Washington, DC cross street
Category: Alumni, Discovery & Impact

Title: From classroom to community

When McCourt alumna Catherine Lyons (MPP‘18) was considering graduate schools, her desire to get exposure and first-hand experience in the policy world led her to the McCourt School. With its focus on quantitative methods and geographic proximity to government agencies, think tanks, and nonprofits, McCourt presented a wide range of possibilities for experiential learning. While at McCourt, Lyons quickly joined McCourt’s Policy Innovation Lab, which she describes as one of the most formative experiences in shaping her career path after graduation.

Founded in 2015, the Policy Innovation Lab, or the Lab, offers students an opportunity to develop policy that serves and responds to the needs of communities in DC’s Wards 7 and 8. Through strategic partnerships with organizations and community members, students engage in policy research, analysis, and advocacy through the lens of racial equity, innovation, and social justice.

Designing people-centered policy

“The [Policy] Innovation Lab helped inform the direction of my electives and made me want to focus more on community development policy and impact investing,” explains Lyons. The classes increased her awareness of the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a policy and advocacy organization––where she interned in her second year––focused on empowering entrepreneurs and promoting economic growth.

While in her second year, Lyons was also a student co-director of the Lab, which allowed her to apply what she was learning in the classroom to help improve lives in the broader DC community. “The Lab’s curriculum is intended to get students into the community and interacting with residents,” explains Lyons. “We used human-centered design thinking to better understand the actual challenges on the ground and develop solutions that were tailored to help address the root causes of some of the issues that residents were facing in these communities.”

Advice for future changemakers

Upon graduation, she was hired full-time at EIG as the manager of policy and coalitions. Her current work primarily focuses on Opportunity Zones, an initiative aimed at incentivizing investment in low-income communities. Lyons explained that, much like the Lab, her work at EIG is evidenced-based and focuses on connecting with community stakeholders to develop sustainable policy solutions. 

Lyons describes that one of the rewarding elements of her work is bringing people together and watching them collectively determine what investment best supports the needs of the community. “It’s almost like a microcosm of human-centered design thinking happening in real-time in some of these rooms,” says Lyons. Some of the projects that community members and developers have created through the Opportunity Zones incentive include health clinics, working space for entrepreneurs, and more. The process to revitalize a distressed community moves gradually and sometimes requires intricate work like navigating tax policy, but hearing about community success stories keeps Lyons energized day-to-day.

Her advice to future and current McCourt students is to “get out of the classroom and apply what you are learning to real issues and challenges in your backyard.” As for soon-to-be graduates, she emphasized the value of being open to new opportunities that can lead to exciting new experiences and may shape the course of your career, much like her experience with the Policy Innovation Lab. “Everything is a learning experience,” explains Lyons as her overarching advice. “Seek out opportunities that expose you to new ideas and challenge your perspective.”