Meet Kate O’Gorman, the 2017 Martha H. Mauzy Award Winner

Kate O’Gorman, MPA ’17, inaugural democratic governance award-winner, is passionate about improved policy implementation and her local government.

Like many of her fellow HKS graduates, Kate O’Gorman is saying her last goodbyes to Cambridge and the Harvard campus after having just completed her Master in Public Administration (MPA). This commencement season has been a busy one for O’Gorman who in addition to her newly minted master’s degree was also the inaugural recipient of the Ash Center’s Martha H. Mauzy Award for Advancement of Democratic Governance. The award, presented to a graduating HKS student who demonstrates a “unique commitment, through scholarship and practice, to making governance more participatory, transparent, responsive, or representative,” has been the capstone of a demanding two years for O’Gorman, who in addition to her MPA also managed to complete a dual degree program with Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

With her graduate work behind her, O’Gorman isn’t joining the ranks of the technology industry in Silicon Valley or entering the political minefields of Washington, DC. Instead, she’s planning on heading back to her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio — a destination perhaps not shared by throngs of her graduating classmates, but one O’Gorman is proud to call home. “It is an underdog city that many people count out,” said O’Gorman. “But it has this heritage of strength and entrepreneurship — a real tenacity to build things.”
O’Gorman grew up in the tight-knit neighborhood of Shaker Heights, an old-line streetcar suburb of Cleveland a short ride from the city’s downtown. In between volleyball and softball practices, the political bug bit her when an unexpected budget gap in the local school system threatened funding for a number of school activities. “I worked with a group of seven or eight students to create a ‘Students for Shaker Schools Campaign’ where we put together what I then thought was a flyer — now I know it’s called a direct mail piece, to show the student view on why extracurricular activities were important.”
O’Gorman was an undergraduate at Barnard College when a charismatic freshman senator from Illinois launched what was assumed to be a longshot bid for the presidency. “I could see a big upswell of change and excitement, and real hope for [the] more systemic changes that I thought were needed,” she said, looking back at Barack Obama’s early message of hope and change. At Barnard, O’Gorman was a lead activist with the school’s chapter of College Democrats, and in the homestretch of the 2008 campaign she helped organized scores of students to travel to the swing state of Virginia to rally support for Obama. “It was just a lot of fun. We had 13 vans of 13 students each that were just excited to go and hit as many doors as they could.”
With Obama in the White House and a degree from Barnard in hand, O’Gorman headed south to Washington, DC and ultimately landed a job with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a new veterans’ organization that had been working to build support for the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 and tackle issues related to veteran employment, mental health, and suicide prevention. “I was excited about how much they were impacting the debate at the national level on veterans issues, so I joined the team,” she recalled.
At IAVA, O’Gorman ultimately rose to become the organization’s political director, where she helped lead a successful campaign to push the Obama administration to issue an executive order on veteran suicide prevention. She also worked to convince Congress to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which increased access to mental health care for veterans and provided increased resources and accountability for mental health and suicide prevention efforts at the Veterans Administration.
At IAVA, O’Gorman recalled how her favorite part of the year was the organization’s annual “Storm the Hill” advocacy and leadership program to train and empower 30 veteran leaders to share their stories and experiences on issues crucial to IAVA’s policy recommendations to key leaders and stakeholders on the Hill. “We’d do deep training on stories and on speaking to legislators about why these bills were so important. But then, more importantly, we’d see them go home and to continue those conversations, excited by the communities that would rise up around them.”
Looking back at her tenure with IAVA, O’Gorman is silent for a few moments as she collects her thoughts before reflecting on her experience. “It’s been incredible to see some of them [the veterans] consider running for Congress. Some of them leading mental health institutions in their home communities. Or being incredible parents. The reason why they decided to serve in the military in the first place was because of a set of values that I know they’ll act on for years to come. And getting to be a small moment of that story by bringing together that community and investing in them was one of the most incredible parts of working at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.”
