Brown Bag Lecture series. . .
“Great Experiences: City of Chicago Mayoral Fellow 2006”
Presented by Femina Ajayi
Sept. 20, 2006
During summer 2006, second-year master’s student Femina Ajayi held a prestigious fellowship with the mayor of Chicago. A dual student in AAADS and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Ajayi sought the hard-to-get fellowship because it was so much more than an internship and offered the opportunity to actually participate in big-city government. While the fellowship allowed her, and the other fellows, to participate in policy initiatives and programming, she was named project manager for all think tank research and development issues on immigrants in Chicago.
Ajayi learned of the fellowship opportunity from SPEA and received assistance in making her application as perfect as possible from the IU Grad Grant Center and the Career Services Center, units that she highly recommends to others applying for scholarships, internships, and fellowships. Before getting the fellowship, she visited Chicago for a group interview. Those students who were selected worked closely with a supervisor in one of 10 areas, where they observed the behind-the-scenes activities of government projects. Only once did Ajayi actually have a conversation with Mayor Richard M. Daley; most of the fellows’ contact was with a chief of staff.
In addition to their primary project work, the fellows were given tours of various metropolitan facilities, including Taste of Chicago. Ajayi’s favorite, however, was visiting the traffic control tower at O’Hare Airport. Unfortunately, she said, she forgot her camera almost daily! One of the fellows’ group projects involved Chicago’s bid for the next Olympics. In the environmental arena, Ajayi found one suggestion particularly interesting: rubber sidewalks, which are ergonomic for human walking and hold up much better to weather and use than other substances. When it came to Chicago’s effort at gentrification of certain areas, she found herself in disagreement with both the city government and most of her peers. Yet she discovered, when asked to come up with alternatives, that solutions were indeed difficult. Other cities are, in fact, watching Chicago’s plan for transformation to see how it works out.
While working on a project related to poverty, Ajayi concluded that Chicago is actually four interest groups geographically divided. There is so much poverty in the city and each assistance program has its own requirements, which leads to a waste of resources and makes it very difficult for the poor to establish credentials for each. Ajayi worked on a project to combine all the assistance programs for the poor to rely on one card for determining eligibility and certification and help them save money through tax credits matched by government. Her own contribution to the project was the idea of putting people’s savings from this combination onto the same card so that they could use it to purchase large necessities—a real boon for people who have great difficulty in accumulating any ssavings. She also spent time going around poor areas of the city talking with people to see what services were needed. She took along a checklist of problems and snapped photographs of those found. Work crews then followed up by going out to handle the problems—although, sadly, not all were fixed.
Ajayi said she learned a lot from her fellowship experience and feels better rounded in her awareness of governmental issues. One thing she thoroughly endorses: If you are working in politics, you must be able to "eat caviar downtown and walk through the poor areas with ease." She recommends the intensity of such a fellowship to graduate students looking for "real world" experience to complement their academic work.