Profiles of Impact is a recurring Reveille feature spotlighting our Presidio Institute Fellows’ journeys from inspiration to impact.
In his work and his life, Noel draws strongly on the inspiration of his family members – past and present. His grandparents set an example by having dedicated their lives and savings to provide opportunities to their children. Meanwhile, his father’s resilience and leadership continues to motivate him, having been one of the first African Americans to integrate into the fire department of New York in the late 1960s. His mother’s resourcefulness and tenacity, raising a family while receiving post-secondary training at night, inspires him. Noel reflects that he “grew up seeing examples of a real commitment to increase access by penetrating the industries and sectors that were the main vehicles for building the black middle-class. My family members are a core reason for the opportunities I was able to have as a young man.”
Unlike many of his peers growing up, Noel was able to attend a good school and earn an advanced education. “I was a real beneficiary of the affirmative action policies in place at the time,” he notes. “It got me onto a trajectory which focused on education.” Noel took full advantage of the opportunity, and became an accomplished scholar. After excelling during his BA in Political Science at Brooklyn College, Noel went on to obtain an MA in Education from the University of Pennsylvania and PhD in Educational Administration from New York University. “I had come from a poor-performing high school here in New York, and even though I’d been able to attend Brooklyn College, I was far behind when I arrived. It got me thinking not only about access to education, but also quality of education. So, I went on to become a teacher.”
After stints in education consulting with non-profits, for profits and government, and ten years as an Associate Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, Noel took the national-level role at Year Up. The position is another avenue for him to build upon his prior knowledge from a new point of view, allowing him to tackle the challenge of education quality, access, and empowerment. Working to reduce the opportunity divide felt by urban youth is not easy, however, and requires significant resilience, but Noel says that the young people he works with every day keep him focused and determined. “Given my past, I’ve always been interested in the social sector’s ability to focus on access and equity. We need to recognize that people start from different points. When Year Up participants succeed, I know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on this earth.” Noel recognizes, however, that addressing complex challenges like those of Year Up, often depend on cross sector collaboration.
“When I was growing up, a community-based organization in Brooklyn provided after-school programs for local residents in an at-risk neighborhood. They had previously been lent space in one of the colleges, but when the school decided to re-purpose the space, the organization had to leave. Its leader didn’t have the foresight or relationships to find a solution with another strategic partner, and so it had to shut down.” Seeing that example play-out first-hand inspired Noel to learn how he could anticipate and prepare for “blind spots” – by knowing how to develop shared outcomes and refine communication channels with partners across sectors. “The partnership and trust-building frameworks that I’ve learned through the Presidio Cross Sector Leadership Fellows program are invaluable for me in my role.”
The Fellows program has also helped Noel develop his own leadership profile and learn about how he can best leverage his strengths and motivations in the context of cross sector interactions. Noel says that now he can evaluate partnerships that Year Up is working towards by reflecting on his own role within collaborative partnerships by asking, “Are we on the same page? And if not, how can I help us get there together?”
Jewlya Lynn was afforded an immersive first exposure to cross sector collaboration on the heels of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and following a brief stint working in the Colorado Legislature. “In the year after the shooting, the realization emerged that the boys who committed the crime had been involved with probation and juvenile diversion programs, had been seeing private psychiatrists and therapists, had issues at school, and were known to the sheriff’s office – but no one knew the whole story. There was a prevailing belief that if these public and private service providers had known the extent to which issues were arising, nobody would have let things get to the point that they did.”
Jewlya’s role was to bring together the stakeholders who could figure out how to connect the relevant systems to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. “Like many of our biggest societal challenges, disconnectedness in the case of supervision and support systems – which, together, failed the young men in question – is not an easy problem to fix. Through a broad coalition that included local government, service delivery providers, community leaders, family members, private foundations, and more, we worked on this problem for three years. Without a roadmap to guide our cross sector effort, however, we spent a lot of time on planning, and not enough time making actual changes. In the end, while we didn’t move the needle in the manner we would have liked, we did create readiness in the community with more people talking about the importance of working across sectors to address this type of social challenge. And, some great things have been accomplished since we set-out, including the passage of legislation which improved the way human service delivery is funded and, as a result, how it operates.”
