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Got Issues? Students in Milano’s Issues Lab Can Help! PDF Print E-mail
Written by Fred Scaglione   
Thursday, 01 April 2010 02:13

Does your agency have some thorny issue that needs a resolution?   Why not assign a team of consultants to work on it for a month!  

Haven’t got a spare $50,000 in the budget?  Not to worry!  Just call Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy!

For more than 30 years, Milano’s Urban Policy Analysis and Management program has been assigning graduate students to work with clients in government and the nonprofit sector as part of a highly structured “Laboratory in Issues Analysis”.  In addition to being a tremendous learning experience for students, the Lab can serve as a valuable resource for cash strapped nonprofits.  During February and March, a total of 16 organizations took advantage of the opportunity during the first round of this year’s Issues Lab projects.

“It was very helpful,” says Ben Esner, Senior Vice President for Programs at the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF).  BCF had engaged a team of students to help determine how the foundation could best assist various community groups interested in starting up food co-ops.

“The students have done a terrific job,” says Peter Kostmayer, CEO at Citizens Committee for New York City (CCNYC).   “I frankly was bowled over by the research and analysis they did.”  CCNYC was looking for ways that community organizations could combat vehicular noise pollution.

“I always tell clients that we cannot guarantee the project will be successful,” says Andrew French, Director of the Issues Analysis Lab.  “But, I have never known a client who didn’t find something that was useful in the final report.  Many go on to use the recommendations in their policy making or incorporate the research findings in their own advocacy work.”

The Lab focuses on a single policy question and is designed to introduce students to qualitative and quantitative techniques that can be applied to a broad range of problems.  Students are divided into teams of five, given a mandate to analyze a particular issue as identified by the client, and a time frame of four to five weeks within which they must complete their analysis.  

For BCF, the students researched the history of successful food co-ops in New York City and elsewhere, contacted groups interested in starting up, and looked at examples of co-ops that had failed.  The team conducted their own survey of the buying habits of Brooklyn consumers and price comparisons for various food outlets.  “We had about 100 respondents,” said  Aryn Bloodworth, a student on the BCF team.  “Our results showed us that there is a need for fresh, affordable food in Brooklyn that is not currently being met.”

Ultimately, they developed a model outlining the various stages of development for emerging co-ops, e.g., organizing, feasibility research, incorporation, member recruitment, finance, and the ultimate launch.  Then, they made recommendations on how BCF could help groups at each of the various stages.

“They showed us a clear process for getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’,” says Esner.  “They gave us a way to talk to groups about where they are on this road map. What have they done?  What do they need to do?  They showed that if groups did certain things in step one, their chances in step two were that much better in step two, and so forth.”

Students in the CCNYC team began by narrowing down their issue.  “We had to zero in on what a group of private citizens, with no money other than a grant from CCNYC, could do to combat vehicular noise,” says Chandler Griffin.  The answer, at least in part, was to band together with other groups concerned about the same issue.  “Ultimately we wound up recommending a social networking site as a way to reach as many people as possible on the smallest budget.”  

The team envisioned a site on which concerned citizens could continually update information on vehicular noise problems, even posting pictures and videos.   The students identified IPhone applications that allow users to record a noise, determine the decibel level, take a photo and post it to the net.   “I might hear a motorcycle or a loud truck every morning at 7:00 a.m.,” says Griffin.  “Through this site, I might learn that someone else a few blocks away hears the same thing at 6:50.  Now we have an idea of the route it is taking.”

In a high tech take-off on the traditional “Neighborhood Watch”, the Milano team dubbed their site “Neighborhood Listen”.  

Both BCF and CCNYC plan to put the students’ findings to good use.   Peter Kostmayer is hopeful that some of the students may be able to stay with the project.  “I would like to see some of them sign up to work with us and get credit,” he says.  Esner believes BCF will use the analysis as it builds partnerships with the Brooklyn Food Coalition and the Park Slope Food Co-op.

While the Milano students work on issues at no cost, there are commitments that client organizations must make.  They have to develop a written “mandate” outlining their issue, meet with the team during the first week of the project, and attend the final briefing.   “The students were very professional in the sense that they were committed to what they were doing and very respectful of our time,” says BCF’s Esner.  

The ultimate beneficiary of the students’ hard work, however, is likely to be the students themselves.   “The Lab is one of the reasons why I chose Milano originally,” says Chandler Griffin.  “It is not just theory.  It is theory in practice.”

“Having a project like this is extremely valuable,” says Aryn Bloodworth.  “We get thrown right into a real policy problem.  We have to come up with a way to do the research and get people to talk to us.  We have to develop a series of recommendations and develop a final presentation.   It is exciting to know that what we are working on is not just an assignment but a real project that will serve a purpose and help a group achieve their mission.”

Andrew French believes that nonprofits get more than just help with their issues when they work with the students at Milano.  “They are helping to train the next generation of leaders for their sector.”

For information about participating in the “Laboratory in Issues Analysis” at Milano, contact Andrew French at frencha@newschool.edu.



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