Alumni Spotlight: Pem Brown


Please introduce yourself (name, year, concentration, activities you participated in at Heller, what you are doing now):

Pem Brown, 2011, poverty alleviation (plus joint M.A. in women’s and gender studies). Now I work at M+R helping national non-profits run digital fundraising and advocacy programs.

What were you doing before you came to Heller?

I spent three years working at NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, a reproductive rights non-profit in Boston, doing fundraising and communications. I also spent time volunteering for various progressive political campaigns around the state.

Why did you decide to come to Heller?

I was really drawn to the social justice orientation of the school and program, plus I was really excited for the joint women’s and gender studies degree.

What are some of the classes/activities that really enjoyed at Heller?

I took an amazing interdisciplinary course during my first year through the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies called Gender and Poverty in the United States. My final semester, I took a course called Legitimizing (In)equality: Attitudes, Beliefs, and Social Policy, which focused on how issues of poverty have been framed in political and media discourse in the United States. I also helped plan the annual DC spring break trips, which were a lot of fun.

Can you say a little about where you were and what you did for your summer internship?

I knew after Heller, I wanted to stay in Boston, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend my summer internship somewhere else working on national policy. I lived in DC and interned at the National Partnership for Women and Family. I got to focus on work/family policy, which was what I had been studying at Heller.

How do you use the skills you learned at Heller in your profession?

So much of what I do at M+R is to help boil down complicated political and policy issues to get people to take action, whether that be donating or contacting their elected officials. While writing for the digital space is quite different than the long research papers that are staples of most of Heller’s courses, the program’s emphasis on clear and concise writing continues to serve me well. Also, having an understanding of statistical significance is helpful for analyzing the email and web tests we run for our clients.


Student Spotlight: Brian Kennedy


Please introduce yourself (name, year, concentration, activities or positions you might hold here at Heller):

I’m Brian Kennedy, a second-year MPP student concentrating in Assets and Poverty Alleviation. I’ve held a few jobs and positions here at Heller and Brandeis. Most recently, I served as a Teaching Assistant for Professor Shapiro’s Wealth and Poverty course as well as Professor William’s class, Hip Hop History and Culture. Currently, I work as a student research assistant at the Shuster Institute for Investigative Journalism which is housed at Brandeis University. At Shuster, I am researching mass incarceration trends in Massachusetts, using Michelle Alexander’s framework.


What were you doing before you came to Heller?

Before Heller, I taught 7th and 8th grade social studies in Charlotte, North Carolina. My school was a part of an innovation district called Project L.I.F.T. which leveraged private-public partnerships and utilized community engagement to try to increase student achievement. My favorite part of teaching were the conversations my students and I had around justice, equality, and how to achieve it.


Why did you decide to come to Heller?

Leaving the classroom was not an easy decision. I felt that I was making really important progress with my students, but was doing nothing to address larger structural issues that they were facing outside of the classroom. Regardless of how well they did in my class, they were still faced with the obstacles of a broken school system. I decided to attend Heller because I think it’s important that there are a multitude of voices at the decision-making table. I wanted to be able to address the issues my students faced from a systemic perspective. Heller, in particular, attracted me because of its focus on practicing social justice, rather than simply discussing it in academia.


What are some of the classes/activities that you’ve really enjoyed here at Heller?

I’ve had the opportunity to take multiple classes with Professor Anita Hill: Law and Social Justice as well as Social Justice in the Obama Administration. Not only is Professor Hill an excellent educator, she pushes us to think about the ways we speak, conceptualize, and practice social justice. I think it is this level of critical analysis that has the potential to transform the way we approach social justice work within public policy. The conversations and questions that come up in her course are really the highlight of my experience here at Heller.


Can you say a little about your summer internship?

I completed my summer internship with the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center at the North Carolina Justice Center. At the Budget and Tax Center, I worked on a wide range of projects ranging from labor market analysis to coalition building across the state. One of my major projects was to create a tool to explain the impact of the Supplemental Food Nutrition Program (SNAP) for advocacy organizations and stakeholders in the state. In creating the NC SNAP Chartbook, I utilized every one of my policy analysis tools from econometrics to short and concise writing. My summer allowed me to take the conceptual tools we learned at Heller and really put them into practice.


Student Spotlight: Erica Brien

Erica Brien
Erica Brien, first-year MPP/MBA student concentrating in poverty alleviation, co-chair of the MPP Student Association Community Partnerships Committee

Prior to coming to Heller, I worked as a Protected Areas Management Adviser in Peace Corps Honduras and as the Manager of Recruitment and Community Partnerships at Big Sister Boston. In Peace Corps Honduras, I worked with community leaders and families on numerous income generation projects. Although much was accomplished through the efforts of local leaders, I also had the opportunity to observe the implications of US economic policy on a global level and the additional obstacles it creates for those battling poverty internationally. After two years, I returned to the United States to apply what I learned within a more familiar context.