Reflecting on the experience, Jewlya says she recognizes that comprehensive plans alone cannot resolve societal problems like school violence. “We have such extraordinarily complex problems, and if we don’t get smart about how to solve them, if we don’t start taking risks and experimenting with new ways of doing things, we’re not going to make a real difference.” In response to her experience, Jewlya co-founded the Spark Policy Institute, a consulting firm that works across sectors to develop innovative, research-based approaches to solve complex societal problems that defy easy solutions. Her team of facilitators, researchers, lawyers, and evaluators is skilled at working in communities, has a deep understanding of policy and politics, and provides extensive expertise in working across public and private sectors. “I didn’t set out to launch an organization,” Jewlya reflects, despite now overseeing a team of 18 as their CEO and Research Director. “When we first started 10 years ago, we had a vision that there needs to be a loose federation of people who are doing cross sector, systems-change work because no one knew how to do it, and if we didn’t learn from each other, we’d never figure it out. Within two years, we were overwhelmed with the challenge of managing the requests that came in, and so we decided to capture everything we were learning and share best practices through a consulting model.”
For someone who actively and continually explores methods to govern, operate, and evaluate cross sector collaborations, the Presidio Cross Sector Leaders Fellowship has been “a great learning experience.” As has been similarly-cited by many of her peer cohort, the opportunity to hear about the work that’s going on around the country, and learn from examples of both successes and failures is eye-opening: “Importantly, while we’ve been exposed to frameworks and tools, we have also been given space to think about their application. It’s sometimes mind-blowing how much insight the fellows have about how we can apply the content, and that has opened my own thoughts up.”
As the Director of the John Gardner postgraduate program at Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public Service, Jim Murray is typically the one who is administering fellowship programs and helping students and recent graduates learn about opportunities to contribute to the public sphere. “It was interesting to flip the lens and go through the application process myself,” he recalls. There were many reasons for Jim’s interest in the Presidio Cross Sector Leadership Fellows program. “I figured I was just beginning to reach that ‘mid-career’ point, and so the idea of doing a fellowship – something that would spark new thoughts and expose me to new approaches of carrying on my work was incredibly exciting. The idea of broadening my network and connecting with people from other sectors and walks of life was also very intriguing.” The more that Jim learned about the program, and the burgeoning work of the Presidio Institute more generally, he was drawn-in.
Jim’s path to the fellowship, however, begun much earlier in life. “I’ve always been interested in many fields” he says. “But a common thread has been improving the health of communities, their surrounding environments, and families and young people within them.” Growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family in Ohio, Jim saw his own family members in public service and contribute significantly to community efforts. Growing up there was an expectation that you would help others. As an undergraduate at Boston College, Jim enrolled in an interdisciplinary program called Environmental Geosciences – “a mix of hard sciences, but also policy, sociology, and law” – and then joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “I worked closely with the juvenile justice system, making connections between families, schools, mental health professionals, and the legal system,” Jim recalls. “I came to understand the investment required on the part of many different stakeholders when helping young people get onto and sustain a positive trajectory. It really opened my eyes to the importance of working across boundaries and sectors.”
After graduating from law school at the University of Notre Dame, Jim went to work at the Supreme Court of California. When the opportunity arose to pursue the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, he jumped at the chance. “It really broadened my perspective on how entities can work together across sectors,” Jim says. He worked with Habitat for Humanity and found himself able to apply his legal, environmental, policy experiences towards improving the lives of families and youth once more. Importantly, that position also led him to his current role at Stanford University.
“I realized how much passion I have for leadership development. I am very motivated by the opportunity to work with emerging leaders who have the chance to go on and contribute in their own unique ways to their communities.” In his role as Program Director of the Haas Center for Public Service, Jim helps assists Stanford students in finding public service work through fellowships, networking events, and career fairs.
Recently, Jim has had an eye towards partnering with private philanthropic organizations and the business community to provide increased opportunities for Stanford students to make a positive impact on the life of Americans. “We take a broad definition to the term ‘public service,” he says. “We feel that there’s a lot of overlap between our mission and the mission of businesses who want to have a social purpose, and so we have a real chance to partner with them to open that door to our students.”
Jim finds that the next generation of leaders cares less about which sector they work in and more about the social impact they can have. As a graduate of the Cross Sector Leadership Fellows program, Jim is better equipped to help his students learn about available opportunities to solve big problems from within any type of career path they choose to pursue.