January 9, 2014
For philanthropists, policymakers, and anyone who thinks deeply about how to make social progress, the challenge of assessing the potential value of new ideas and tools is a familiar one, says Alaina Harkness, with everyone trying to figure out which new ways of working and living have the most potential to improve the world—so that we can invest our limited resources in them.
As a member of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Alumni Advisory Council, and a Program Officer for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Community & Economic Development Program, Alaina Harkness spends lots of time thinking about the ways cities thrive, and how to effectively make and strengthen connections that benefit Chicago.
Q: What are you involved in with the University of Chicago these days?
At the University, this is my second year serving on the Harris Alumni Advisory Council; I chaired the Events Committee last year and now I’m President-elect. As part of the Council, I help Harris think about ways to build and engage its alumni community – strengthen the community. Professionally, several of MacArthur’s grants to the University of Chicago are within my grant portfolio, including a joint research initiative on cities and neighborhoods co-led by Mario Small, the Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago; and Robert Sampson, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, the Urban Center for Computation and Data, and the Harris School’s Computing and Public Policy Initiative.
Q: How did your graduate work at the Harris School and at the University help prepare you for what you do now?
I completed two different masters programs at the University—Latin American Studies and Public Policy. The first was very qualitative, focusing on social science and ethnographic fieldwork, while the second was focused on organizational theory, communications, and public policy. At Harris, I had an excellent communications and policy course that was transformative in my understanding of how to translate and simplify complex ideas to people, and how to be a more effective connector between people and organizations with very different sets of expertise.
Q: What was the “Aha” moment, for going into public policy and working with economics, community development and all of the areas you focus on?
I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and from the time I was small, every time I’d go downtown, I’d pass by all of the public high-rises off of the highway. It was such a powerful visual reminder that there point was actually a huge gulf between the Chicago I experienced and loved and the lives of people who actually lived there, in those buildings. I wanted to do something about that, wanted to find ways for everyone who lives in this city to experience it in the way that I did: as a place of opportunity, creativity, excitement, abundance. As an adult, pursuing the Latin American Studies program gave me an interdisciplinary perspective to community development—with an international focus. The public policy degree made these concepts more concrete.
Q: How have the different resources provided by the University enabled you to develop and implement your work?
The University has a rich and diverse network of scholars and experts who advise us on different aspects of strategies, or are doing research for MacArthur. We are so fortunate to have such tremendous resource like the University in our backyard – it’s one of the best things about being headquartered in Chicago.
Q: How do you think the University can best leverage its intellectual resources to impact the lives of people in Chicago and beyond?
A: I think that looking to the places like the Center for Urban Computation and Data, and various programs of the Harris School can help translate complicated research to policy makers doing so much to make change. The University is well positioned to do that, as an anchor in the community. It has a lot of opportunity to be relevant as it continues to collaborate with researchers, the city of Chicago and form more mutually-beneficial relationships.
Switching tracks from the University to your work at MacArthur…
Q: In your opinion, what keeps a city connected—especially one like Chicago—where different communities tend to cluster in different neighborhoods?
A: I don’t know that everyone in a community is connected, would be my first answer—the idea that there is a fixed-ness to a city/community is more a product of our imagination. The organizations that exist in neighborhoods to help people become connected, or to connect really good ideas from one neighborhood to another—these are the network builders and maintainers that create and secure the foundation. We invest in these community intermediaries to connect people to the resources in their neighborhoods, and in the city.
Q: Formal educations aside, what three life skills would you say a high school graduate needs in order to succeed in the job market (with or without a college degree)?
A: Three life skills I would consider necessary for anyone who wants to succeed are network building, communication, and curiosity. You need to understand how to build and maintain networks of people working in areas you are interested in, and to understand how to activate these groups to accomplish goals. Cultivating relationships is a great skill to have in any discipline. Second, you should also be able to clearly and coherently communicate your passion for change. Whatever it is you want to do with your life—even if you don’t know how to get there—make the time to think about it, and articulate it verbally and in writing in a way that makes it compelling to your audience. Finally, curiosity is a great asset for anybody, at any age, because it means being disciplined enough to pursue what you’re interested in, formulate a question about how it works, and find out an answer. I’d also like to add, having the ability to understand and use technology for all three of these things is important
Q: When you’re using web communications (anything from email to social media) to learn about what’s happening in Chicago, how do you separate the “noise” from the valuable information about a neighborhood/event/issue? Where do you find the experts?
A: I find often it is starting with the experts you trust and following what they’re interested in. Creating in-depth relationships with the people who are leaders in their fields, and paying attention to their conversations—beyond just following them on Twitter, leads to the useful and interesting information.
Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: I really have the world’s best job—at least for me! One of the best parts has to be getting to spend every day with extraordinarily talented and passionate colleagues and being able to come into work with so many dedicated experts in the organization and out. I also love that my work allows me the ability to touch so many different facets of how to make the city better, from a research, policy and “on the ground and organizing” perspective. I get to see the whole ecosystem of what’s needed for change and that is a rare, wonderful perspective.
Q: What advice do you have for current Chicago students who aspire to work in philanthropy and community development?
A: The ability to seek out and tell a good story and have a good narrative—that’s how you get above the noise—the ones who are able to cut through the noise have a good chance of rising above it. I’d say to anybody aspiring to work in philanthropy or community development to follow you interests and cultivate your curiosity. Stay interested and be open to how you pursue your interests—be open to how you can focus on the ideas and the end goal—don’t be as concerned about the path to them. The University of Chicago provides so many resources whichever of these avenues you decide to pursue.
By Susheela Bhat