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Local Task Force Harnesses Research Power of Sanford Students, Alums

July 8, 2020

by Jackie Ogburn

ryan smithAs the innovation and performance manager for the City of Durham on special assignment to the mayor’s office, Ryan Smith MPP’14 has been immersed in the city’s response to the pandemic, including heading the Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force (RRTF).

“Durham citizens are facing so many hardships now, it’s staggering. There has been a 20 percent increase in homelessness. Over 80 percent of the COVID-19 cases are in the Latinx community, and many of them are essential workers,” Smith said.

As the members of the task force were being recruited from the community, Smith realized they would need help. Someone needed to research best practices, current data and evidence-based solutions to the problems resulting from the ongoing and quickly evolving pandemic and its far-reaching impact on Durham.

Fortunately, he knew where to find exactly that kind of help. Smith reached out to Sanford School Dean Judith Kelley.

Because of the pandemic, many Sanford students saw their internships for the summer disappear.  Donna Dyer, assistant dean for Career and Professional Development, send out a call for volunteer researchers to current students and new graduates in public policy.

Research Volunteers

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Soon, there were 20 volunteers working as research assistants with the task force – 12 MPP students and recent graduates, one undergraduate public policy major, four students from North Carolina Central University and one from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“We need the best evidence we can find to make the best decisions we can,” Smith said.

The task force will advise Mayor Steve Schewel and County Commission Chair Wendy Jacobs on how to safely and successfully re-open Durham and address longstanding problems aggravated by the pandemic. The members are drawn from public health experts, leaders from the community, including faith and business leaders. The current term of the task force is 100 days.

The task force has created a series of roundtables focused on specific communities and industries. They are also holding virtual town halls for feedback from the broader community. 

The research assistants are acting as a “rapid response think tank,” providing memos of best practices and emerging data on responses to COVID-19 to the staff, the task force and roundtable members.

 “They are providing 200 hours of research assistance every week,” said Smith. 

The roundtable members will utilize the materials prepared by the policy volunteers and make recommendations to the mayor and county commission chair. 

Mary Grace Stoneking standing in front of sunflowersMary Grace Stoneking MPP’21 (photo, left) is an intern this summer with the Durham City Manager’s office. She helps Smith run the task force by organizing the meetings of the research assistants, tracking their assignments and collecting briefing materials for the task force members.

“The research projects range from food security issues, transportation and housing to increasing testing, how to resume worship services and small business relief,” she said.

COVID-19 has hit the Latinx community hard in Durham.  At the end of June, the majority of the diagnosed cases were Latinx people. Many of the cases are concentrated in the construction industry, which is considered an essential business.

Many students are participating in the project“There is a great need for contact tracing in the Latinx community. We need to find the best practices to get past the legitimate feeling of mistrust within the Latinx community when being contacted by the government,” said Stoneking.

Making a Difference

For the research assistants, it’s a chance to make a difference during one of the biggest public policy challenges in recent history.

Elizabeth Graff MPP’21 has been looking at best practices for testing and contract tracing.  She researched how cities in Texas had been dealing with the issues and found that many of the testing sites, such as pharmacies, were in wealthier neighborhoods, and were not accessible to minority communities.  They were also slow to start large-scale testing and tracing. The short version of her findings: “Don’t be like Texas,” she said.

Graff is also working on how creating personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, can be an opportunity for local job creation.

Jacquie Ayala MPP’21 (photo, left) is conducting research for the vulnerable populations roundtable and the Latinx and immigrants roundtable. One of her memos was on Latinx outreach, which included basic recommendations, such as providing materials printed in several languages.

“We really need to figure out how to support that community. They need access to healthcare, help with transportation, and many of them are essential workers,” Ayala said.

Ayala said that the task force and Mayor Schewel are very interested in an idea from one of her memos. The city of Tampa, Florida has recruited “nurse inspectors,” who visit the largest construction sites in the city. They note whether workers on site have access to hand-washing stations, masks and other PPE, meanwhile encouraging compliance in a non-punitive way.

Vivian Taylor MPP/Div’20 is working with two roundtables; one on worship spaces and one on construction and utilities industries. Taylor has completed a guidance document on reopening worship spaces.

“My policy work is being put into action almost immediately. It’s what people in Durham are going to be using to keep themselves safe,” she said.

Taylor is also writing research memos on alternatives to carpooling for low-income residents, the eviction moratorium and small business support.

New Initiatives

Mariel BeasleySmith has also relying on the help of another Sanford alumna, Mariel Beasley MPP’13 (photo, right). At Duke, Beasley works in behavioral economics. With Smith, she has worked on ways to encourage compliance and sustain behaviors, such as wearing masks. She has been part of the “Back on the Bull” project, a website for businesses to help them find out best practices for public health in their industry, which launched on July 1.

“We don’t want to use punitive measures to get people to wear masks, we want to normalize it,” Smith said.

Another initiative that is rolling out soon is a platform to promote local mask makers, to help employ Durham residents and provide what is now the best protection against COVID-19.

Working in the City Manager’s office has changed Stoneking’s idea of city government.  “The city has a lot of power, to be able to be responsive to the pandemic. I’ve been impressed with how innovative and open to new ideas they are, especially now,” she said.

The city and local officials are in a hard position now, because they have to have act fast, she said. The volunteer research assistants are filling in the knowledge gaps, and providing the research in a digestible form.

“This has taken every skill Sanford teaches in our classes and applied them in a real situation,” Stoneking said.  

“I didn’t expect to see how a memo from an MPP student can change things in real time.”