Assistant Professor Alexis Kennedy speaks about engaged scholarship, the strong student community, and the value of a public policy and administration degree in today’s society.
Q: What inspired your interest in public policy and administration?
A: I have an undergraduate degree in economics and women’s and gender studies, and a master’s degree in economics. I was planning on pursuing a PhD in economics with a focus on international development. After I got my degree in economics though, I traveled around Asia with my husband, and I had this realization that countries may not need my Western capitalist viewpoint to thrive but instead could make change through community empowerment and public programs.
That made me think about moving away from economics and more towards public policy, public management, public administration. I moved to Colorado from New Jersey right after that and got involved with the School of Public Affairs in Denver at first as a consultant and then enrolled in their PhD program.
After completing my PhD in 2021, I was lucky enough to get a job as an Assistant Professor in the newly developed Masters of Public Policy and Administration program. We are a two-year professional master’s program that offers MPPAs in public policy, public management, and international policy and management. We have a resident instruction and an online program. This is the beginning of my second year here at CSU, and my students are amazing. There’s a lot of opportunity for engaged scholarship, which I’m really interested in doing.
Q: What is engaged scholarship? What does it encompass?
A: Engaged scholarship is a way to rethink how we do research and answer questions about the world around us by directly working with communities to develop the questions, methods, and interpret results. Instead of going into communities as an outsider from the university with my own perspective and approaching community work in the, ’I have this question about your community’ way, it’s instead reaching out to communities saying, ’These are my expertise. What are your questions? How can I help you? How can we build this together?’ It’s using your findings to help support that community in whatever way they need. In my case, my research focus is on how public, private, and nonprofit organizations work together to support public service. I’m currently looking at this from the perspective of philanthropy and nonprofit support in Northern Colorado.
At CSU, engagement work is celebrated and encouraged. It is a core component of CSU, especially since it’s a land grant university. This fits really nicely with my beliefs and my philosophy around this type of work.
The other aspect of the service or engagement is service learning. In my classes, I try to make the assignments as close to a service-learning project as possible. This is also the type of degree that requires a capstone, where the capstone projects always operate with a real client, like an organization in the public or nonprofit sector.
Q: Is there a lot of community built within your classes and the MPPA program?
A: Yes, that’s the goal.
The MPPA students themselves come from very diverse backgrounds and diverse stages of their careers. You have students who are coming right out of undergrad and others who have been in the field for a long time. We have students from Colorado who went to CSU for their undergraduate education, out of state students, and a growing number of international students from countries like Uganda, China, and Kenya.
This program was created and designed to be very practitioner-oriented and is therefore very focused on students’ experiences and skills. For some people who are in service, or currently work within public service organizations, I’ve heard a lot of feedback like “this has really helped me think through what I’ve experienced and how it can be changed.” I think that’s a really exciting part of this type of work – when you engage with students, and you hear that what they’re experiencing is what they’re learning about and that it all makes sense. There’s so much discussion that brings in a lot of their own personal experience and links it back to theory.
Q: What is your favorite class to teach and why?
A: My favorite class is Social Equity in Public Service. Since the MPPA is a professional degree, I want to incorporate as much theory and critical theory, especially, to expose students to that. I make a point to bring in literature from writers in feminist studies like bell hooks and sociology like W.E.B. DuBois– people that have not historically been part of the canon of public administration. I want to bring in other perspectives as much as I can since it informs much of why the world and organizations are the way that they are. I also have students do practical workshops that examine in what ways can we do public service through an equity lens. For example, how do we look at budgeting decisions while taking into women perspectives? Or how do we promote equitable community engagement that includes disenfranchised voices?
Q: Describe your latest research or publication.
A: The paper that I’m currently working on, that I summarized into a Regional Economic Development Institute (REDI) report, is looking at the way in which the built environment impacts different types of deprivations. It looks at the link between food deserts and being a victim of crime.
What we found is that in the city of Newark, NJ the places that are the highest risk for being a victim of aggravated assault are bodegas, which are like small convenience stores, places that have food. They’re typically located in food deserts. People who live in food deserts are potentially going to bodegas to get groceries as they don’t have many other options close by. Therefore, they have an increased likelihood of being a victim of aggravated assault.
Ultimately, this means that the environmental factors create dynamic conditions where behavioral factors like crime or assault can impact people’s ready access to food. In Newark, these findings can inform policy prescriptions when trying to increase food access but also decrease criminogenic features that perpetuate crime.
Q: Why is public policy and administration important in the current moment? Why is it important for our society to study and work in this industry?
A: I think it is always important. There are always policies that need to be analyzed and improved and management questions to address. For people who are interested in working for domestic or foreign federal, state, county, and local governments, for nonprofits or NGOs domestically or abroad, they should really consider getting an MPPA. I like to call it a “business degree” for public service, although private and public sectors are very different from one another. We train students how to do budgeting, how to think critically, how to engage people in civic participation, and how to make policy and management decisions that are based on evidence and data. And we do it while also making sure that students consider the legal and political constraints of public work as well as the ethical and equitable ways in which we can better serve the public. From an employment perspective, the government is one of the largest employers in the country. Public service is a huge and ever-growing industry. And there’s a lot to improve. Getting an MPPA can help people make important changes to the way in which we support one another and grow.
Q: What would you tell a student who is interested in coming to CSU? Why study here specifically?
A: There is a community that can be found very easily in the MPPA program. The MPPA has attracted people that already work in local government, international NGOs, and nonprofits and so there is this amazing social capital that exists in the program. We, as faculty, also have connections with domestic and international organizations and we love to connect students to these folks.
The students I’ve had in my classes in the last year and half give me hope. Things you see in the news and in the world are really tough. Problems sometimes feel insurmountable. But when I go into my classroom, and I hear from these people that are dedicated and passionate practitioners who believe that change can happen, I believe them. And they’re doing it. They’re making progress. They’re improving people’s lives. When I go into these classrooms, I feel energized, I feel happy.