The Crippling Weight of the ‘Last Straw’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

The Office of Student Success was our earliest and most ambitious innovation at the Colin Powell School. It represents our commitment to a goal that we cherish, and must still pursue: to ensure, insofar as possible, that no student falls through the cracks.

In our early imaginings, that office would primarily take on higher-order advisement—guiding students to the right classes, to be sure, but also helping them seek out internship opportunities, manage scholarship and leadership programs, and forge connections between their classroom work and professional and service trajectories. We’re proud of our programs in that direction, and we’ve worked every year to make them stronger and more effective.

But early in this work, we confronted an unsettling realization. The people working in that office were devoting far more time than any of us imagined to helping students solve their administrative problems. As one member of the office recently said: 80 percent of our  time is devoted to serving 20 percent of our students, and those issues are almost all bureaucratic. It’s a telling assessment. As we seek for ways to enhance student success, huge elements of the answer cannot be found in esoteric educational theory, but in working to clear mundane bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student progress and success.

Underlying Barriers

These bureaucratic barriers, however, often lie hidden beneath the surface of a student’s experience of the college, cumulatively eroding their resolve and capacity to cope with other difficulties. In consequence, all of us—students and observers—might be tempted to explain away a student’s breaking point as entirely due to some unforeseen personal crisis, or the grinding pressures of some chronic hardship.

It’s often surprising how thin the last straw may be. A student loan refund that is delayed, a single course taken in error, or the inaccurate evaluation of a transcript: in the end, any of these may knock a precariously situated student off course. In the past several months, I’ve met students at the edge of leaving school because they could not afford books, or could not scrape together the money to see a dentist. We’ve placed newly homeless students in our dormitory, thereby allowing them to continue their studies when they thought they would not. One young man even stopped attending class because he’d lost his laptop’s charging adapter, was not able to replace it, and so couldn’t use the only computer he had access to at home.

Given the stakes (a student entering college in 2010 can expect to earn $450,000 more than a high school graduate over the course of her life) these final crises seem ridiculously small. So small, in fact, that they only make sense as a proximate cause—that final, last straw—piled on top of an underlying systemic problem.

An individual’s hardship may suggest that we seek out individual remedies in each case—that we in fact adopt a case worker’s approach to student hardship. But we can’t address countless numbers of these cases—because students in crisis often just fade away, rather than laying out their hardship. More importantly, embedded in each seemingly idiosyncratic story were places where a systematic regime of stronger student support could have made that crisis not much more than an annoyance.

Outlining Remedies

We need, in fact, three interrelated remedies.

Inarguably, we still need support for students who encounter emergencies. At the Colin Powell School, a generous donation from The Viola Fund allowed us to create the Viola Emergency Fund for Students facing a financial crisis. Students wishing to apply for support through the Viola Fund should secure a letter recommending that support from a faculty member or staff person with knowledge of the situation and then email the director of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Dee Dee Mozeleski, who will arrange a time to meet and discuss options.

Moreover, ample room still exists for our supporters to offer supplemental resources along these same lines. In the past, donors have supplied metro cards to help students travel to campus, funding for student housing, and emergency book funds. The more able we are to steer students through the crisis of the moment, the more easily we will be able to direct their attention to the big picture.

Additionally, students need more information about how to navigate complicated bureaucratic systems. Student advocates in our Office of Student Success are meant to do much of this work, but they find themselves spending most of their time solving problems for students who’ve already been tripped up in some way. A more proactive system equips students with information and strategies that would help them navigate bureaucratic systems. We’ve already made progress along these lines in our online advising resources. But similar progress in other areas of student/college interaction is crucial. We can begin by looking at existing models that have shown success. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, for instance, made progress in helping students untangle one of the most convoluted but important sets of rules they will face, those surrounding financial aid:Something along these lines might be a very good model for CCNY students, and it’s an area we’re beginning to explore.

Finally, we need to make the search for more manageable and responsive bureaucratic systems a top priority at CCNY. We are an institution that has been in unremitting financial difficulty for decades—in truth, since New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1970s. Over that span, the easy response to economic hardship has often been to reduce the number of people in key service offices: financial aid, admissions, registrar and bursar. Such reductions often escape the attention of most people. They do not, after all, result in fewer classes, or higher tuition, or program cutbacks. Steadily, however, they have undercut the capacity of students to manage the crucial and often bewildering side of achieving college success: the management of everything that takes place outside of the classroom. We’re only now learning how critical—and critically difficult—those management challenges can be. A genuine commitment to student success requires that we invest in the capacity of these offices as a way to invest in our students.


