This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Engaged Scholarship Series. If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Joseph Mead
“Your homework: Change public policy.” This was the daunting task I gave to the aspiring public and nonprofit leaders enrolled in my graduate policy course at Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. This wasn’t simply a pep talk; this task was their main assignment for the course. All semester long, the students were charged to work in groups to lobby for some state or local legislative or administrative change.
The goal was to expose them to the policy process by forcing them to live it – not as a neutral observer but an advocate for a cause. The students were allowed to choose their public policy issue, subject to 3 major conditions: 1) the target must be a state or local government actor, with a preference for cities within the metropolitan region; 2) it must further the public interest, broadly defined, rather than the narrow interests of a single entity or person (no lobbying for a tax break for yourself!); and 3) I must determine that the project will serve the pedagogical goals (for example, not be impossibly difficult). Apart from that, I exercised no ideological control over the topic, but did work closely with each group to help them identify and refine their issue, find allies in the community, determine the campaign’s strategy, and forge connections with policymakers. The students had weekly benchmarks they had to meet to keep the project on track. (For examples of other similar courses, check out participants in the ENACT program housed at Brandeis University.)
With well over 100 municipalities within 30 miles of campus, there is no shortage of lawmaking bodies. And students chose a fascinating suite of projects. One group advocated for the reversal of a ban on pitbulls; another fought for an anti-discrimination law that would protect LGBT residents; others sought various criminal justice reforms.
The students are not graded on whether they succeeded or not, but rather on the quality of their campaign. Yet, to my delight, students have succeeded in changing several local ordinances. For example, drawing on public records, academic literature, meetings with city officials, and eventually testifying before city councils, a team of 3 students convinced 8 nearby cities to repeal criminal activity nuisance ordinances that facilitated the eviction of survivors of domestic violence. Even when a group’s issue failed, they managed to force the issue onto the local agenda. Students educated the public through several published op-eds in our community’s paper of choice, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as in other places such as the New York Times. The students also appeared on local television and radio stations to discuss their work, and created detailed webpages laying out the case for the change they seek.
Of course, actual policy change was still the exception rather than the rule. A semester is an absurdly short time frame to design and conduct an advocacy campaign. And sometimes students learned the frustration that even a seemingly uncontroversial cause, supported by meticulous documentation, can still be torpedoed for the crassest or most arbitrary political reasons. Win or lose, however, the students reported feeling empowered: actually influencing public policy had felt like an impossible task on the first day, but by the end of the semester, it was thoroughly within their grasp. Students often express greater interest in explicitly working on public policy at the end of the class than at the beginning.
Another benefit of the course is that the students made connections to the community in a way deeper than most classes. By meeting individually with legislators, administrators, nonprofits, community advocates, and people with a stake in their policy issue, the students forge relationships that will help their careers.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in cities where laws have been changed because of this class. On the one hand, that’s exhilarating and exciting to think of being able to directly influence the world, particularly on issues where existing voices aren’t being heard. At the same time, it’s terrifyingly possible that an advocacy project will make things worse, rather than better. Or students might potentially compete with more stable or grounded organizations better equipped to advance the policy. These risks were mitigated by careful coordination with advocates already in place and sensitivity to the communities that the students purported to represent. Fortunately, students often chose issues where they personally were an ideal representative of the cause.
We professors aspire to challenge, to teach, to inspire students to change the world. This course provides students the structure and support to make a difference while earning credit, and leaving empowered and enthusiastic about the larger difference they will make tomorrow.
Joseph Mead is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He serves as the adviser for JD/MPA and JD/MUPD students, and previously directed the University’s Master of Nonprofit Administration and Leadership degree. His research looks at nonprofit law and policy responses to poverty, and he teaches courses on nonprofit management, state and local policy, and law. Active in the community, he serves on the board of directors for the ACLU of Ohio and the Center for Community Solutions, and has worked with dozens of cities to make their laws more equitable.