From Arctic research to promoting the Port of Monroe, P3E students get real-world policy experience

May 27, 2021

Ford School students again went beyond the classroom, even though just virtually, to engage with communities across Michigan and the U.S. The graduate and undergraduate students took part in eight projects around racial justice, economic development, the environment, election security and even research about the Canadian and U.S. Arctic regions.

The Program in Practical Policy Engagement’s (P3E) Practical Community Learning Project (PCLP) and Student Research Initiative have partnerships each semester with public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sector organizations, both to provide a service to the organizations and to offer students a chance to apply their analytic skills to real-world problems.    

As those projects were showcased for the community, Professor Elisabeth Gerber, P3E director, commented, “These engagements cover such a wide range of topics. In each case, there's a lot of common learning that's going on when students work directly with real world partners and engage in this kind of practical learning.”

DeAndre Calvert, P3E community engagement manager and program manager for the PCLP, noted that some of the issues the projects covered were especially relevant as the country reacted to the trial and conviction in the murder case of George Floyd and other racial incidents. “There are still issues around inequity, and those in the social justice and criminal justice and public policy world know that there's a lot that is inequitable.”

P3E’s mission, to “leverage existing expertise and interdisciplinary approaches to generate policy–relevant research, analysis and learning,” was clearly in evidence, as were the three pillars of the program: engaged learning, policy research, and policy impact.

You can watch the full presentations here.

Michigan’s Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration

Community Partner: Detroit Action
Students: Hannah Kraus (MPP ‘22), Sarah Niemann (BA ‘22)

Hannah Kraus (MPP ‘22), Sarah Niemann (BA ‘22) looked into an issue that is key in understanding racial justice and examined Michigan’s drug laws.

While the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration seeks to create more equity within the state, two bills have been proposed in the Michigan House which could exacerbate the situation. The first introduces new felonies and sentences for opioids in Michigan which at the lowest end would require people convicted of delivering zero to 50 grams to see up to 20 years in prison and for the largest amounts, they would face a life sentence in prison. The second bill creates an option to defer one’s sentencing for up to one year to participate in rehabilitative programs like drug treatment. But people have to plead guilty in order to get access to this program and they have to pay $30 to $60 a month during that year.

“We made recommendations to our partner, Detroit Action, that they could advocate for, such as eliminating that life sentence at the high end of the opiate schedule, lowering the other sentences further, eliminating the exclusions and fees for the different sentencing,” Kraus said. “People would say that it reminds them of cash bail and that it criminalizes poverty.”

Niemann said, “We learned about the complicated nature of drug policy in Michigan. Throughout our cycle of the semester we had to adjust our strategy, and we saw kind of how quickly things can change within the Michigan political scene. The national trend is towards dismantling this extreme system of punishment for drug use in the United States like doing away with mandatory minimums and decriminalizing drug use, but there are still state representatives who are trying to use these tactics to respond to the opioid crisis.”

Livonia police data analysis

Community Partner: Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives
Students: Ben Rosenfeld (BA ‘22), Hanna Schechter (BA ‘22)

Police and community relations have been subjects of partnership and research for many years. This term Ben Rosenfeld (BA ‘22), Hanna Schechter (BA ‘22) worked with Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives. They worked as policy researchers looking into data that wasn't readily available to citizens on the local police department website, and helped with their public information campaign to get the word out about why a civilian complaint review board could be important for the city of Livonia.

They interviewed the police chief and officers, Black Lives Matter activists, and community leaders. The first deliverable was a series of infographics about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues related to policing in Livonia, and addressing concerns that a review board would make the city less safe. 

The second deliverable was a memo to the city council giving examples of other existing civilian complaint boards and why they offer benefits to the city.

For Rosenfeld, he learned about “the power of grassroots organizing, and also the strategic presentation of policy information. Another learning was the challenge of working across institutional fault lines. We met with some police officers, and there was a challenge to talk about our different priorities between these two groups.”

Schechter concurred, “It's very hard to kind of have a safe and honest dialogue in a situation where people might feel attacked and so we tried to navigate that the best we could.”

Resources for southeast Michigan microbusinesses

Community Partner: New Economy Initiative
Students: Michael Ocasio (BA ‘21), Orlando Sanchez Zavala (MPP ‘21), Jack Wilger (MPP ‘22)

In a continuation of a project from the Fall 2020 term, Michael Ocasio (BA ‘21), Orlando Sanchez Zavala (MPP ‘21), and Jack Wilger (MPP ‘22) catalogued public sector support and funding resources for microbusinesses in Southeast Michigan for the New Economy Initiative. Microbusinesses, defined as those that have less than 10 employees, account for 72% of all Detroit businesses and serve as the backbone of urban job creation, community empowerment and city culture. While they looked at what was available and identified gaps, they also examined methods that other cities and states have used to facilitate a thriving microbusiness ecosystem.

