine is routinely 60 degrees—and socialize while enjoying unique snacks.
I’ve been on-site twice now, visiting one of the most notorious public housing sites in Washington, DC. Working with local leadership I’ve been struck by the similarities between public housing in DC and Charlottesville. The rampant inequality is reminiscent of certain parts of home. I’ve been able to contribute substantively to conversations, drawing on my experiences in Westhaven. I’m still learning, but at least the vocabulary is becoming familiar.
I’ve hit my stride in more ways than one. In the office, I’ve mastered names, the internal scheduling software, and, most importantly, my work. I’ve spent most of my time compiling a literature review, reading and summarizing studies and recommending programs. There’s something uniquely thrilling about fielding questions from PhDs and national experts. To my surprise I’ve learned much more than I realized. My work is occasionally dull. I’ve footnoted my fair share of papers and taken reams of notes, but for the most part I find my work rewarding. I’m yet to wake up and dread going to work, a feeling that one of my friends tells me “must be nice.”
Outside of work I’ve moved from a reluctant DC novice to an adventurous advanced beginner. I’ve learned the local hot spots: Friday’s Jazz in the Gardens, home to every 20-something in the city, Adam’s Morgan, and Cleveland Park. I’ve also discovered DC’s secrets: a secluded café, the public libraries, and a 6 AM run through the National Zoo. Of all the things I’ve learned this summer, perhaps the most comforting is the realization that there is something to be excited for after Charlottesville.
Working at the Urban Institute has also given me newfound direction and discipline. My interests have swayed slightly, expanding from food security and assisted housing policy to broader concerns like employment and wages. I’ve resolved to learn more about economics and statistics. After three years spent intensely avoiding math, I find myself intrigued by p values and z scores. I’ve started communicating with Georgetown’s School of Public Policy and Department of Economics, hoping to cultivate the skills needed to pursue my academic interests after graduation.
My internship has, above all else, strengthened my resolve. The holistic study of low-income communities, the hardships they face, and the policies that often fall short of helping them has been eye-opening. It is clearer than ever before that an interest in society is a responsibility and not a choice. I hope to spread compassion and understanding in my career, driving out ignorance and apathy. I’m excited to start working on a project with the communications team, helping to link our technical research to the social and human impacts of policies.
“There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why…I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” That was Bobby Kennedy. This internship has piqued my interest and sparked my creativity in a way I never thought a 9-to-5 desk job could. The more I learn about this part of society that is not mine, this part that mine has forgotten, the more I dream of the way the world ought to be.
I had worked in a think tank before. On the last day of my previous internship I fled from my tiny cubicle, rushed down the hall, looking back only to catch one last glimpse of the Ronald Reagan portrait that haunted the daily walk to my office. This time, by comparison, I found myself dragging my feet when it came time to leave. I made my first round of good byes, followed by a second. And then a third. The difference had nothing to do with the size of my cubicle—this one was quite small—nor was it due to the absence of our 40th president.
The difference, I have come to realize, lies in the way this internship turned me on to the power of knowledge. I had previously viewed the academe as thoroughly distinct from the real world. I remember volunteering in Westhaven early in my college career. Every week, or so it seemed, I heard a sad story about how tough it was to make ends meet. At the time, I didn’t view the problem as an academic one. Surely the solution to poverty was technical. Perhaps if housing projects were better managed or if there was a stronger police presence in the community the outcomes of residents would improve. I felt that scholarship was too abstract to impact the lives of poor in any substantial way. Any theoretical or academic argument, I thought, would only slow down progress. I firmly believed that problems were best solved by doing, rather than thinking.
At the Urban Institute I was fortunate enough to work on a project that evaluated case management services. As a result, I had the opportunity to work in the office on research design as well as in the field, talking to program participants and service delivery professionals. This blurring of lines between the practical and the academic was essential to my development. It was incredibly valuable for me to see that the application of academic rigor and analysis can yield helpful and practical information. Indeed, our process study helped inform the our interactions with the target community and the results of the study will inform future programs targeting public housing communities. It was, in a word, inspiring to see the impact public knowledge can have on the lives of real people.
Since this experience, I have found myself drawn to academics and research. I hope to return to the field of policy research upon graduation. I have plans to pursue a joint masters in public policy and economics and I’m even considering PhD programs in social policy. Next semester I will be pursuing an independent study thesis project, examining the development of Charlottesville’s housing policy. I hope that this project will contribute to our shared understanding of Charlottesville’s historical and contemporary policy. I find myself more engaged in my studies than ever before. I have come to view the generation of public knowledge and the practice of public intellectualism as a form of public service on par with direct service provision. In short, my internship at the Urban Institute gave me direction, and for that, I am extraordinarily thankful.