Through Hackathon, Pardee RAND and Watts Students Amplify Message of RAND Report

Watts students meet (virtually) with Pardee RAND students and faculty

Cynthia Gonzalez/Pardee RAND

July 20, 2023

When Professor Charles Goldman wrote Recruiting and Hiring a Diverse and Talented Public Sector Workforce, of course he hoped it would have an impact. He never expected that impact to come in the form of a policy hackathon in which South Los Angeles youth developed media campaigns to amplify his message.

This June, with technical and logistical support from Pardee RAND faculty and mentoring from Ph.D. students, twelve young adults from Watts participated in “Hacking Implementation,” a two-week event designed to promote Goldman’s 2021 report to its key audience—the Watts students’ peers.

The report, Goldman said, “offers strategies to increase the representation of talent and diversity in the public sector workforce.” Among its key findings: young people have a limited understanding of what public sector careers are and why they might be appealing. But how to increase that understanding?

Slide from the initial presentation to Watts students

Professors Cynthia Gonzalez and Todd Richmond knew their Pardee RAND Ph.D. students could help to develop messaging for young people in underserved communities. Gonzalez directs the Community-Partnered Policy and Action stream, while Richmond directs the Technology Applications and Implications stream. They recognized the potential for combining their students’ efforts and, in the process, involving members of the target audience. With financial support from the Volcker Alliance—one of the report’s original funders—Hacking Implementation took shape.

“Making Invisible People Visible” Using TikTok and Instagram

The high school and college students, participants in the Watts Rising Collaborative Summer Program, formed three teams of four that met daily. For logistical reasons, their Pardee RAND student mentors met with and advised them virtually. Gonzalez served as the in-person link between the two groups, joining the Watts students onsite at the Council District 15 Constituent Services Center.

Zara Abdurahaman (cohort ’21) and Cristian Cardenas (’22) served as hackathon’s overall leads, while Matthew Forbes (’22), Shona Olalere (’22), and Gopal Trital (’22), each mentored a team. Alejandra Lopez (’21), a Pardee RAND Admissions Ambassador, also joined the students at one of the group meetings to provide more background about RAND, Pardee RAND, and careers in public policy.

Slide from the final hackathon presentation

The teams’ mission was to create media prototypes that would compel diverse, talented job seekers to consider a career in the public sector. Their deliverables included one piece of content and a document detailing their message, dissemination strategy, and intended audience.

The group Forbes mentored focused on changing perceptions of who works in the public sector. Inspired by TikTok street interviews, they conducted video interviews of four public sector employees at a Juneteenth event in Watts, asking about the skills the employees use and what challenges they face. In the students’ final video, the students say at the end, “When it comes to long-term paths, think public!”

Olalere’s group modeled their final project on “Get Ready with Me” TikTok videos, to show how young people might already interact regularly with many public sector employees, and just how impactful these workers are. Their unofficial tagline was “Making invisible people visible.”

“They came up with a brilliant idea,” Olalere said. “It was an ‘aha moment’ for them: they realized they had been impacted by public sector workers growing up but had never actually had conversations about it. It was this reflection that inspired the work they made.”

Madison, an upcoming senior King Drew Magnet High School, was a case in point. “My mom has worked for the L.A. school district for 20 years,” she said. “Knowing that she’s a part of the public sector is eye-opening.”

Trital’s team created an Instagram-style video slideshow that extolled the social safety net provided by careers in the public sector. The text on each slide was minimal, conversational, and informative, punctuated with bright colors.

“A Really New, Informative Experience”

Members of one hackathon team meet with their Pardee RAND student mentor

Cynthia Gonzalez/Pardee RAND

The project had an unexpected outcome: the Watts students’ participation in the hackathon required them to learn more about public sector opportunities, which in turn improved their own perspectives on public sector careers.

Njeri, a junior at Charles Drew University, said she appreciated her team’s ability “to interview so many different people and hear so many different stories within the public sector.”

Bosley, a junior at King Drew Magnet High School, said making the Instagram video was eye-opening. “Most of the benefits we included I didn’t know about previously.”

Gonzalez said the students were especially impressed by a figure from the report that shows a range of public sector occupations. “They hadn’t known [the field] was so broad,” she added.

But not only did the students learn about the public sector, they also gained useful tech skills. Cameron, a junior at King Drew, said, “We started with a slide show and turned it into a video. That was new for me. As I was designing the slide show I was also learning from the research. I was being taught by [Pardee RAND students] as I designed it, to teach someone else. It was a really new, informative experience.”

“This Reinvigorated Me”

But the Watts students weren’t the only ones to benefit from the experience.

Gonzalez said the experience was special to her. “Many students of color don’t get to do this type of work. We didn’t infantilize or talk at them; we thought collectively with them,” she said. “And researchers don’t often get to see their work implemented.”

Slide from the final hackathon presentation

Indeed, Goldman, the lead author of the original report, marveled at the results. “Each team took a different approach and I love that,” he said. “These pieces can work together because they each have different approaches.”

“Building a narrative is one thing, but building a narrative that suits the target audience is another,” Trital said. “There, [the students] really guided me.”

Erin Dick, director of public affairs for RAND, attended the hackathon’s final presentation on June 28 and shared her thoughts. “This is such an inspiration,” she said. I do media campaigns every day, and I love what you are doing.”

Richmond, who admits he's not usually one for sentiment, added, “It’s really easy to be cynical, especially with emerging tech and [social media]. I was tearing up watching these because it was beautiful. We have some hope for the future if this is what this generation can do.”

Forbes agreed. “I was blown away by my team’s passion,” he said. “A lot of times in my work, you get lost, wondering, why are we doing this? This reinvigorated me. The work we do really matters.”

—Emma Gardner and Monica Hertzman

A Brief History of Hackathons at Pardee RAND

Pardee RAND started organizing hackathons about five years ago. Topics have included classifying toxic comment databases, visualizing medical care capabilities, exploring dark web marketplace transactions, and red-teaming a COVID-19 data dashboard.

“We fiddled with the canonical approach of a hackathon, which is that you have a hard problem, you assemble a group, throw them in a room with pizza and Mountain Dew, and, under a very short time frame, they try to hack together some solutions,” explains Professor Todd Richmond. “We took that model, lengthened the time frame a bit, and applied it to policy-relevant issues and activities.”

While early hackathons involved only Pardee RAND students, in the last two years—through the Hacking Equity project—the school has also included students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Atlanta area, made possible through a partnership with RAND’s Next Gen Initiative and the Atlanta University Consortium.

Through a collaboration with Cynthia Gonzalez and the Community-Partnered Policy and Action Stream, and with support from the Volcker Alliance G2U initiative, “Hacking Implementation,” took the model even further to include high school students. “Cynthia’s connections in and with the community made this all possible and continue to make it all work,” Richmond said.