They found that while state and federal programs identify microbusinesses, they rarely target them, preferring to work with “small” businesses which are larger. And even those programs that do exist can be difficult to access, as evidenced by the problems getting PPP pandemic relief funding. Microbusinesses need more information about what programs exist and how to take advantage of them. And their final point was that there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.

Sanchez stressed the need to involve the whole community. “Engaging the broad group of stakeholders at the local and state level is incredibly important in moving the needle. Even within the last few months since we started this project we've seen Governor Whitmer announce funds available to micro-enterprises at the state level.”

“We did highlight some promising policies in our report. I looked at other states and their local municipalities, and universities, partnered to provide trainings, especially when a government is rolling out a Capital Access Program,” noted Sanchez.

Added Wilger, “Making an online presence is hugely important for microbusinesses in this day and age, and that I think DNEP (Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Program) could provide a huge service in that area for business owners.”

Legislative strategy and action plan for supporting Michigan’s commercial ports

Community Partner: Port of Monroe, Michigan
Students: Sam Hankinson (BA, Central Michigan University ‘21), Julia Johnson (BA ‘22), Molly Kalb (BA ‘21), Karley Thurston (MPP ‘22)

This is the sixth term that P3E has supported Ford School students' work with the Port of Monroe on various projects. Sam Hankinson (from Central Michigan University) and Julia Johnston (BA ’22) had worked with the port in Fall 2020 as well. This term, they, Molly Kalb (BA ‘21), and Karley Thurston (MPP ‘22) took a broad view to develop a strategy and action plan to achieve legislative support for the commercial ports of Michigan.

The Office of State Senator Stephanie Chang (MPP ‘14) also participated as a co-partner. Hankinson noted that, “it's been very exciting to see how research conducted by students in this program has generated conversation about Michigan's ports and generated more research on this topic.”

This term, the student team built on previous research and identified alternative leadership structures for ports as well as promising grant and funding opportunities for ports. They also sought to understand the pitfalls of concessionaire agreements.

Johnston said many of the outcomes were surprising. “From our research into governance, we discovered that there's not enough port representation within state government, given that it is such a critical industry in Michigan. So options for improving the representation structure include creating a marine transportation office within the Michigan Department of Transportation, expanding the already existent Port Authority Advisory Committee, and even hiring dedicated grant and administrative staff to both of those organizations.”

“During the course of our research, it became so clear that the port could be such a source of economic growth in the future. It’s exciting to have a deliverable that we believe could have an impact on the surrounding communities,” said Kalb.

Representing the Port of Monroe, Gregg Ward said, “From the port’s perspective, it's been really great to be a part of this project. The students have been very engaged.  The insights they've given us in to what other states are doing really gives us hope for the state of Michigan to become a maritime player in the future, as we should be.”

Second House district water infrastructure funding

Community Partner: State Representative Joe Tate
Students: Clare Knutson (MPP ‘22), Christen Richardson (MPP ‘21)

When the sea wall along Lake St. Clair was breached by record high water in 2019, the Detroit River surged and water poured in through the poorly-maintained canal system in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. While a temporary fix was put in place, a permanent solution could cost as much as $25 million.

Clare Knutson (MPP ‘22) and Christen Richardson (MPP ‘21) worked to identify sources of funding for the maintenance, repair and construction of water infrastructure along the Detroit River, especially for those Detroit neighborhoods. Working with State Representative Joe Tate, they interviewed stakeholders and subject area experts, including community representatives from Detroit and Grosse Pointe Farms, the outreach coordinator from the Detroit district planning office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as University of Michigan faculty from the School of Environment and Sustainability and the College of Engineering.

Richardson noted, “It’s quite a lot of money, so we had to devise a couple of different financing scenarios that would help try to tackle the problem. Knowing that the majority of the funding will have to come from federal sources, the rest would have to come from community funding. So having the state and local government explore private public partnerships, maybe new market tax credits, as well as also thinking about foundations which can provide assessments along the way, that can really contribute to the cost benefit analysis.”

The property values are much lower in Jefferson Chalmers than in Grosse Pointe, Richardson said. “It further entrenches inequality. The equity issue is important and should be part of the federal government’s thinking, and also maybe the state should set aside money for thinking about climate change, and the issues that come along with that.”  

University Arctic Institute gap analysis

Community Partner: U.S. Department of Energy, Arctic Energy Office 
Students: Sophia Hart (MPP ‘22), Devan O’Toole (BA ‘21)

Ford School alum Matt Manning (MPP ‘14) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Arctic Energy Office was interested in looking at the gaps in research that universities are doing about the Arctic in Canada and the U.S., so he turned to P3E, which deployed Sophia Hart (MPP ‘22) and Devan O’Toole (BA ‘21).

