Summer Internship Series #10

Our tenth (!) internship post comes from Elena Weissmann, MPP accelerated 2014.

As it starts to dawn on me that I will be returning to Charlottesville in two weeks, I’ve entered the reflective end-of-summer stage and begin scrambling for that one nugget of a fun fact so quirkily characteristic of my job that I will overuse in icebreakers at the beginning of the semester. I spent the last 8 weeks working as a Mayoral Fellow at the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office, learning to navigate the world of public service and Midwestern accents.

My 25 fellow fellows and I are each working on four to five projects with various City departments, putting our graduate degrees to good use. I am working primarily with the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Department of Finance, a new Cradle-to-Career initiative, the Department of Procurement Services, and the Public Safety Action Committee. Working with such a wide range of commissioners and other department workers has exposed me not only to the intricacies of responsibility taken on by each department, but also the enormous degree of coordination required to make Chicago run. Every program or initiative requires the approval and input of more stakeholders than I could have ever imagined, a process which can take a frustratingly long time but is incredibly valuable and necessary for governance on any scale.

There are no quiet days in the Fellows’ “Thinktank” office, and our weekdays are interspersed with tours and lectures with City officials. We heard from the Police and Fire Commissioners, the City CFO, the Treasurer, the Board of Ethics Commissioner, and countless others. Though visits from Mayor Emanuel himself are rare, we had a roundtable discussion with him for a few hours, and were also invited to see his favorite photos and memorabilia in his office (and discuss tastes in music with him). Each of our visitors spoke with candor and sincerity, and always made sure to include a little life lesson. Several of the most impactful quotes came from Mayor Emanuel, who shared some of his most intense “failure, and I mean FAILURE” stories with us to remind us to “dig deep down and find anything to help you succeed, or even just put your left foot in front of your right foot,” and left us with the order “don’t get to think-y. Remember these are real people whose lives you are impacting.” Duly noted.

Some tour highlights include driving a police car and handling police weapons at the Police Training Academy, standing next to a 757 airplane taking off at O’Hare, learning about Chicago history and architecture on a riverboat tour, watching 95% of American drinking water become purified at the water treatment plant, seeing 9-11 switchboards in action, and some behind-the-scene looks at Chicago landmarks like the Lyric Opera and the Millennium Park bean.

To the Batten faculty and administration, rest assured that I also do actual work as a Mayoral Fellow. For the first half of the job, I spent most of my time refining a pilot program to reform the City’s loading zones (the spaces reserved for commercial loading and unloading in front of businesses), and creating an implementation plan for a “Green Procurement” program set to launch this year. I have drafted memos, conducted best practice interviews, created data reports on Excel and ArcGIS, and of course created many of the ubiquitous intern PowerPoint decks (which I’ve learned are never presented on screen, only printed).

More recently, I’ve spent a lot of time working with census data and mapping demographic changes wrought through a recent ward redistricting process.  I also began working with the Department of Finance under the CFO on two public-private partnership projects, which is exciting for many reasons but most noticeably because she keeps a large candy bowl of Peanut M&M’s on her desk.

During my time here, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and chat with commissioners, lawyers, assistants, and other public servants from all walks of life and hear about life in government. I’ve learned about how sheer motivation and optimism can change policy and countless lives, and how devoting oneself to a life of public service is at once the most rewarding and most challenging process a person could ever undertake.

This summer has been incredible for so many reasons, and I’m still struggling to narrow down my experience into that one elusive “fun fact.” I’m tempted to go with an obscure fact about loading zones (a subject that sounds so mundane and technical that my friends struggle to understand how I can spend hours rambling excitedly about its reform), or our favorite Frankism of “Policy is everywhere. Lead from anywhere.”

But I think my most valuable lesson of the summer has been the need to internalize the dueling factors of accountability and humility. A line spoken to us by the Mayor and reflected in many of our commissioner talks summed it up nicely: a good leader surrounds herself with other leaders who are empowered enough to take a risk using their best judgment, and humble enough to remain accountable throughout. Such quips alone have taught me more than I could ever learn as a mere Moleskine-wielding, Starbucks-frequenting, Mayor’s-Office-basketball-team-playing graduate fellow. Thanks, Frank!

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