Many in the Mills community were thrown off by the 2016 election. These students and graduates of the Lokey School are channeling that energy into public service.
By Rachel Leibrock, MFA ’04
Alysa Cisneros ’16, MPP ’17, still remembers the moment. November 8, 2016: Donald Trump had just been elected to the US presidency and the world seemed as if it had instantly changed. She knew she needed to do something—anything—but felt lost.
Cisneros was enrolled in her fifth year at Mills College, pursuing her master’s degree in public policy, but she didn’t want to just look to a textbook for answers. She wanted to get to work.
“I was just sitting there, [wondering] ‘What have I done to myself? ’” Cisneros thought.
Her sense of urgency wasn’t singular—it’s a shared drive among students and graduates of Mills’ Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. The graduate program, which offers a master of public policy and a joint MPP/MBA (among other degrees of study), emphasizes a critical outcome: Change the system from within.
That starts with the final two semesters of the program at Mills, which includes a capstone project. MPP students work with nonprofits, government offices and elected officials, putting aside textbooks to tackle real-world challenges. After graduating, some alumnae/i have run for office or worked for candidates at the local, state, and national levels. Others have founded their own organizations, or consulted with others, from tiny start-ups to big corporations.
Now, leading up to November’s consequential election, many say they’re motivated by the political and sociocultural events that have unfolded since 2016, including the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality. Moreover, students like Cisneros say their time at the College prepared them for the moment by connecting class study with hands-on work.
“At Mills, you learn broadly, asking questions about how you can evaluate whether a policy will work or not,” Cisneros says. “Those are the basics that you do over and over again [in the field], and eventually they become second nature.”
Not long after her world tilted post-election, Cisneros struck upon a solution, realizing that it made sense to tap into what she’d learned so far at Mills. That’s how she came to email the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California at 2:00 am with a proposal: she needed a capstone project to graduate, and the ACLU needed volunteers in its mission to protect civil liberties—such as free speech and due process—under the incoming administration.
“I said, ‘I can do this for free, so put me to work,’” Cisneros recalls. The ACLU quickly agreed, assigning her to study data privacy, surveillance, and policing in public schools. The work felt vital, she says, providing invaluable hands-on learning she couldn’t necessarily get in a seminar, including how to navigate a fast-paced environment.
Now, because “this year is a time for us to reimagine how we do things,” as Cisneros puts it, she is running for a city council seat in Sunnyvale, California. Her platform includes policing reform, public safety, and affordable, accessible housing.
“It’s a chance to make myself as effective as possible,” she says.
Since the college launched the MPP graduate track in 2007 with just eight candidates, students like Cisneros have put what they’ve learned to practical use in the political and public policy sphere, identifying and addressing a range of issues, often with a focus on social and racial inequities. Sometimes, the challenges are unprecedented.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and other current events, for example, created a new “obstacle course” of access, according to Ashley Adams, assistant adjunct professor of public policy at Mills. The lockdown brought about challenging delays as students were forced to postpone focus groups and other vital data work, but it also laid bare critical inequities, she says.
“This work is more important than ever,” she says. “Students and professors are doing research to produce recommendations for social change for a lot of these problems that have been magnified by the pandemic, including police brutality.”
Chalyna Lazo, MPP ’21, a former student in Adams’s Policy and Economic Analysis class, says that even as she and other students faced frustrating challenges, the pandemic has also given them new insights. “It’s opened my eyes to so many different perspectives on how public policy is approached, in terms of who is affected and who the stakeholders are,” Lazo says.
While she has yet to decide on a capstone project, she’s already working, writing a plan to address redistricting nationwide for the Drake Institute of Research and Policy, a Washington, DC–based nonpartisan think tank that studies legislation to support women legislators at the state, county, and municipal levels of government.
After graduation, Lazo adds, she’ll be ready to pursue a career in state government. “I will walk away from [Mills] having acquired the skills that will prepare me for potential opportunities,” she says.
This is an advantage for Mills graduates, as the classes they take rely more on current events and real-world examples than stale textbook cases. “I sometimes envy my colleagues at public policy conferences who share the same case they use every year—it’s got all the material in there and they just hand it to the students,” says Mark Henderson, associate professor of public policy and MPP program director. “With us, there is no binder!”
Erin Armstrong ’16, MPP/MBA ’18, started seeking her own opportunities during her final undergraduate year at Mills as the 2016 election began winding to a close. She remembers sitting in her Political Efficacy class, struck by the disconnect between her lessons and what she saw on television. “All the conventional wisdom we were learning in class was thrown out the window,” she says.
Trump’s win “lit a fire” within her. She adds: “It also reinforced that I was on the right path.”