At Big Sister Boston (BSB), I used my leadership to address pervasive inequities by focusing on youth development and the advancement of girls and women. As BSB Manager of Recruitment, I led a team to establish partnerships that increased monetary and programmatic resources. Through the cross-sector community partnerships I established, I had the opportunity to collaborate with city leaders and local residents, deepening my understanding of policy issues in Boston.

Through these experiences, I have grown to understand that systemic change is both possible and necessary. Although BSB programs yield significant outcomes for girls in many areas including educational achievement, I grew to understand that social challenges can be more permanently addressed by challenging the dominant systems in which they are rooted. In this way, more effective public policies are necessary, and I came to Heller to build the skills and knowledge needed to advance justice through policy.

The first semester as an MPP student at Heller can be an exciting one, and I enjoyed many of the core classes. Having the opportunity to learn from social justice advocates like Professor Anita Hill, however, is exceptional. Professor Hill’s Gender Equity Policies and Litigation module offered me a unique theoretical lens by focusing on current U.S. antidiscrimination law while simultaneously providing analytical tools to critique the structure and development of future policy.

I also have enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with students within the MPP Student Association as well as a number of student working groups: the LGBTQIA Working Group; the Work, Wealth and Inequality Working Group; and the Gender Working Group.

Alum Spotlight: Molly O’Donnell


Please introduce yourself (name, year, concentration, activities you participated in at Heller, what you are doing now):

My name is Molly O’Donnell, I am a December 2015 (very recent!) MPP/MBA graduate from the Heller School with a concentration in Child, Youth, and Family Policy. I moved to the Boston area to attend the Heller School and had a clear goal upon arrival to build a Boston based network. Heller was a great place to do that – I worked briefly for the Admissions Office and participated on the Diversity Working Group and worked as a TA for a Carole Carlson’s Strategic Management course. In 2014, I was selected as a Segal Fellow and placed at Root Cause for the summer, a non-profit research and consulting firm. I continued working with Root Cause for the remainder of my time at Heller and also joined the Associate Board of a local youth services organization called Breakthrough Greater Boston. A few months before leaving Heller, I was asked to join the team at New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm, on their Reimagine Learning Fund, which develops an impact framework for their work. Since then, I have joined the team full time as a Senior Associate. Through my role on the New Profit Reimagine Learning Team, I coordinate our regional strategy by doing a case study in Lawrence, MA and supporting a strategic planning process with Salem Public Schools. I also work to shepherd  our capacity building support for our grantees to improve their ability to serve students who have been systematically underserved in our current school systems – students with learning differences, low income students, and students exposed to trauma.


What were you doing before you came to Heller?

Prior to coming to the Heller School, I was working as a Lead Advocate in a youth services organization called Open Meadow (now Open School) in Portland, Oregon. As a part of this role I had a caseload of 25 students annually who I would work with through tutoring, mentoring, advocacy with teachers, leadership development, and in depth parent partnership. I also served on the organization’s Equity Committee providing professional development for educators on culturally competent teaching and working collectively towards closing racial achievement gaps in Portland schools. I had previously served two terms of AmeriCorps service in education organizations which helped put me on a path towards a career in advancing educational equity.


Why did you decide to come to Heller?

Leaving my work with students in Portland was one of the hardest career decisions I have made to date and looking back I feel very excited by where I have gone in the few years since making that choice. In my direct service role I felt often that I was bumping up against numerous barriers – some had to do with educational policy and social policy that kept putting roadblocks in the way of my students’ successes, others were organizational challenges about strategy and funding choices and challenges to achieving the appropriate scale for impact. These challenges together made me look at programs that would allow me both the policy vantage point to understand the environments in which I work and the need for real business skills. The Heller MPP/MBA is a unique program that provides you an opportunity to go deep in both of these areas. The Children, Youth, and Family concentration was also a huge attraction for me – many schools focus on education policy specifically and my experience clearly indicated to me that the systems that impact students’ experiences in school are often outside of the school building and I wanted to take a more holistic view of the challenges facing children, youth, and families. Finally, I have always been a huge fan of Boston and it is truly a hub for great thinkers in the youth services space. These factors made Heller an obvious choice for me!
What are some of the classes/activities that really enjoyed at Heller?

