Ash Center: HKS Student Roniesha Copeland Gains Key Skills Working for Sacramento Mayor Johnson

February 4, 2013
Ash Center: HKS Student Roniesha Copeland Gains Key Skills Working for Sacramento Mayor Johnson

This summer I worked on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s education policy team, supporting his work with the National Conference of Black Mayors. My project gave me the opportunity to leverage my business background to do strategic and organizational planning. Although my project was interesting, it was only one facet of my summer. The Mayoral Fellowship with the Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson exposed me to different aspects of the city through participation in activities such as ride-alongs with the Sacramento Police Department, weekly city council meetings, and press conferences with local media.

Attending city council meetings gave me deeper insight into the types of issues municipal leaders tackle—from zoning decisions about locating a McDonald’s franchise in a particular neighborhood, to ballot measures on whether to consider a sales tax hike or create an elected commission to review the city’s charter. It also exposed me to how the public engaged in the process.

Mayor Johnson’s weekly press conferences gave me a chance to understand how elected officials engage with the press. I attended press conferences on a host of issues including securing federal funding for transit infrastructure and launching an economic development initiative to bring a major league baseball team to the city. One of my summer highlights was actually speaking at a press conference about the Mayoral Fellowship Program. Being in front of the cameras and feeling the pressure of that activity gave me firsthand experience in what politicians face regularly. It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

One of the most surprising and exciting parts of my summer was having direct and frequent access to the mayor. Mayor Johnson is very hands-on and regularly involved me in policy meetings, and sought my opinion on a range of issues. I even had the opportunity to prepare him for two events that he keynoted during the summer. As a huge West Wing fan, I was thrilled to have my Sam Seaborn moment when I worked as the mayor’s speechwriter for a major event. This was a childhood dream come true!

Coming into this experience with a strictly private-sector background, I was not sure what to expect or how my business experience would translate. What I learned is that there are tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurial, strategic-minded individuals to apply their skills, but that the system is not set up to optimize them. The ability to execute a grandiose vision requires political support and resources—both of which are hard to come by if you are an innovator and change agent. Coalition building is necessary to achieve your goals. Thankfully, a semester of Brian Mandell’s negotiations class has prepared me for building coalitions that can get things done.

I also learned about the different ways you can leverage your leadership platform to influence change. Although Kevin Johnson is the mayor of one city, he uses that office to encourage innovation and change across the country. For example, as chair of the US Conference of Mayors Education Reform Task Force, he introduced the idea of the Mayoral Spectrum. It provides mayors with different ways they can impact their local education system, depending on their appetite for involvement. By educating his fellow mayors on education issues and providing them with guidance on different ways to engage in education, he is advancing a movement that could create change in cities across the country.

Overall, my summer in Sacramento was a tremendous learning experience and lots of fun. Having such a wide range of experiences and direct exposure to an elected official was critical to understanding how I can impact education, cities, and government throughout my career.

Roniesha Copeland, MBA/MPP 2014, was an Ash Summer Fellow in Innovation