Tackling gun violence in Birmingham, Alabama

Guest blog by Crystal Smitherman

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Being a new and young politician, I knew I had a lot of learning to do in the political sector. I had a lot of energy and great initiatives, but I still need to learn how to revamp my message and craft good policy making habits. In the midst of a crime crisis, as our murder rates continued to rise significantly every week, I knew something had to change. I knew our policy approach towards dealing with crime needed to be reformed and improved. I came across the Implementing Public Policy course on the Harvard Kennedy School website. I knew my mindset Right then, would never be the same the moment I enrolled in the course.

I always knew I had the potential and capability to make a difference in my district and city by achieving attainable development goals and initiatives. Yet, I was still hitting a brick wall when it came to getting over the hump of pushing forward on certain initiatives. This is why I am forever grateful that I joined the 2020 IPP cohort.

Once I joined the Public Safety Committee, I made it my personal mission to finally implement the start of the Cure Violence Initiative to address the crime problem in my City of Birmingham, Alabama.

Now, I will talk about some of the key takeaways I obtained from the course:

Define your problem before you focus on the solution and identify entry points.

First, we were taught to identify and define the problem. For my initiative, my problem revolved around the ideal of gun violence is a public health crisis. Gun violence is a public health crisis and can be approached from multiple angles. The City has been focusing on prevention and how to respond to the aftermath of a violent occurrence but not intervention of gun violence in communities that negatively affected by it the most.

Next, we had to identify entry points. for why our problem existed and what contributed to the existence of the problem. For my problem, addressing mental health issues was a good starting point because there are nonprofits like the Crisis Center that have realistic ideas and plans to help increase mental health resources in communities of need.

Improving the programs for youth was another good entry point, because I have the ability and resources to fund and implement programs for youth to improve their academic abilities. When a child’s confidence increases in their academic abilities, their confidence in other areas of life increase. They believe they can pull themselves out of their situation very soon. Mentoring, tutoring and afterschool programs for the youth because I have the resources, capabilities and connections to support or implement effective programs for Hemphill Elementary, Washington K-8 and Holy Family High Schools.

Control your narrative and message

First, be aware of your message; how it has been constructed, how it is mobilizing others, and how it can be improved. Second, be open to feedback on your own ‘story’ and find ways to engage feedback and strengthen your learning from feedback. There were two important lessons that I learned from controlling my narrative and message.

  1. “Solving the problem is worthless if you can’t sell your solution to decision makers. This happens far too often in organizations, where reports are reviewed, archived and forgotten, with no tangible impact.”

For my problem, the problem was that the solution other organizations had been trying to sell to the City Government has not been successful. Then the Mayor’s Office has data driven reports that have no tangible impact or short-term affect.

  • “Brilliant communication of the wrong answer can lead to misguided and detrimental action. This is why the approach to selling the solution must be grounded in the problem-solving process.” There has to be brilliant communication of the right solution and the potential positive aftermath of that solution.

Communicate and Identify Your Leads and Gains

‘Learning and leads’ are key progress indicators to report on. Creating new connections and relationships allows you to discuss your initiative with a more diverse group of people who can give you constructive criticism and feedback. This feedback can help expand and improve your goals and overall initiative.

By communicating your ‘learning and leads’ gains to your authorizers and peers this will allow people to see that the project is making progress and it has some validity to it. It shows that the project is not just a wild idea or dream but a successful work in progress. You can show a timeline and help them to imagine the end result.

During the course, why were my learning as gains?

  1. What have we learned about the problem we are facing?

Crime is multi-faceted and nonconventional methods towards addressing it need effective policy that deals with the day to day and long-term operations.

  • What have we learned about the reasons the problem festers?

There has not been anyone to be the connecting piece to foster an initiative like this between the City and community partners.

  • What have we learned about potential ideas to try as solutions?

We have to control how we spin the narrative of this initiative as being a positive policy and limited police involvement.

  • What we have learned when we try some of these ideas out (about our capabilities, latent potential, positive deviance, etc.)?

My ability to connect opposing and diverse partners is a lot more fluid than what I thought. This initiative has a lot of potential to be very effectively and positively received.

  • What have we learned about working together in teams?

You have to do a lot of giving and taking to make people feel comfortable working with you and your other team partners.

  • What have I learned (about things like delegation, managing unknowns, working across organizational boundaries, etc.)

I have learned that I need to let other people do some of the tasks that I may not have time to complete, due to my other obligations.

During the course, what were my ‘leads’ as gains?

Who are we working with now that we were not working with at the start? 

Mayor’s Office and Community partners

What new ‘content’ have we learned from these leads (about our problems and more)?

You have to understand the mindset of other people in order to convince them to work with you and your initiative.

What new commitment have we developed in these leads (to working 5on our problems in particular)?

The cooperation of the Mayor’s Office and hopefully community and activists.

What new contacts and connections have we made through these leads?

I found a potential ally between Mayor’s Office and Urban League which was not there beforehand.

What kinds of capabilities have we gained through these new leads? 

Urban League will act as more than a financial agent but a participatory partner

What new authorization do we have because of these leads?

Urban League is helping with the Public Relations, Organization of Meetings, serving as the gateway between community leaders and myself and follow through of the policy creation.

What’s Next?

During the week of December 7th, Cure Violence, Urban League of Birmingham and I will be hosting Cure Violence 101 briefings with government officials, community partners, potential donors and healthcare workers. Then Cure Violence will conduct their walk-through assessment on the West Side of Birmingham. Next, if everything goes smoothly in Phase One, then we will start Phase Two, which is actually implementing the policy.

Words of wisdom to share with fellow PDIA practitioners around the world

Continue to mobilize others to engage in your implementation challenge. Gain people’s trust, create a friendly and positive environment and it will make the process run a lot smoother.

Be respectful of how people feel and recognizing that it is appropriate to bring emotion to the job. It is important to develop wats to better identify what my emotions are and that I must recognize my own emotions and calm myself down.

Recognize others’ emotions as well and try to engage through inquiry rather than advocacy. I can also create a common ground for interaction.

Within the workplace, you create more inquiry-based policy discussions and offer more personal interactions around policy ideas.

Always remember that the sky is the limit and keep your why in mind as you continue through this journey and process!

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