I have to admit that the classes I liked most I could never have predicted! My current boss makes fun of me because I talk about how much I loved my accounting classes – something I never expected! I loved Carol Carlson’s strategic management course – so much so that I sat through the four hour classes a second time as her TA. One of the best classes I took was a small class on Children, Youth, and Family Policy with Marji Erickson-Warfield, it allowed our class of 10 to dig deep on policy issues and really think of how we would rethink and redesign policy for those who are most under served by our current systems. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a more in depth look in this content area! What struck me most across all of my classes was the level of care and intention Heller professors bring to their work. Mike Doonan who directs the MPP program exemplifies this in the way he redesigns his courses each year to ensure he incorporates student feedback – a sign of a deeply committed teacher!


Can you say a little about where you were and what you did for your summer internship?

I was fortunate enough to be selected as an Eli Segal Fellow through Heller School. The Segal program helped place me as a resident at Root Cause in Boston. I worked with Root Cause on a few really exciting projects that helped spark my interest in working in the nonprofit capacity building space. The bulk of my work focused on a capacity building initiative for youth workforce development programs in the city of Boston. I worked with a team including another Heller alum, Alex Motter, to create a youth survey for 4,000 students across the city about their summer work experience in community based organizations and to implement a training on trauma-informed workplaces and informal mentoring for  300 supervisors of youth workers across the city. During my summer with Root Cause, I also had the opportunity to read and rank proposals to the Social Innovation Forum’s accelerator program and work on a few memos for MENTOR (in partnership with yet another Heller alum from MENTOR!) on the importance of mentoring for preventing youth violence. After my summer with Root Cause, I was fortunate to stay on the following year and continue to work with youth workforce programs doing program assessment and running the capacity building program for a second year.


How do you use the skills you learned at Heller in your profession?

As I am only a few months into my post-Heller life, I feel like I am still learning about all of the points of connection from my academic work to my current work. One thing I can say for sure is that the Heller network helped me arrive in this position and I continue to come across Heller alums everywhere I go! Some of the immediate skills I have used from my Heller experience really draw on my strategic management coursework and upon the consultative skills I developed through the Team Consulting Project in the MBA program. Susan Curnan also tells you over and over in Children, Youth, and Family courses that understanding evaluation and logic models will be valuable in your work – she couldn’t be more right! I have spent the majority of my first few weeks on the job working on an impact framework and logic model. I feel very fortunate that the work I am currently doing feels like the perfect intersection of my two degrees and my content area – I work closely with organizations to build capacity, I have to bring a deep understanding of education policy, and bring the general writing and analysis skills developed throughout the MPP program. It truly could not have worked out better for me and I have to thank the Segal Program and the Heller School for that.  


Student Spotlight: Jessica Rittner


Please introduce yourself:

Jessica Rittner, second year MPP/MBA student, CYF concentrator, Co-President of the MPP Student Association (MPPSA), I Bruce Gordon Fellow.

What were you doing before you came to Heller?

Prior to joining the Heller community I worked at Abt Associate, a global leader in social policy, research, and evaluation. As an Analyst in the Public Health and Epidemiology department, I worked on several large evaluations pertaining to food policy; chronic disease prevention among children and the aging population; the integration of mental health and primary care delivery for children with diverse social and emotional needs; and improving maternal, infant, and child health outcomes. I also had the opportunity to manage several multi-million dollar contracts and develop policy recommendations for a variety of U.S. Department of Health and Human Service agencies and Massachusetts state agencies.  

Why did you decide to come to Heller?

I chose to attend Heller because of the school’s commitment to “knowledge advancing social justice.” For me, the phrase emphasizes the importance of marrying clarity of thought with clarity of action. Heller is truly a community of like-minded individuals who strive to be change agents. Our curriculum is structured in a way that enhances student’s collective knowledge on current social policy and management issues, and fosters opportunities to apply our in-class experiences in real-world settings, through summer internships, consulting projects, and community partnerships. I am constantly in awe of my classmate’s dedication to social responsibility and improving equity, and I think that speaks volumes to the type of students that Heller attracts.  

What are some of the classes/activities that you’ve really enjoyed here at Heller?

The course, “Child and Family Policy: U.S. and Cross-Cultural Perspective,” taught by Dr. Marji Erickson Warfield, was one of my favorite courses at Heller. The class was small enough so that the group could fully engage in meaningful dialogues about domestic child and family policies around diverse topics (e.g., immigration, education, disability).  Marji was an excellent facilitator and brought in several engaging speakers: Katie Brandt, a Heller alum and founder of the campaign Love is Out There; Robyn Powell, current Heller PhD student and disability lawyer and policy consultant; and Tom Sannicandro, current Heller PhD student and MA state representative.

As for activities, I have to give a shout out to the MPPSA and its leadership! We are extremely fortunate to have a student-led infrastructure that aims to enhance our in-class experiences in the spirit of Heller’s mission. Our Committees – Community Partnerships, Professional and Career Development, Publications, and Social Events – are doing incredibly work. I am honored to work in that space, but even more grateful for the opportunity to learn from and engage with my peers.

