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  • Vaughn Ross & Anjali Chainani

Leading with Creativity and Curiosity

Written by Vaughn Ross and Anjali Chainani

The Emerging Leaders Corps is a program hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia in partnership with Anavi Strategies and Rvesta Consulting. The program is part of Pew's Philadelphia's Fiscal Future work, supported in part by the William Penn Foundation, to support an equitable and inclusive local economy and a city where all residents can thrive.

Over eight sessions, the Emerging Leaders Corps program provided a specially curated curriculum and facilitated discussions to support data-based decision-making in local government and the civic sector for emerging leaders who are passionate about policy, public finance, and innovative solutions.

When we set out to build the Emerging Leaders Corps with Pew, we wanted to create a program that, if given the chance, we would want to join. For us, that meant crafting a leadership development program full of opportunities both to connect with those who are experts in their fields and to express ourselves creatively in the material we were learning. With that in mind, we sought to create tightly facilitated sessions that asked our Emerging Leaders (ELs) to do pre-session reading, provided opportunities to meaningfully interact with subject-matter experts, and empowered them to exhibit their worldview and what they’d learned in their voice.

Creative thinking and continuous learning are often set aside when evaluating what makes a powerful leader, but they are critical to leadership and are among the qualities we and Pew sought to develop through the program. Both require displaying vulnerability– it can be difficult to make and test something new and continuous learning requires an admission that you don’t already know everything there is to know. And both are extremely valuable to professional development and personal life. We were eager to integrate both skills into sessions 4 and 5 focusing on Budget Trade-Offs and Land Use, respectively.

Budget Trade-Offs

After the first three Emerging Leader sessions covered Philadelphia’s taxes, growth, and how to measure success, our fourth meeting focused on the difficult trade-offs local decision-makers wrestle with when operating within tight budgetary constraints. We asked participants to reflect on the city’s budget priorities and policy proposals related to the local economy. They then had the opportunity to hear directly from the city’s then-budget director, Marisa Waxman.

Marisa provided an overview of how the city’s budget office created rubrics to guide its decision-making process and the successes and failures the team experienced in attempting to make the budget process more inclusive, transparent, and equitable. The first steps were reassessing who is charged with crafting the city's budget and setting an unequivocal goal that budgetary decisions had to have measurable impacts in reducing racial disparities. In her quest to achieve more equitable outcomes, Marisa exhibited critical leadership attributes: thinking outside the box – like spearheading the city’s first-ever attempt at participatory budgeting, a municipal budgeting tactic that empowers members of the public to allocate funding– and trying new things. Marisa was a fantastic guest speaker for several reasons, including her depth of knowledge and willingness to share what had gone well, like creating a standardized scoring system to build consensus, and what hadn’t, like a lack of consensus on how metrics would be scored.

With Marisa’s inspiring example in mind, we tasked the ELs with being the decision-makers themselves. In a budget exercise we called “New Philadelphia, Mars” ELs had to think critically and creatively about how to work through trade-offs. The exercise provided a hypothetical framework for an imaginary, futuristic city on Mars that stood to receive a grant from the Martian federal government for investment in city parks and recreation systems. ELs were broken into four groups: (1) the mayor and executive office, responsible for proposing a budget for the grant; (2) the City Council, composed of legislators who represent physical districts of the city; (3) Friends of Watney Park, a wealthy “friends” group representing the city’s premier, downtown park; and (4) Reading Across New Philadelphia, a volunteer-based reading intervention program run out of the city’s parks and recreation facilities.

All four groups were asked to complete a spending proposal and prepare a three-minute group presentation on their pitch for the funds. The mayor and executive office presented first, followed by City Council, who presented and reacted to the mayor’s presentation, followed by both advocacy groups. Each group had both a public and secret negotiation goal that they weren’t to disclose in the course of presentations or conversations with other parties. After the presentations, all four groups participated in negotiating a final budget proposal while achieving their public and/or secret goals.

It was evident from the exercise that the ELs were eager to display not only their existing and newly acquired knowledge of budgeting and trade-offs but also their personalities through how they proposed their budget for the grant and how they might convince others that their proposal was best and the most equitable. ELs adopted their scripted budget-related personas, often clashing with their natural inclinations, and were able to work within their team to achieve their public and secret goals creatively. Participants later commented in feedback that taking them out of their comfort zone through Marisa’s presentation and the practice of negotiating their own budget helped foster creative thinking over the balance of the program.

“As someone who works on the City budget process in my current position, the exercise where we role-played a budget process for a fictional Martian city was an engaging way to get us to think about city finances and stakeholder motivations creatively. Working in cross-sector teams also helped bring fresh ideas to the forefront that hadn’t really been top of my mind before. Often we can get stuck in ruts and comfortable ways of thinking, and this entire process reminded me of the need to slow down and earnestly ask ourselves why we make the decisions that we do.”

Telyse Masaoay, Director of Racial Equity Policy & Practice, Office of the Mayor

Land Use and the Built Environment

In Session 5, the ELs dove into land use, a topic that affects many aspects of city life but whose processes, bureaucracies, and power dynamics are opaque and largely unknown. To best engage with our ELs on the topic, we brought in three guest speakers representing three related and sometimes adversarial camps within land use: a community-based developer, James Johnson-Piet of URBANE; a legislative staffer, Rachel Meadows, then of Councilmember Anthony Phillips’ office; and a city planner, Eleanor Sharpe of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

Sometimes, people are unwilling to engage in a subject due to a lack of knowledge. To discourage this, we utilized a KWL facilitation. KWL asks participants to identify what about a subject they already Know, what they Want to know, and, after hearing from experts, what they've Learned. This exercise was tremendously effective in helping ELs be transparent and vulnerable about what preconceptions they had and what answers they would need to feel more comfortable about the topic. Throughout the session, we emphasized the importance of continuous learning– reinforcing that vulnerability and a willingness to acknowledge what we do and don’t know is critical to leadership.

When identifying what they wanted to know, ELs asked insightful questions, such as: “Why is ethical development so difficult”, “How do you make sure not just the loudest voices get their way”, and “How does the City Planning Commission weigh the sometimes competing interests of development and community concerns?” After reviewing what the ELs knew and wanted to know, our speakers were able to tailor their remarks to fill in the gaps, leaving participants feeling much more knowledgeable and engaged about how they can get involved in public processes related to land use.

The feedback from this session, documented in what the ELs learned from each panelist and also in post-session surveys, was highly positive. ELs were deeply appreciative of the opportunity to interact directly with experts in the field and gain a better, more holistic view of the land use and development process. Furthermore, ELs left the session understanding the importance of giving free rein to their curiosity and continuous learning.

“I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to engage and learn from my fellow cohort members that are equally passionate about shaping a better future for our city and region.”

James Campbell, Senior Coordinator, Social Impact, The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia


We express our sincere gratitude to the experts who joined us as guest speakers for these two Emerging Leader Corps sessions.

Marisa Waxman, Former Budget Director, City of Philadelphia

James Johnson-Piett Principal and CEO, Urbane

Eleanor Sharpe, Executive Director, Philadelphia City Planning Commission

Rachel Meadows Director of Legislative Affairs, City of Philadelphia

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