Internship Spotlight: Elizabeth Tatum, MPA '14

Sat, 2013-09-28 12:16

"My Summer in Charm City" by Elizabeth Tatum, MPA '14

During my first semester as an MPA student at Fels, I was assigned a reading from A Prayer for the City, a portrait of Philadelphia in the 90’s under Ed Rendell’s mayoral administration. As described in the book, the work put before the city’s government seems bone-crushingly difficult, exhilarating, and incontrovertibly necessary all at the same time. I was intrigued. After some other exposure to city government through my MPA coursework, I decided to apply for a summer Mayoral Fellowship with the City of Baltimore.

I knew of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her work to revitalize Baltimore, including her goal to bring 10,000 new families to the city by the year 2020. The Fellowship seemed like a great opportunity to work within the administration of a strong female Mayor, and to see how one city is tackling challenges common to many other American cities. When I received a call from the Mayor’s Office on a sunny Friday afternoon, it was easy for me to accept the offer of a summer position.

My Fellowship cohort was comprised of 11 civic-minded young professionals with diverse backgrounds: law, social work, city planning, public policy, and environmental studies, among others. We were each placed in a different city agency and given a project to complete within a 10-week timeframe. I was assigned to the Office of CitiStat, a small team dedicated to improving city services through the use of performance management. The staff at CitiStat are intelligent, hard-working, and optimistic about change and the city government’s ability to affect it. They are the come-in-early-and-stay-late types. I first learned about CitiStat through my coursework at Fels, and was excited to the see that the office, started in 1999, had won Harvard’s coveted Innovations in American Government Award in 2004. The most powerful people in the city traverse through CitiStat’s office on a regular basis, all looking to make government more efficient and responsive to citizens.

I was assigned a data- and process-mapping project that required me to conduct a number of individual and panel interviews with city employees. My project took me to various field offices and municipal buildings adjacent to City Hall, where I talked with everyone from data entry clerks to Bureau heads. Not only did I learn about how the city manages and exchanges data (a powerful currency), but I began to understand details about city operations—trash collection, rat abatement, emergency medical services, fire suppression, vacant property management, water meters, and parking tickets. Underneath the surface, all of those data points represent the life and pulse and feel of the city.

Besides giving each of us in-depth experience at one agency, the Mayoral Fellowship offered broad exposure to Baltimore and city government more generally. We had a private lunch with Mayor Rawlings-Blake and members of her cabinet, took in an Oriole’s game from the Mayor’s box seats, went on 8-hour police ride-alongs, cycled along a bike tour led by an expert in historic preservation and city planning, and had lunch with the top officials in Baltimore’s criminal justice system, among other events. At the end of the Fellowship, each of us offered a 10-minute presentation about our projects to the Mayor, her cabinet, and other city staffers. It was a real privilege to be able to speak directly to the Mayor and field questions from her and her staff.

One of the best things that I did, outside of the office, was cycle along with hundreds of others in the monthly Baltimore Bike Party. The route, which is different every month, travels through neighborhoods blighted by high vacancy rates as well as pristine portions of the city’s central corridor. People wear costumes, pump music through portable speakers, and shout friendly words of greeting to the neighbors cheering from the sidewalk. At the end, there is a dance party, complete with a DJ and an array of food trucks. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has even joined the ride on a few occasions. Along the ride, you can’t help but think, “Wow, this is the Baltimore people ought to see.”

What I experienced cycling through Baltimore was not so different than what I experienced working in City Hall every day—the presence of very real and sometimes intractable problems, but also the steady hum of possibility and progress. I’m grateful that my time in Charm City afforded me the opportunity to learn more of both.