Externships Start in Sitka and Los Angeles

Samer Atshan, Gabriela Alvarado, Carlos Calvo Hernandez, and Sitkan Michael Harrington pose with their catch after a fishing trip.

Boat Captain Olan Moore

October 30, 2020

This August, Pardee RAND launched the first pilots of our community-partnered externships — virtually in Los Angeles and in-person in Sitka, Alaska. Six students —three for each location—participated in the two partnerships.

The externships are an essential element of the school’s Community-Partnered Policy and Action academic stream: long-term partnerships with specific communities, during which students and, potentially, faculty will live and work in these communities. Distinguishing features of the partnerships include the fact that the commitment is between the school and the community as a whole; students and faculty will work with a range of community organizations that include nonprofits, professional organizations, public institutions, and the business sector; and the focus is on community-identified problems and priorities, as well as developing and experimenting with potential solutions together.

Students Tara Blagg (cohort '19), Jarret Catlin ('18), and Nabeel Qureshi ('18) piloted the L.A. externships, which all focus on homelessness and its many related problems. Catlin worked with Seeds of Hope, a food justice ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles; Qureshi with The People's Concern, a comprehensive service agency; and Blagg with Councilman Mike Bonin’s office on his bridge housing and street encampment initiatives. Originally intended to be in-person, COVID-19 caused the school to readjust the timing, community organization specifics, and type of interactions (from in-person to virtual).

Catlin noted, “I’ve really enjoyed getting exposed to the work of my partner organization, Seeds of Hope, and getting to listen and learn from their experience. They’ve been incredibly supportive and pleasant to engage with, so I’m grateful for this opportunity through the program.”

The school was able to continue with the in-person pilot externship plan for Sitka; Gabriela Alvarado, Samer Atshan, and Carlos Calvo Hernandez (all cohort '19) spent six weeks in Sitka in August and September. Sitka's public radio station, K-CAW, interviewed Alvarado and Dean Susan Marquis about the externship program in general and the students' work and impressions in particular.

“To really partner effectively with community members, you have to be invited in. It's a question of who welcomes us in, who says we want to sit in partnership with you.”

—Susan Marquis

Marquis noted in the interview, "Our first external partner is Sitka. It came out because of Lisa Busch at the Sitka Sound Science Center and her collaboration with our faculty members Robert Lempert and Ryan Brown on landslide work there. ... To really partner effectively with community members, you have to be invited in. It's a question of who welcomes us in, who says we want to sit in partnership with you. Sitka did exactly that."

Pardee RAND leaders had approached Sitka about a community partnership knowing that the 9,000 open-hearted and hardy residents of Sitka have a food security problem. Sitka is surrounded by the lush Tongass rain forest and the chilly northern Pacific Ocean, which have historically provided abundant reindeer and seafood, local staples. But these natural resources alone cannot adequately feed Sitkans, and local gardeners eager to grow their own produce are stymied by the short growing season and steady rain that leaches the soil’s nutrients.

Community leaders representing a broad range of nonprofit groups have launched a number of recent initiatives to diversify and improve the quality of Sitka’s food supply, and the three students initiated work with the Alaskan Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Sitka Food Co-op, and the Sitka Conservation Society to address different aspects of the food security problem. The students will maintain their network of connections until a second group of externs heads to Sitka in spring 2021 to continue the work: [who's been identified?].

Program director Martin Iguchi likened the effort to "each group passing on their knowledge, contacts, and progress to the next group like relay racers passing a baton."

Marquis noted, "The enthusiasm from our growing network of community partners, our students, and other RAND colleagues for the emerging curriculum has been a gratifying endorsement of this novel approach. We are beyond excited as we take the next steps to bring all elements of this unique initiative to life."

—Monica Hertzman