The Emperor’s New Vitamin


by Matthew G. Nagler, Associate Professor, Economics and Business, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

About six weeks ago, the New York State Attorney General’s office released a report accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart of selling fraudulent dietary supplements. The AG had DNA-tested 24 products from the retailers representing seven supplement types— including such popular products as gingko biloba and St. John’s Wort. All but five of the products were found to contain DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be—including in some cases little more than powdered rice or house plants.

These findings were no big surprise to Edward J. Kennelly, Professor of Biology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Fredi Kronenberg of Stanford University, or Bei Jiang of Dali University in China. The three biologists collaborated several years ago on a study of black cohosh, a plant-derived supplement marketed over-the-counter as a cure for hot flashes. They analyzed 11 products and found that three contained no black cohosh, while a fourth that did contain it was also contaminated with a “cousin” plant species. The results of their study are published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Shortly after that study was completed, Mr. Kennelly and I met at a CUNY awards dinner. His research results had raised an important question: While, as scientists, his team had been able to identify fraudulent supplements in the lab, was there any way that consumers could ferret out the frauds? This, I knew, was a question economic analysis could answer. Soon Mr. Kennelly, his collaborators, postdoctoral student Chunhui Ma, and I joined together to do a market-focused study of black cohosh adulteration, the results of which are published in theInternational Journal of Marketing Studies. Our findings lent support to the notion that dietary supplements are an example of what’s called a credence good, a product for which the quality cannot be determined conclusively by consumers even after they buy and use it. Auto repairs offer the classic example. Suppose I take my car to a mechanic for a routine check-up, and he tells me that the transmission is about to fail and needs to be replaced. Fifteen hundred dollars later, I leave the repair shop and find my car drives no differently than when I had brought it in. I can’t tell whether the car needed the repair to begin with, or even whether the repair was executed. I have to take these things on faith. Dietary supplements function similarly–largely because no medication is 100 percent effective, and because sometimes people just get better on their own. This means a consumer cannot rely on what happens when she takes the supplement as an indication of whether it is a fraud or not.

But were consumers able to separate the good from the bad? To determine this, we used a modified version of what economists call “hedonic analysis,” in which the researcher takes the relationship of a product’s observable characteristics to its price as a measure of which characteristics are valued by the market. We turned the standard approach inside out, looking at whether something that the market clearly values but can’t directly observe—authenticity—influences a product’s price. This could tell us whether consumers were getting a clue about authenticity in sufficient numbers to move the market price up or down—by flocking to it or running from it—based on whether the product was or was not a fraud. It turns out they weren’t. They did not have a clue which products were the frauds and which were not.

When something is a credence good, there are two ways the consumer might be protected against fraud. One is through the force of reputation. But because with credence goods people cannot figure out for sure if a product was a fraud even after they use it, they have nothing unequivocal to pass along via word-of-mouth, in chat rooms, or in online product reviews. Consumers who look to reputational sources for helpful information are less likely to find it. Brands that have perpetrated a fraud can get away with it for a long time before enough negative feedback accumulates to effectively bring them down.

Indeed, credence goods and their reputation can be as unreliable as praise for the emperor’s new clothes. Suppose a few early adopters of a fraudulent supplement happen to get a good outcome and squawk about it online. This puts pressure on others to corroborate the positive hype. If the consensus is that the brand is a miracle cure, those consumers who have a different experience may question their own, correct perception and might stifle their criticisms. Things can persist this way for some time—with countless consumers throwing good money after bad.

So that leaves a second source of protection: regulatory oversight. In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). DSHEA’s rules regarding labeling and good manufacturing practices more closely resemble those that govern foods than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s rigorous pharmaceutical regulations. Accordingly, supplements require no premarket clinical testing or approval. Since DSHEA was enacted in 1994, the number of products to which it has applied has grown from 4,000 to approximately 30,000.