By the next summer, Armstrong was volunteering for Nate Miley, who represents District 4 on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. That gig later led to a paid position, working on policy for Measure A, a ballot initiative that proposed a 30-year sales tax measure to fund, among other programs, childcare and early education.
By spring 2018, Armstrong needed to fulfill her capstone project. She took a leave of absence from Miley’s office and tasked herself with devising uses for Measure A’s innovation fund. While voters failed to approve Measure A during the June 2018 election, Armstrong gained practical, hands-on training even as she completed her degree.
“It was incredible because I would learn about things in class and then I would be able to actually go and apply those concepts right away,” says Armstrong, who returned to work for Miley and is now a special assistant.
Eventually, she says, she wants to run for office. Before Trump, before COVID-19, before the Black Lives Matter protests, Armstrong says she might have been more inclined to delay her ambitions. Not anymore.
Her time in the graduate program didn’t just validate her career goals, Armstrong says. It reinforced that she didn’t need to wait for permission to pursue them. “Mills gave me the tool set to feel confident,” she says.
For Lyzz Schwegler, the current political landscape has also played a significant role in her decision-making process, so much so that she put her graduate studies at Mills on hold. Schwegler had been enrolled in her first semester in the MPP program when Trump was elected; by January 2017, she was seeking a summer internship that would put her in the thick of change.
A friend connected her with the founder of the Sister District Project, a nonprofit that aims to turn states blue by winning state legislative elections. Instead of an internship, however, Schwegler was invited to join the group as a co-founder. She agreed, and by fall, the project had ballooned, drawing in thousands of volunteers.
A pursuit that grew out of a “dark, terrible time,” Schwegler says, soon felt impactful.
“The 2016 election was a milestone,” she says. “I’ve come to realize how lucky I was to be at Mills at the time, and have it be a space full of connections and community, holding each other accountable, and honest talk.”
Schwegler eventually decided to pause her academics and relocate to Washington, DC. Since then, the Sister District Project has hired 20 employees, raised millions of dollars, and flipped legislative seats in critical states such as Virginia.
Schwegler plans to return to Mills eventually; until then, her time at the College stands out. In particular, she remembers a California politics workshop that the College hosted with Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland). There, Bonta talked about his activist background—his parents had been part of California’s farm labor movement—and the realization that grassroots work wasn’t just about marching in the streets, but also about the slog of endless meetings and logging long hours with spreadsheets.
That ethos resonated deeply. “Policy work isn’t glamorous, it’s about showing up and getting down to work,” Schwegler says.
For Ingrid Rivera-Guzman, MPP ’19, showing up means returning to the community that shaped her. Born in El Salvador, she grew up in Los Angeles, and she says she chose Mills for its emphasis on social justice and intersectional politics.
She felt energized, studying in a program that allowed her to “have a seat at the table,” she says. “It’s a system that you need to work within, to some degree, if you want to break it and dismantle it in some ways.”
Her capstone project paired her with the California Energy Commission, where she drew on her passion for environmental justice to hold the organization accountable in its efforts to affect new environmental projects in low-income and disadvantaged communities.
Now, Rivera-Guzman is thinking about bigger, longer-term ambitions. Earlier this year, she embarked on a run for a Los Angeles City Council seat. The decision, she says, was inspired by the Women in Leadership class taught by Lori Droste, MPP ’11, who was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 2014.
Each week, Droste brought in guest speakers, including elected officials who—as women of color—shared advice on and experiences in fundraising, campaigning, and facing double standards in a male-dominated political field.
“Every single one of them would always say to run for office, even if you have the slightest feeling to do it— just run because we need more women to run,” she says.
Initially, Rivera-Guzman says, she wasn’t sure she was ready to run but, encouraged by classmates who later volunteered for her campaign, she decided the effort could give her much-needed experience. She didn’t win the primary, but says she’s prepared to run again in 2024.
Until then, she’s digging deeper into local politics by attending neighborhood council meetings. Recently, she was elected vice president on the board of directors for the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that aims to build the infrastructure needed to support progressive candidates and initiatives that will foster change through policy advocacy and other methods.
“We’re trying to be that bridge between elected officials and the people they’re serving who might not be so knowledgeable about that political system,” she says.
A core philosophy Mills instilled in her is better understanding the connection between past and future generations. Take, for example, she says, the number of unhoused folks in Los Angeles, the majority of whom are Black. By examining past redlining policies as well as legislation that resulted from the so-called “war on crime” and “war on drugs,” it becomes easier to connect the dots between policy decisions and their problematic effects.
“Public policy affects every aspect of your life, even if you’re not aware of it,” she says. “It didn’t just happen today, it’s coming from the past, and that’s still continuing to affect us today. And the decisions we make will affect our future generations.”