Ash Fellow Georgia Hollister Isman is Rebuilding Public Engagement with the Democratic Process


  • Headshot of Dan Harsha Daniel Harsha

For Georgia Hollister Isman (MPA/MC ‘15), strengthening public participation in the political process has been a lifelong passion. The recipient of the Roy and Lila Ash Fellowship for the 2014–15 academic year, Hollister Isman came to the Harvard Kennedy School with a decade of experience in electoral politics and state and local advocacy. “From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to figure out a way to make the world a better place,” she recalled.

With a newly minted bachelor’s degree from Ohio’s Oberlin College, Hollister Isman set out to make her mark in progressive politics in her home state of Massachusetts. “When I was in college, I worked on a number of political campaigns, and that was a way that made sense to me to foster change. Because I started in local races, I could see tangible results for what I was doing,” said Hollister Isman.

At the age of 22, she was managing her first political campaign for Pat Jehlen, who was at the time a Massachusetts state representative from Somerville running for a newly-vacant state senate seat. Jehlen won in a heated four-way Democratic primary and has been representing a large swath of Middlesex County in the state senate since. Hollister Isman, reflecting on Jehlen’s successful state senate run, said, “I learned a great deal of what I know from that campaign, and met a lot of people who were active in progressive politics in Massachusetts.

A job coordinating volunteers in New Hampshire during the 2004 presidential campaign convinced Hollister Isman that there was a need for a collaborative progressive political organization in Massachusetts.  Soon, Mass Alliance, a coalition of 25 advocacy and progressive political organizations was founded and Hollister Isman was hired as its first director. “We had no staff and a battered office with three secondhand desks from the 1970s. There weren’t even phone lines.”

From these inauspicious beginnings, Mass Alliance grew to become a force in the world of Massachusetts progressive politics. “When we started off, people thought we were naive, but we built our reputation around winning elections with people the establishment said could never win.” It was this experience building political coalitions at Mass Alliance that ultimately led Hollister Isman to the Kennedy School. “I was good at explaining tough political issues to the public, but I wanted to learn more about how people think about public policy and make decisions based on that knowledge.”

Looking back on her experience in Cambridge, Hollister Isman reflects that her time at the School “was a really great year for me. Everybody is in the same boat and most students have similar professional accomplishments. It’s thinking about where we can most contribute, not just advancing our careers. It’s amazing to see people do really remarkable things all over the world.”

At the Kennedy School, Hollister Isman was an active participant in the intellectual life of the Ash Center and took a number of courses taught by faculty affiliated with the center. Through Lecturer Jorrit de Jong’s Innovation Field Lab, she worked with the city of Chelsea to develop an analytical tool to help the city better predict the emergence of distressed properties. “It was really wonderful to do a project in Chelsea and think about how practically you can build something that a city will actually use. It’s not a one size fits all solution that will fit all cities; it has to actually make sense for them.”

Hollister Isman also had much praise for Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne’s Urban Politics of Planning and Development Course, observing that Mayne “has this way of thinking about politics which I appreciate. It is unsurprisingly very political — why did this project get built? What are the politics that allows something to happen in a city? It changes the way you view the cityscape, especially in a city like Boston.”

With her MPA in hand, Hollister Isman finds herself again back in Ohio, this time helping to run a program in Akron called Text, Talk, Vote, which aims to engage young people in civic discussions and voting through text messages. The project, led by the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) and funded by the Knight Foundation, uses texting to help young voters highlight their voices and concerns during the run up to the city’s mayoral election. She first met NICD’s executive director, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, during a conference at the Kennedy School featuring the finalist presentations for the 2015 Innovations in American Government Award.

For Hollister Isman, this latest project is another step in a career devoted to strengthening the public’s engagement with the democratic process.  Though her work at Text, Talk, Vote will conclude after the city’s November mayoral election, Hollister Isman is a firm believer in using technology to create new points to entry for public debate. “By building new avenues for young people to engage in ways that are comfortable for them, we can have a big impact on their participation in the democratic process and in government.”