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Sitting down with Vacant Home Tour

September 4, 2015

PPC Grant Manager Dylan Hewitt caught up with Kenneth Chu, co-founder of Vacant Home Tour for his take on the Challenge and what advice he has for next year's participants.

Dylan Hewitt: How did your policy idea come to fruition? What was your team's brainstorming sessions like?

Kenneth Chu: The five of us on the original team were a part of a class called Design and Policy for Humanitarian Impact.  The class was structured to have us spend the semester in teams, working on one of one hundred initiatives that the new mayor of Pittsburgh had come up with using focus groups of people from all over the city with all kinds of backgrounds.  We formed as a group because each of us identified blight, abandoned and vacant properties, and its impact on communities as an area of interest to us.  We spent several weeks studying design research methodologies and sitting around and talking about the issue of blight and what it meant to us, what we thought it meant, how we thought it impacted communities, what we thought were the sources of blight, what solutions were available, what tools had been created by private, non-profit, and government entities to address the issue.  We researched each of these areas.  We unabashedly shared ideas and thoughts and used a system of colored self-adhesive memo notes on large boards to organize our thoughts and ideas. Our study of research methodology encouraged us to enter the community and engage with them directly.  We met with a number of different groups in a variety of settings, each with different stakes in the neighborhood, in the community, and in the issue of blight.  We also created interactive artifacts that we placed in the community to garner more and anonymous responses from residents who live there.  Based on all of our research and our meetings and the interactive activities, we started to formulate ideas - ideas that were founded in the conversations that we had with members of the community and the feedback that we were receiving.  We whittled down the ideas to the strongest themes.  We honed the themes and ideas into actionable items.  We created a framework for several different ideas.  We created artifacts for each idea and tested them with other students in the class and with members of the community that we had met.  This lead us to focus on the Vacant Home Tour.  Which was still very much a framework.  Once we started working with the community on the actual event, the event itself was fleshed out based on the framework that we had created for the Vacant Home Tour.

DH: What do you feel is the best aspect of the Public Policy Challenge?

KC: We found so much of the Public Policy Challenge to be incredibly rewarding that this is a difficult one to answer. The connections with other students in the program, the connections with professionals in the field doing the work, the sharing of all of our ideas, the garnering of feedback from professionals and students alike about our program, the ability to contextualize our work with what others are doing - all of these aspects were pretty amazing. The cash prize was definitely a huge bonus for our program. But I think above it all, for me personally, it was the sense of camaraderie that was the most incredible aspect. It really helped to inspire me to continue the work, not just on the Vacant Home Tour, but to really dedicate my own work to making positive social change.

DH: Looking back, what was the biggest challenge of the PPC? Would there be anything you'd do differently?

KC: The most difficult part of the Public Policy Challenge was the fact that the Vacant Home Tour was already so far along that we were balancing both preparing for the Public Policy Challenge in addition to being more than half way through with the actual planning and implementation of the event.  Because it was a first-time event, the amount of work to put the event together was huge - and our commitment to full engagement of residents of the community in the implementation of the project made it even more time-consuming in a lot of ways.  Ideally, we would have had another six to nine months after the Public Policy Challenge to implementation.  By the time we returned from the challenge, we had just over six weeks left in our process.

DH: What is your biggest lesson learned from the Challenge?

KC: The biggest lesson learned from the challenge came from the question and answer period after each presentation.  The panelists, as real life policy-makers, had some really good questions and those questions really helped us to hone the project as we moved forward with the Vacant Home Tour.

DH: What advice do you have for next year's PPC participants?

KC: Practice, practice, practice!  The presentation and the question and answer period were key to success in the competition.  Participants should really look at all past year's winners and take note from the high level of polish to presentations and their practiced ability to answer difficult questions.  Have a plan for how to divide questions up.

To learn more about Vacant Home Tour, please visit their website.

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu