Zoe Ackerman, M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning

Spotlight on Zoë Ackerman, M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning

For Zoë Ackerman, a student in the M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) program, taking classes part-time and working part-time has provided ideal opportunities to put the skills she is learning in her master’s program to work in the field.

Why did you choose Tufts?
I’m originally from Charlottesville, Virginia and I attended UNC-Chapel Hill for my undergraduate years. After graduating, I worked for an environmental non-profit that was building a network to leverage resources in higher education solidarity to support social and environmental justice movements. At that organization, I was thinking about how universities could build stronger partnerships with communities. This aspiration seemed core to the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning’s mission. It was clear from the website and from talking to students and faculty that they were grappling with the question of how universities and government could effectively leverage their resources to build community power. Knowing that I was entering an institution that had this as a core intention was exciting.

What was it about the Tufts Master’s in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program that made it stand out to you?  
I was searching for a program that focused on practical strategies to deepen equity in local and regional planning and policy, and UEP’s values and courses met this criteria. At UEP, every course—from statistics to program evaluation—provides space to hone tools and strategies to think critically about disparities and resource redistribution. 

I was especially inspired when I read about UEP’s Co-Research/Co-Education (CORE) program, which is a three-year partnership with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community organization with a land trust based in Roxbury. I appreciated that CORE sought to build longer-term bonds across community-university lines, and create research projects that lasted beyond a single semester.

What is your focus within the program? 
My focus is currently on the solidarity economy—sets of principles and practices that grassroots movements are implementing to build economic alternatives to extractive capitalism. I’m interested in how the economics of land, care, and education, in particular, can become more cooperative. The skills that I’m building include program evaluation, policy implementation, qualitative analysis, and community-based research. I’ve been able to learn and build skills in an applied way, to orient my work at UEP to deepen my contributions in my paid work capacities.

The M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning prepares students to contribute to the development of inclusive and sustainable communities. It is available both full-time and part-time for working professionals. 


Are you working with a specific community partner?
Throughout the last academic year I worked part-time with Community Labor United (CLU) doing policy research for a childcare campaign. The project started as a summer internship that was funded through Tisch College and the CORE Program. CLU’s approach blends research and organizing and the internship evolved into a part-time fellowship, adding capacity to the CLU research department. I learned so much about how policy research can advance organizing and coalition work in real time.

What is your current job and how long have you been there? 
I currently have two jobs.  One is a research assistantship for Professor Penn Loh. This is partially what drew me to UEP in the first place. Before I applied, I came across a website for Teaching Democracy, a UEP course that’s reserved for both students and community partners. The course is co-taught by Penn and May Louie, a community practitioner, and aims to convey popular and participatory education skills in an experiential way. I took the course last year and then co-taught it with May in Spring 2019. My thesis evaluates the first three years of Teaching Democracy and identifies what participants learned and how they applied their new skills. This is a good example of how the skills I’m learning at UEP (e.g. program evaluation) have deepened my effectiveness in a paid job.

I’m also working for a program based at MIT called the Presencing Institute, which focuses on leadership and organizational development globally. Because Presencing runs massive online open courses, thinking about curricular development has been important. The program strives for bottom-up learning, which is the same principle as popular and participatory education so there’s a lot of overlap with the goals of Teaching Democracy.  At Presencing, I’m working on a few teams that oversee social media and communication, policy research, and evaluation. I went into UEP craving a local focus and now I’m looking at the challenges of bringing those same principles to a global context. There’s much to learn from other countries.

I think the cool thing about being a part-time student is that I’m constantly getting the chance to practice the skills that I’m learning at UEP in the field. I have mentorship both on the job and in school, so I can bring questions and ideas back and forth. I originally understood UEP’s motto of “practical visionaries” to mean “pragmatic visionaries,” or people who are tackling big problems in an incremental way. I’ve learned that being a practical visionary is also about practicing and being experimental – creatively intervening, reflecting, and deepening our commitments to disrupting the status quo collectively.

How is the UEP program helping you advance your professional goals?
The relationships I’m building with my cohort have been essential to advancing my professional goals. UEP does not require you to choose a “track,” so people gravitate to interdisciplinary areas of interest. I’ve learned a great deal from cohort members who are engaged in solidarity economy work both at Tufts and in the field. UEP has such a great reputation in and beyond Boston, and people associated with UEP are working at all different levels of city government and in the community. The connections that UEP faculty have to community organizations in Boston also have made it easy to find placements and start to apply skills. UEP’s focus on community is apparent not only in the coursework, but in the depth of community that exists beyond the two years of the program.