If you have done a summer internship, can you say a little about where you were and what you did?

This past summer I worked as a policy intern at Health Resources in Action (HRiA), a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting individual and community health through prevention, research, and policy. While at HRiA, I assessed state and local pediatric asthma-related wellness policies, tools, and resources to assist school districts in implementing asthma-friendly policies in Massachusetts’ high-risk communities. I also developed newsletters, presentation content, case studies, and an evaluation survey for an annual Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership (MAAP) summit. Lastly, I developed a three-year strategic plan to help the Policy and Practice department identify and attract new development and staffing opportunities, and build existing and future staff and project-specific competencies.

Jessica Levin Rittner
Children, Youth, and Families Concentrator

Student Spotlight: Zhiling Meng


I am a first-year master’s degree candidate for Public Policy, concentrating in Children, Youth, and Families (CYF). Here at Heller, I am learning policy analysis and practicing strategic planning and evaluation, specifically in early childhood development and education. 

Before coming to Heller, I was a management consultant at iJoin Consulting and an organizer for the Hope Organization. While working at iJoin Consulting, a social consulting firm, I developed strong research and analytical skills by producing evaluation reports based on Chinese social policies, such as dibao—a minimum living allowance in urban China.

As an organizer at the Hope Organization, I helped students receive admission to middle and high schools. Experiencing the insufficient education policy system inspired me to effectively organize, implement, and evaluate a development program. Social development for youth struck me as the perfect channel for my long-term aspiration to blend policies, sustainable development, and social good. This is what led me to the Heller School. I believe there will be a bigger impact on the lives of youth if more individuals get involved with youth development.

 After coming to Heller, I realized that youth development programs must begin at birth, so I have decided to focus on education effectiveness for early childhood development. I enjoy most of my academic classes, which have provided me with a solid understanding of my interest area. Last semester, I researched and organized a policy analysis project on two federal assistance programs for youth: the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This project helped me to understand how social policy is developed and how policies evolve over time. I also developed a logic model for the Lemberg Children’s Center in order to understand how one initiative can affect change and lead to long-term outcomes. This semester, I am designing and developing a project that explores how children initiative programs work at the local level.

Faculty Spotlight: Professor Susan P. Curnan

“Justice and equality are two words that define my core values and my career. Whether leading a management and policy class, a national evaluation research center, private foundation, or running a business; whether working from a remote Vermont mountaintop or on 5th Ave in Manhattan, in Harlem, Watts, Roxbury, Detroit or Soweto, South Africa.” – Professor Susan P. Curnan

Susan P. Curnan pictured with family – her life partner and their children, Summer 2015

As founding chair of the Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) Concentration, Professor Curnan teaches the required core course HS511-B: Contemporary Issues in Policies and Programs for Children, Youth & Families. In addition, Professor Curnan teaches several other required and elective policy and management courses, including:

HS335-F: Perspectives on Youth Policy, Program Management and Systems Design
HS247-F: Evaluation for Managers
HS249-F: Social Justice, Management, and Policy
HS320-F: The American Gay Rights Movement: Social Justice and Social Policy

With a commitment to “making knowledge productive” within the Heller School’s mission of “Knowledge Advancing Social Justice”, Professor Curnan’s leadership and scholarship in the CYF concentration is grounded in the promotion of social justice and well-being for children, youth and families, especially those who face greater odds as a result of economic insecurity, inequity in access, opportunities and outcomes, discrimination or disconnection.

Equity in access, opportunity and outcomes for vulnerable youth and communities is the mission – for me, and for the Center for Youth and Communities as we prepare the next generation of Heller management and policy leaders.

Success as a graduate of the MPP concentration in Children, Youth and Families requires us to be as comfortable working on behalf of children, youth and families in the White House as in a greenhouse; in community colleges or the Ivy League, pulling weeds in a garden or pushing buttons in Congress – whatever it takes to engage the grassroots advocates and practitioners and the decision makers – across all sectors – in making this world a safe, just and prosperous one for all.

As Director of the Center for Youth and Communities, Curnan works to improve the quality of education, workforce development, and community systems in order to prepare young people for college, work, and life. By combining scholarly research and practical experience with an emphasis on young people whose supports and opportunities have been few, the Center’s work is guided by three goals:

• Using science-based research to improve the quality and impact of youth programs and policies.
• Strengthening governance, leadership and management in philanthropy, the non-profit sector and socially responsible business.
• Developing and using outcome-based planning and evaluation methods to deepen public understanding, strengthen and prove the efficacy of particular programs, and shape policies.


Professor Susan P. Curnan, President, Brandeis University Faculty
Director, Center for Youth and Communities
Chair, MPP & MBA Concentration in Children, Youth and Families
Heller Profile