Making It Real

By Margaret O’Bryon, Executive Director

How can the McCourt School of Public Policy become more deeply engaged in its local community? How can McCourt students passionate about applying new skills connect with local communities eager for help in addressing intractable policy challenges?

These two questions spurred the creation of McCourt’s Policy Innovation Lab in February of this year. The concept for the Lab grew out of extensive conversations with students, faculty, alumni, community leaders, and public officials, together with an examination of community engagement strategies of universities and schools of public policy across the country.

The Lab’s aim is to provide an innovative, community-based framework and venue for policy students to work collectively in developing forward-thinking and pioneering policy solutions to local issues. The Lab’s initial policy project focuses on how the future development of the Anacostia River parkland can add lasting value to Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods and residents. Policy Innovators will answer a series of questions: What are the innovative strategies, policies, and practices across multiple issue areas for creating this value? How can the parkland along the Anacostia River be developed in such a way that will bring optimum community benefits, most importantly greater economic and social equity and inclusion for residents and communities in Wards 7 and 8?

The Lab’s unique approach has five pillars:

· Tapping student ingenuity, knowledge, and experience to tackle local policy challenges, emerging questions, and intractable dilemmas;

· Creating deep and lasting partnerships with non-profits, government, community leaders, residents, and activists;

· Drawing upon the knowledge and creativity that exists in the DC community to help inform and design policy recommendations;

· Connecting students, faculty, and research experts from multiple disciplines as university-community partners in the work of the Lab; and

· Employing human-centered design thinking and other innovative approaches to community engagement and policy prototyping. This process puts the community’s needs in the center of devising policy and other solutions and is geared toward understanding the way people do things, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world, and what is meaningful to them.

This semester Policy Innovators are becoming acquainted with Wards 7 and 8; gathering skills and information from outside experts critical to the success of the project; and conducting multi-faceted research, including best practices from other communities in the US and abroad. Lab policy teams are becoming experts in issue areas ranging from employment and workforce to affordable housing; community wealth building to the environment; safety and security to education.

The Lab is a new endeavor, still in its developmental stage. It is populated with an amazing group of talented and committed student Policy Innovators. It is guided and informed by an extraordinary set of partners and an approach to policy development grounded in community.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The Policy Innovation Lab is an effort to make these words real.