From Tufts to Building Effective Public Policy

Nelson Butten is a second-year part-time student in the Master of Public Policy program in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning.
Nelson Butten

He is also the Director of Community, Family, and Student Engagement at Lawrence Public Schools. In a Q&A, Butten discusses how the MPP is helping him have a greater impact in his professional role and in his community of Lawrence, MA.

Why did you choose Tufts?

After I completed I the Institute of Non-profit Management and Leadership certificate program at Boston University, I was contacted by the new program director, Yolanda Coentro, and she encouraged me to apply to the MPP program. At that point, I had been working in the Community Development field for over 20 years and was also the director of Network Organizing at Lawrence CommunityWorks, Inc., a well-respected community development corporation in the City of Lawrence. I was excited to learn that there was a program that was very specific to my field. Before that, I was an AmeriCorps member—that was my first experience with community service. I remember at one point getting frustrated with the fact that there seemed to be limits as to how much I could influence from an organizing point of view. I felt as though I needed further education to have a better seat and a stronger voice at the table to impact policy and community planning.

What was it about the Tufts Master’s in Public Policy program that made it stand out to you?

It was very appealing to me that the MPP requires at least seven years of experience in community development or a related field. I knew that I was going to get to meet people that probably have even more experience than me and that that would make for a great learning opportunity. It was also unique to have the opportunity to network with people making a big difference in other communities and in different fields. But what actually sold me on it was meeting Penn Loh. He was so interesting… He has a community organizing background too and I immediately identified with the program when I spoke to him. And then the seminar classes—I enjoyed those so much! I actually miss them! The scholarship that Tufts provided was a huge incentive as well.

What is your focus within the program? 

Mostly public policy. I’m interested in housing, education, and economic related policies… I’m from Lawrence and housing (supply and quality), financial stability, and education, are three big spheres of interest in our community. I’m always thinking about how I can influence those spaces for the benefit of our entire community.

What is your current job? 

I work as the Director of Community, Family, and Student Engagement at Lawrence Public Schools (LPS). In that capacity I oversee the Lawrence Public Schools Family Resource Center. The Family Resource Center helps increase access to and knowledge of essential resources in the community. Its creation was part of the receivership process of the Lawrence Public Schools. We were identified as a substantially underperforming school district and so the state took over our schools and is now overseeing our turnaround process. My most important role is to help create opportunities and systems for families to be meaningfully engaged in their children’s education through authentic partnerships with LPS staff. I’ve been there for six years now.

How is the Master's in Public Policy program helping you in your current professional role?

I’ve learned a lot through being an organizer in the community. But the MPP definitely has taught me the importance of building policies with people rather than for people.  Through the program, classmates, and other experienced practitioners, I have also learned of promising practices for engaging key stakeholders in this process. I wish more people actually had a chance to weigh in on the policies that are impacting them directly.

For instance, we have a group called the Family Engagement Partnership Council made up of parents, students, teachers, administrators, and staff at Lawrence Public Schools. Last year the group’s main focus was to create family engagement policies. It was very exciting to be part of the team that helped develop these because before that we did not have any local policies in this area, and we knew how important was to partner with families in services of student success.  Now, we are starting to think about the implementation of these policies because it’s not enough to create them, we also need to provide schools with the right supports for the successful implementation of these policies.

In terms of what I’m learning in class, this year I’m taking Quantitative Analysis and, as a community organizer, my experience in the past has been that data is used to keep people out rather than to bring them in. It can be manipulated in different ways and many times it’s not communicated in a language that is understandable to the majority. However, being in this class is helping me understand a lot of the stuff that I didn’t know. I took statistics probably 10 or 15 years ago, but it wasn’t very relevant to me at the time. We are using a book that is for nonprofit managers and municipal government employees, which makes it very tangible to my experience in the field. Now if I am presented with statistics, I’m able to look at the numbers myself, ask where they came from, ask to see the data in different ways, and question it so that I can do a better job in making decisions.

And how is the program helping you advance your future professional goals?

I’m happy where I am, but I would eventually like to start something where I can share knowledge from my time here at Tufts and make it accessible for residents in the city of Lawrence. I’m not sure how that’s going to look on the ground, but I want to create an accessible space where people can come and have conversations and play with ideas involving policy.

I started as an AmeriCorps member when I first came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. I came in 1993 and I didn’t know one word of English. AmeriCorps gave me an opportunity to learn a lot, including English, and it gave me an opportunity to give back, but I also learned that sometimes community service does not always address the root causes of certain issues. We need to be impacting our communities from differing angles too, including policy, so I think that providing an opportunity for public education about policy could go a long way to help do that in our community.

In my current job, I am an administrator and I am responsible for projects and important tasks, supervising employees, and interacting with the community. The MPP program is giving me the additional knowledge and credentials I need to be included and to influence community conversations and spaces.

Is there anything else about your experience in the program that you want to share?

All the classes are really interesting in their own ways. My favorite classes have been the seminars because of the nature of the conversations and visits from former MPP students who come to talk to us about what they do and how they are making a difference in their own communities or fields. I’m also enjoying Quantitative Analysis a lot, even though it’s hard.

There are also so many open-minded people here in the program. They are academics and practitioners. When you talk to the faculty, you can feel their passion for what they do and they are also curious about what you do and how you do it in your community. I think that makes a huge difference. I’ve never felt like I don’t want to come to school, I don’t belong here, or I’m wasting my time. I’ve always been pushed to open my mind to different ways of thinking and expand my knowledge.

Family has been the hardest part of this process. I have a family—I have four children—and coming to school and going to work full-time is not always easy, but it’s all worth it.