The Arctic Energy Office is relatively new, and one of their early goals is to bring together people who may be working on Arctic issues, hoping to increase collaboration and innovation.

O’Toole said climate change research is prevalent nearly everywhere. “The ways that they handled going about their climate change research differed, but 94 out of 149 research institutes that we catalog have a focus on climate change.”

“I personally feel like my scope expanded for how climate change is actually researched, seeing how research institutes complement each other's research, through satellite imaging of Arctic regions or sea ice melting analysis,” O’Toole reported. “We found that what was produced by a lot of indigenous communities is buried in Google searches. You need to be intentional about prioritizing those voices.”

Gerber was encouraged as well. “We can ask our partners at the Department of Energy for access to the database these two wonderful students put together and perhaps look for partners to help us investigate possibilities for partnerships. That could be kind of great.”

Michigan Food Security Council research project

Community Partner: Michigan Food Security Council
Students: Kristina Curtiss (MPP ‘22), Colin Foos (MPP ‘22), Bethany Haddad (MPP ‘22), Allison Pujol (BA ‘21), Sydney Thompson (MPP ’22)

Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Food Security Council to identify and analyze solutions for food insecurity in Michigan, which is at a higher rate than the national average. The situation was exacerbated by COVID-19.

A team of five Ford School students -- Kristina Curtiss (MPP ‘22), Colin Foos (MPP ‘22), Bethany Haddad (MPP ‘22), Allison Pujol (BA ‘21), Sydney Thompson (MPP ’22) – worked with the Council to conduct research about food security policies and determine best practices at the state, local, and national level.

In addition to a document search, they interviewed experts around the country, including at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Urban Institute, for example.

“We wanted to find the most feasible opportunities, noticing that not every recommendation that we came across would necessarily be possible,” Pujol commented.

Among the recommendations:

  • Providing blanket eligibility for free school breakfast and lunches, rather than basing it on individual household applications for eligibility. This has the opportunity to expand free breakfast and lunch to over 900,000 students in Michigan.
  • Increasing the asset limit for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This would increase the eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as lower the administrative burden of application fees and certification processes.
  • Working with Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow to make permanent a pilot program which allows people to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for online grocers. 

While the administrative barriers, like determining eligibility, certification, and re-enrollment, are one of the hindrances to getting access to food programs, the stigma of applying for those programs also prevents some people from getting the food they need.

“On the broad spectrum, food security policy extends well beyond food assistance like SNAP. It includes most forms of public assistance while addressing the people living on the poverty line,” Johnson concluded.

Opportunities for reforming Michigan primary elections

Community Partner: Michigan Consensus Policy Project
Students: Mandy Mitchell (MPP ‘21), Landon Myers (MPP ‘21), Eleanor Sullivan (MPP ‘21)

The Michigan Consensus Policy Project is composed of former state office holders who look at tough issues that Michigan is facing to try to find solutions that can generate consensus, even when it seems consensus is harder than ever to achieve. The team of Mandy Mitchell (MPP ‘22), Landon Myers (MPP ‘21), and Eleanor Sullivan (MPP ‘21) worked with the Project to examine whether Michigan should adopt the “top two primary.”  

Michigan currently has an open primary, which means anybody, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in a partisan primary. A top two primary means that there is a common ballot for primary elections, so all candidates from all parties are listed, and the top two vote-getters are then on the general election ballot, even if they are from the same party.

“Our project topic was motivated by this concern about polarization in the state. So as we all know too well polarization makes the difficult job of governing even more difficult,” said Mitchell. “So the hunch here is that this reform favors moderate candidates who appeal to a broader share of voters.”

After looking at reform projects around the country, she reported, “We're sorry to disappoint you, but as far as we can tell institutional reforms seem to only have a marginal effect on polarization and that includes the top two primary.”

They also found that term limits are the most pernicious reform. Michigan has the strictest term limits in the nation and they have increased polarization and led to imbalances of power between the legislative and executive branches.

“I think we all went into this thinking that one or other institutional reform would be the key to a more civil will to govern Michigan, but that did not turn out to be the case. I think we've all been a little disappointed by that but we definitely have a better understanding of the place of political reforms, better than any did at the beginning of this,” Mitchell said.

“We’ve learned that public enthusiasm for reform definitely does not mean that there is strong evidence that it will be the fix that its advocates hope it will be. This was certainly the case for term limits, which I think we all have taken away as a cautionary tale. There's so much enthusiasm for term limits, and it really hasn't done what it was supposed to do.”

 “One of the real challenges with this project is we have reforms that are out there and we want to learn from them but there haven't been enough elections to actually really be able to say definitively one way or another,” Mitchell concluded.