Meanwhile, funding for supplement oversight has declined, with the result that the agency has recently faced severe constraints in its efforts to enforce its relatively meager rules against mislabeling and contamination. The Republican-dominated Congress that enacted DSHEA clearly intended for the consumer to take personal responsibility when shopping for supplements – to recognize that, as the labels say, any claims made by manufacturers are “not evaluated by the FDA.” But even if one assumes that buyers are up to the rigors of self-protection, shouldn’t they at least have the assurance that the supplement contains what its label says it does? Our study shows that even the most cautious consumer is unlikely to be able to determine the authenticity of a product.

We should be grateful for interventions by authorities with the ability to scrutinize supplements scientifically and call out the frauds. Like the little boy in Andersen’s story who called it as he saw it, they provide an indispensible service to the public. And, while it may be an unrealistic wish given our current Congress, our findings and those of the New York Attorney General point to an irresistible conclusion: It is time to revisit DSHEA and put in place stronger regulations on dietary supplements.


Matthew Nagler is an associate professor at the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, City College of New York:     Note: This post has been edited from an earlier published version.

Remembering “Rev”

The Reverend Eugene S. Callender speaking at the City College of New York. Reverend Callender passed away on November 2.

by Vince Boudreau, Director, Colin Powell Center

The Reverend Eugene Callender—or “Rev” as he insisted we call him—served as the very first New York Life leader-in-residence in the early years of CCNY’s Colin Powell Center. He embraced the opportunity of working with our students with incredible joy and energy, and was particularly committed to bringing the lions of the civil rights struggle—people like Derek Bell and Vincent Harding—to campus to meet our students. He was a mentor and a leader to our students, and to many of us who had the chance to work with him.

We had asked Rev to join us as our founding leader-in-residence because he uniquely embodied the spirit and conscience at the heart of the Harlem community. For more than 50 years, Dr. Callender, an ordained minister and graduate of New York Law School, was a driving force behind a multitude of city programs and policy efforts. He was the first person to organize a New York City rent strike, the first to establish a community-based drug detox center (helping clients such as Miles Davis), and the visionary behind Harlem’s famed “street academies,” schools set up with prep-school atmosphere, where formerly at-risk youth routinely graduated to Ivy League colleges. He masterminded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first visit to Harlem and mentored numerous politicians. Dr. Callender also served on five presidential commissions and led the New York Office of Aging under Governor Mario Cuomo. In short, he had a depth of experience and understanding of policy that has been the lifeblood of the Harlem community.

Often, as leader-in-residence, Rev spoke to our students about the fundamental qualities of a good leader: courage and inner strength. A leader, he said, needs inner personal power, a conviction to do what’s right, and an outlook that’s not selfish or ego-driven. He also described the leaders he admired: among them, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. President Roosevelt, he said, took the country in the heart of the depression when people were starving and created the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Social Security. He changed the whole social philosophy of the United States with his courage and heart. Marshall, whom Reverend Callender knew very well, fought the Jim Crow laws and anti-lynching laws as a young lawyer. He argued the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court and won, and later, as a Supreme Court Justice, handed down many courageous decisions.

I received the sad news of Reverend Callender’s passing earlier this month with a heavy heart, lightened only by the knowledge of the unmistakable imprint he made then on the life of the Colin Powell Center, still evident today in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. We are exceptionally lucky to have had the chance to walk alongside this wonderful man for a few miles of his extraordinary life’s journey, grieved by his loss, and warmed by his memory.

Marshall Berman: A Life Steered by Our Human Possibilities


By Vince Boudreau, director of the Colin L. Powell Center

Marshall Berman was a distinguished professor at CCNY, a designation that, like associate and full professor, requires a formal review and recommendation process, including the review of his scholarly work, and testimonies to their significance.  A committee is selected to solicit reviews from appropriate scholars, but as a candidate, Marshall also was able to nominate reviewers, and add letters to his application file.

His application was immensely strong, and included ringing and warm endorsements from the very best and most established political theorists (a sub-field of the political science discipline) in the world.

But it also contained something peculiar, inserted into the file at Marshall’s insistence—an unsolicited “review” of Marshall’s luminous, expansive work, All that is Solid Melts into Air. The review was hand written, and crumpled—the pen having apparently been set to paper years before—and the note itself abused by years of residence in Marshall’s tumultuous apartment, or atop the crazed jumble of books and papers that always concealed his office desk.

