Going Back to School

By Andy Burness, September 6, 2017

A few years (35, to be exact) since my last time attending a college class, I am going back to school. I’ll be an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, teaching a course titled “Strategic Communications: Practical Strategies for Influencing a Better World.”

I’m excited, and a bit strange for me, a little nervous. I have taught individual classes at many American colleges and universities, but never an entire course. Frankly, the jury is out on whether the students will find me to be inspiring and knowledgeable or boring and meh. I’ll know come December when this particular adventure concludes.

I’m doing this for two reasons—to teach and to learn. As a teacher and public interest communicator, my interest is less about the ever-evolving tools and platforms that technology affords, and more about the bottom-line impact we seek for policy change. Throughout the years, Burness has worked with more than 500 nonprofit organizations. Each is engaged, in its own way, in making the world a better place. Implicitly, they are assuming that we will make an impact—that communications can, in fact, be held accountable for “moving the needle.” It isn’t enough to say “we tried,” though the politics of the day may render that line as a constraint.

And much, much more.

When the stars align, we can do more than stimulate public conversation in the media and in policy circles. We can foment the political will to build a seed vault near the North Pole to safeguard the foodstuff of humanity for the foreseeable future. We can tell the story of three states that offered poor, disabled people the opportunity to manage their own Medicaid money, and in the process, manage their own quality of life. And, we can create digestible collateral material that tells of the return on investment in agricultural and medical research, so that policymakers can finally understand what they need to know about scientific progress and why more dollars are needed to fund the progress we all want.

As with everything, there is no guarantee of success, but we know that there are strategies for increasing the odds.  After all, we know that policy experts—from government officials to civil servants to lobbyists to think tank scholars to NGO leaders and advocates—must be skilled at more than policy development. Effective leaders must be skilled communicators and translators of technical information to non-technical audiences that ultimately decide the fate of policy reform.

I hope that this class will persuade students that they can, in fact, be effective translators and advocates for reforms in areas as diverse as health, education, climate change, food security, and more generally, poverty alleviation and social justice. And, to get there, the definition of “policymaker” will necessarily expand beyond elected officials to business and non-profit leaders who influence policy in each of these areas.

The opportunity to teach, though very gratifying, is only one reason I accepted the Kennedy School’s invitation. I’m equally animated at the prospect of learning—learning about the experiences and perspectives of people age 25-50, from all over the world, who either have wanted to be or have been change makers in their lives before enrolling at the Kennedy School. I am even told that a 90 year-old Cambridge resident wants to audit the course!

Each student will, over the course of the semester, share their strategic communications plan to move a specific social change from abstraction to implementation. So, in my world, that could be about reducing the number of hungry people in Montgomery County, Maryland. Or demonstrably proving that inequality can be reduced in a city or state. Or increasing the number of low-income, high achieving students in America’s top colleges and universities. Or altering zoning policies outside of Nairobi, Kenya, to ensure the long-term survival of wildlife and the people who care for them. Or advocating for increased support for biomedical and agricultural research, in the United States and for the developing world.

Or 35 other communications-driven policy reforms meaningful to 35 students that bend the arc of social justice, all generated by enthusiastic idealists who will get started in this class and hopefully take pride in owning their own advocacy. This is the work of Kennedy School students, 90 year-old learners, and all of us in between.

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