Yet even as O’Gorman was succeeding at passing legislation and training a new generation of veteran leaders, she was frustrated with how the laws she helped to pass and the executive orders she worked to convince the president to sign would stumble in their execution. “I started to see us be able to pass bill after bill that created hope for real change happening for veterans. But even the best bills were often frustrated in their implementation.” The issue came to a head with the Veterans Health Administration scandal in 2014, in which reports surfaced that some VA facilities kept multiple sets of waiting lists and veterans were having difficulty securing appointments at hospitals and clinics. The scandal ultimately cost then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job and led to a still-ongoing debate over how to reform veterans’ health care. O’Gorman, watching as these scandals were unfolding, wanted to transition from advocating policy to understanding how to implement the programs that she helped become law. “I wanted to go both to Harvard Kennedy School and the Stanford Business School to learn about how services could be delivered. How you could take some of the lessons learned in the business community such as user experience and design thinking, and bring them into the government space.”
At HKS, O’Gorman enrolled in the MPA2 program, which has no core curriculum. “It’s a great program. You get to choose your own adventure.” That adventure ultimately brought her to Ash Center resident faculty affiliate Marshall Ganz’s classroom, where O’Gorman took his highly regarded Public Narrative class, which she describes as a highlight of her experience at HKS. “I was kind of forced to look back at those stories that made me think about politics,” said O’Gorman. “For a long time I thought I was accidentally interested in politics — that I had just been part of this Obama generation — that I didn’t have real experiences before then that had shaped why that moment captured me. And, through Public Narrative, I recalled moments where people had my back when I was facing really difficult times. And then I saw systems fail them. Or moments when I was feeling lost or stuck, and a teacher was there for me. I started to realize why community and why Cleveland is so important to me. And why I wanted to go home.”
Free of core curriculum requirements, O’Gorman then served as a teaching fellow for Ganz where she built upon her lessons from his public narrative class and her own professional background to help coach students working on a number of different community organizing projects as part of Ganz’s class on organizing. “She has been an incredibly effective coach and invested an enormous amount of effort in developing the leadership skills of others,” said Ganz. “My role as a teaching fellow was to work with those students to take the seeds of ideas for campaigns and make them into reality,” added O’Gorman. She worked with 17 students on campaign topics as diverse as LGBTQ rights, the Asian American identity and experience, and helping educators become more equipped and ready to run for office. “So through one-on-ones, through working with them on reflection papers, and constant coaching and pushing, I feel like I got to be a part of 17 campaigns.”
If being part of those 17 different campaigns wasn’t enough for O’Gorman, last November’s surprise presidential election result prompted her and a group of HKS students to figure out how to take the lessons they’ve learned about political organization and advocacy and spread them to hundreds of thousands of willing students across the country. After the shock of Donald Trump’s victory had worn off, O’Gorman recalled that one of her students in Ganz’s organizing class immediately sensed the possibilities, “I could see her eyes open up. She said to me, ‘I now see opportunities for organizing everywhere.’”
O’Gorman and a group of 10 other HKS students, still digesting the results from the election, got together and thought about how they could refine their organizing and other political skills they had developed at HKS and in their professional careers, and help spread those tools to others who were similarly concerned by Donald Trump’s elevation to the White House. “We all sort of thought what if we had a kind of school, a ‘resistance school’ where we could host workshops to build the skills that you need to more effectively resist in this moment.”
From that thought grew the widely acclaimed Resistance School, an online free practical training program designed to teach organizing techniques to what the project’s organizers describe as “making change that advances values of fairness, equality, and inclusivity.” The original concept of a handful of livestreamed workshops, which O’Gorman and her classmates thought would garner a few hundred viewers at most, ultimately morphed into a series of four professionally produced sessions featuring HKS faculty and prominent progressive organizers, which have reached an audience of hundreds of thousands.
The work of the Resistance School has been featured in major national media outlets, and O’Gorman and her classmates have been working with other organizations focused on training community leaders to figure out how best to continue and coordinate their work. Over the summer, O’Gorman and the rest of the Resistance School leadership are working on the next round of online programming and identifying additional skills that the project can teach in future digital classroom sessions.
But first, Cleveland beckons.
The Forest City may be in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, as it tries to successfully transition from its industrial roots to an economic model built on the city’s large education and health-care sectors, but “it’s still confronting large challenges about what does the new economy in Cleveland look like,” O’Gorman said. The possibility of helping to shape the city’s future economic trajectory has a deep hold on O’Gorman. “How do you actually create an inclusive economic development plan that can spur the entire city forward,” she asks. It’s a question for which she’s surely going to try her hardest to find an answer.