Marshall called the letter a review, but it was, in fact, a fan letter, from a New York City construction worker. He had read Marshall’s book, and had decided that he would just carry it around with him.  It changed his life, he wrote, changed how he saw the city that he loved, and that he labored daily to help build.

The fact of the letter was striking enough.  We academics, if we’re attentive and good, sometimes do receive grateful notes from our students—telling us how a class, or an advising session made a difference in their lives.  And, if we write well and with insight, we sometimes are reviewed well.  But an unsolicited fan letter from outside the academy is rare—and I’d bet that very few of us are ever so honored.

More striking, however, was Marshall’s insistence that this letter should sit alongside the others, that it was important to factor the opinions of this New Yorker into his promotion decision.  In many ways, he was prouder of that letter than all the others combined.

And here one sees one of the truly precious elements of the moral and political commitments by which Marshall steered his life. He thought that we were all, in a radical sense, equal. We were equal not just in terms or our political or human rights, but in our ideas and in our minds.  Marshall was breathtakingly, dizzyingly smart.  He possessed one of the most agile, comprehending minds I’ve ever known.  But he carefully regarded every last idea that passed before him, threw up no boundaries to incorporating hip hop, graffiti art, poetry slams, and even the watery coffee of the student cafeteria, into his conceptions about human accomplishment and creativity.

As a rare, world historic intellect, Marshall had ample opportunity to leave CCNY.  He was recruited by Ivy League Universities, and by some of the brightest jewels on the west coast.  But he remained at City College, in part, because it embodied the wonderful and restless creativity of the city he wrote about, that he identified in his conception of modernity and traced through his stirring biography of Times Square, and that he viewed out the window of the Metro Diner, where he ate most mornings, and where he passed away, among friends, this past September 11th.

But he also stayed at CCNY because he was drawn to a commitment to the radical equality of human potential and thinking.  He could not abide the prospect that some young person, beginning to feel the first warmth of a new idea sprung to life, would lack support, or fail to gain an attentive hearing.  He was the most public man I’ve ever known, with the most public approach imaginable to what education should be.  And so, over the 22 years that I worked alongside this great man, I heard him repeatedly say, “I want to teach at CCNY until the day I die.”  And so he did.

Walking Free While Black: Unlocking Streets, Communities

Attorney General Eric Holder promises to overhaul America’s prison system.

by Atreish Ramlakhan

Some of our most recent national news stories paint a definitive picture: institutional racism, which has a long and painful history for many Americans, is still very much a part of our lives.

In particular, the criminal justice system has been under close scrutiny; the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent verdict, the stop-and-frisk ruling in New York City, and recent comments by Attorney General Eric Holder about mass incarceration have had all shared prominent media coverage this summer, one by one shedding further light on the rampant racial disparities within the criminal justice system—a system that has grown increasingly unacceptable for many Americans.

Denied ‘Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect’


If you lived or spent time in New York City in the last year, you couldn’t help but notice the buttons and stickers on backpacks and jackets calling for an end to the stop-and-frisk policy. This much maligned NYPD tactic has now been deemed unconstitutional by a federal district judge for the City’s “blind eye toward the racially insensitive manner in which the policy has been used.” Sunita Patel, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), said in an interview on Democracy Now! that the experts (statisticians) who testified in the case agreed that the Bloomberg administration had been “blurring the math.” The City claims that stop and frisk has helped save lives and reduce crime in predominantly black and Latino, low-income, high-crime areas. The CCR counters that Bloomberg inherited a nationwide trend of falling crime rates. With only a six percent arrest rate and over 4.5 million stops by the NYPD in the last decade, stop and frisk was deployed as a fear tactic and was not a sound crime-fighting policy.

Lock-Up Culture

Alongside these thuggish and racist policing tactics remains the fact that despite declining violent crime rates across the nation, America has a prison problem. Mass incarceration has been a reality since the 1970s and grew considerably through the 1980s through today. The War on Drugs and other “tough on crime” policies has made the United States home to 40 percent of the world’s prison population. Black men are disproportionately represented in jail and receive 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes. Psychologists, sociologists, and other community advocates have for decades agreed that mass incarceration destroys communities and perpetuates cycles of poverty, violence, crime, and broken families. Furthermore, life after release is often one of compromised human dignity, when the formerly incarcerated are so often seen as nothing more than “felons” or “ex-cons.” That’s why it’s comforting to hear that Attorney General Eric Holder aims to implement policies overhauling mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses. Tapping into the public mood, at a recent press conference in San Francisco he expressed moral appall with the discriminatory practice. “This isn’t just unacceptable. It’s shameful,” he said.

