Emerging leaders drive results for real-world clients like Oxfam America and the Metropolitan Planning Council – and work toward their degrees.

Developing top-notch policy analysis skills in classrooms led by influential scholars is the reason many students choose the Harris School of Public Policy for their policy education. But studying at Harris is not a purely academic pursuit. 

When they began their Harris education, students Kiran Misra MPP’18 and Vicky Stavropoulos MPP’18 weren’t aware that through a Harris course, they would have opportunities to help inform the national discussion on labor policy, nor did students Lingfei Zhang MPP’18 and Tito Sulistivo Adikusumo MSESP’18 expect an opportunity to impact future development of Chicago's riverfront. But through Harris Policy Labs, they were able to do just that. 

In Harris Policy Labs, students tackle real-time public policy challenges for government agencies and non-profit organizations. Working in small teams, students have a unique opportunity to put their Harris core education to the test and make a tangible impact on a pressing policy issue – even before earning their Harris degree.

Partnering with Oxfam America to Improve Workers’ Rights


Headquartered in Boston, Oxfam America was founded in 1970.

Oxfam America, a non-profit organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, is one of many organizations that has partnered with Harris Policy Labs to offer real-world experience to emerging policy leaders.

In Fall Quarter 2017, Misra and Stavropoulos enrolled in a Policy Labs course to help Oxfam develop a labor standards index that could be used to reveal state-by-state variations in labor protection policies across the U.S.

“Oxfam had done an international campaign to advocate for better worker protections and rights and wanted to do a domestic version to look at labor laws and policies across the 50 states,” said Stavropoulos. 

Along with their teammates, Stavropolous and Misra  identified 17 labor policy indicators, including minimum wage versus living wage comparisons, right-to-organize policies, and the availability of worker protections like maternity leave, equal pay, and paid sick leave, and set about collecting state-by-state data.

Putting their Harris skills to work, the student team then took on the challenging task of developing an easy-to-follow index that ranks states based on their strengths and weaknesses on each labor indicator and in aggregate.

How does your state rank in worker protections? Go to OxfamAmerica.org to find out.

On Labor Day – September 3, 2018 – Oxfam America publicly released “Best States to Work Index,” a report that builds on the students’ work.  The report compares worker’s rights and worker’s protection laws and policies across states, an unprecedented and powerful tool for Oxfam and others to understand and advocate for improved state-level labor policies. 

The Harris Policy Labs team is credited in Oxfam’s report.

Jonathan Rose, Senior Research Advisor for U.S. Policy for Oxfam America, who worked closely with the student team, said the report is already gaining attention from national leaders. 

"Speaker Pelosi, the Governor and Senators from Washington State, and national and local advocacy groups have tweeted about the report, and soon we will be briefing Congress," Rose said.

“This information had never been collected in one place before. It was gratifying to create something totally new and of real value to our client.” – Kiran Misra MPP'18

Policy Labs teams are guided by Harris faculty members, and supported by a professional advisor with practical policy experience. Students participate in a weekly class session, attend professional development trainings and engage with their clients. 

At the close of the course, teams make final presentations to their client and the final deliverables are often used by clients to make demonstrable change on the ground.

“When the team presented its results, there were some real surprises,” said Oxfam America’s Rose. “I never thought Virginia would be in the bottom five nationally for labor protections for workers.”

The students were also struck by the results. “I personally found it startling that no states have bargaining rights for agricultural or domestic workers, especially when that’s such a huge part of the economy in many states,” said Stavropoulos. 

“I also learned that just because laws or policies are in place, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are strong, enforced, or working.” – Vicky Stavropoulos MPP'18

The results will also help inform and direct Oxfam America’s advocacy work. Misra explained, “Resources need to be used efficiently and for maximum impact to make sure labor rights are advanced in the most effective ways possible and in the states that need it most.” 

On top of the impactful results of their Policy Labs project, both Misra and Stavropoulos parlayed their Policy Labs experience into job opportunities after earning their Harris degrees. Misra says her experience affirmed her commitment to social justice issues and she is now a Boren Fellow in India. Stavropoulos directly credits her Policy Labs experience with helping her land her "dream job" at an education research consultancy.

Oxfam America will continue its partnership with Harris Policy Labs in the 2018-19 school year, with a project analyzing the impact of state labor policies on specific categories of workers that builds from the work of last year’s team. 

Improving the Chicago River System with Metropolitan Planning Council

Since 1934, MPC has served communities by developing, promoting and implementing solutions for sound regional growth.

Another 2017-18 Harris Policy Labs client was the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago (MPC). MPC tasked a Harris Policy Labs team to help develop policy options for its “Our Great Rivers” (OGR) initiative, an ambitious vision to improve 150 miles of Chicago riverfront by 2040. MPC’s ultimate goal is to advise the Chicago Mayor’s Office on implementation of the OGR plan.

Tito Sulistiyo Adikusumo, MSESP’18, was excited to work on the MPC project because it dovetailed with his academic focus on forest conservation and river management. “Our assignment was to help the MPC figure out how to finance and create the best governance structure for a long-term revitalization project,” he explained.

This is the MPC's third project with Harris Policy Labs. Past projects included analyzing the ramifications of consolidating units of local government – the City of Zion and Zion Township – and a cost-benefit analysis of a potential commuter rail modernization project. 

Josh Ellis MPP’06, Vice-President of the MPC, said he always enjoys working with Policy Labs teams who bring “much-needed research capacity and fresh-thinking.”

The Chicago River offers significant development opportunities. (Photo by Christine Kirzeder.)

The MPC Policy Labs team conducted case studies on urban river projects in other U.S. cities and investigated potential governance models based on other multi-jurisdictional initiatives. They examined financial reports, governance structures, strategic plans, feasibility, effectiveness, and interviewed more than a dozen key leaders. 

“Through Policy Labs, I learned how to conduct interviews, write an interview map, and how to ask the right questions,” said Lingfei Zhang MPP’18, who was able to apply her degree concentration in municipal finance to the project.

The team’s recommendations for financing and governance have been shared with business and community leaders and Ellis hopes the work will create a sense of urgency. In the meantime, Sulitstiyo Adikusmo and Zhang are using their hard-earned experience on the job search. Zhang is in Singapore pursuing a career in municipal finance. Sulitstiyo Adikusmo has had two job offers from the Indonesian government, who were impressed by his real-world experience through Harris Policy Labs. 

As with Oxfam, the MPC will again be a Policy Labs client in the 2018-19 school year.

Harris Policy Labs: A Different Kind of Course, A Stepping Stone to a Policy Career

Being able to apply your policy skills in real-world settings is as important as learning policy skills, which is the main reason Harris Policy Labs was launched three years ago.

“Harris Policy Labs provide students with messy, real-world policy experience  while still in school: analyzing imperfect data, navigating the complexities of working on a team, managing ambiguity, and crafting effective but practical policy solutions,” said Carol Brown, Executive Director of the Harris Policy Labs. “These are the experiences and skills that enable students to hit the ground running after graduation; at the same time, students make an impact while still in school.”

Policy Labs works hand-in-hand with a diverse set of client organizations. In addition to Oxfam America and the Metropolitan Planning Council, clients have included the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, the U.S. State Department, and the City of Gary, Indiana. Many clients are repeat customers because they know Harris Policy Lab students can help drive results.

During the 2017-18 academic year, 81 second-year students participated in Policy Labs, including some students from Booth, SSA and other graduate programs on campus, providing a unique interdisciplinary team experience for Harris students. 

“Policy Labs is the closest you will get to a real job while in school,” said Misra, who worked on the Oxfam team.