‘Cautious Optimism’

In the meantime, public protests have figured prominently in national conversations about these coinciding news stories. Massive protests before and after the Zimmerman trial were held throughout multiple cities and covered on major news networks, newspapers, and web magazines. Everyone from Beyoncé to the POTUS gave a media statement expressing deep emotion over the case. In a country rife with gun violence, why did one more shooting cause such a huge reaction? It illustrates what people of color, primarily African-Americans, have been pointing to for years: unjust and unequal treatment from the law.

Though it seems there may be broadening public outrage to the injustices disadvantaged populations face, we should retain, in the words of civil-rights attorney Michelle Alexander, “cautious optimism.” The use of racial profiling and racial disparities in the justice system will not disappear overnight. Rather, we must test the waters by advocating for promising alternative policies, and that takes time. If we can believe Holder’s promise to begin to overhaul part of this broken system, we can hope that the official condemnation of the stop-and-frisk policy is a preview of good things to come.

A New Yorker Responds: Bloomberg’s Plan for Mandatory Composting

San Francisco compost bin. Photo license: Creative Commons.











By Amanda Krupman, Communications Coordinator, Colin Powell School

I want to say that I am typical New Yorker—a typical non-native, not-yet-forty, not-ever-making-a six-figure-salary New Yorker.

I live in one of the outer boroughs, don’t own a car, and rent an apartment in a crumbling four-story walk-up. A kind, older Korean woman living across the street is paid to handle our trash and recycling and occasionally (bi-yearly?) sweep the hallways and stairs. She does this despite the fact that, she told me last week, the building’s owner hasn’t paid her since December. The owner is a typical New York City landlord, but I have lived in the city long enough to grade on a curve:  he is an absent, but not abusive, figure. I give him a C-minus.

We are all typical New Yorkers: so it only took about three-and-a-half seconds intoreading about Bloomberg’s push for a comprehensive composting program for my thoughts to transition from those apropos to Responsible Earth Citizen to those of Paranoid Urban Survivalist.

How would this go down in Brooklyn? In August? In my kitchenette so small my cat and I have separate feeding schedules?


Compost bins, everywhere,  just around the corner!

Fear crept in.

A visceral, scuttling fear, not unlike the sort that came when the roommate two-weeks-in from New Mexico brought home that amazing upholstered chair he couldn’t imagine why anyone would leave on the curb, and did I know that it was sitting right by an unstained, pillowtop mattress that was—he knew because he’d tested it—still, totally, perfectly firm?

Guilt followed.

Just last month I had documented the wonderful work of our faculty and student fellows with their community partner at the Lower East Side Ecology Center. That a city of New York’s size intends on establishing a serious, progressive city-wide program to handling waste is something to celebrate. The New York Times article cites benefits beyond the environmental impact: the city will save about a third of the money it spends disposing residential trash (over $300 million last year) by diverting the organic material to composting plants. Furthermore, the city would pursue plans to build a plant to convert the waste matter into a renewable energy source used to generate electricity for the New York region.

These are thrilling policy developments in urban sustainability. I’m so down.

But at once I recall Apartment 6F, a sloping one-bedroom I rented for a year in a section of Flatbush. It was the apartment at the end of the hall, situated right next to the room with the trash chute, which my neighbors ignored, preferring to pile their trash bags next to and underneath it— bags that, piled six-feet-high, sat for a week long, slowly leaking out juices that ran in vile rivulets down to my doormat. Maybe the trash juice would have been better contained in compost bins. But would anyone have actually used them if putting trash down the chute was too bothersome? And if they did, would they have been emptied as often as they should?

I recall balmy evening strolls before trash day, when soldier strength can’t protect against a pervasive, thuggish stench that hits the nose with an uppercut before socking you in the gut.

Photo license: Creative Commons.

And I recall the only time I’d encountered a rat outside of a subway station, a harrowing tale I’ll tell you all over a beer you buy for me.

Yes, I know: I’m part of the problem. This is progress and I really do want to reconcile my rational, green-policy-lovin’ intellect with my self-protective and wary New Yorker emotions. But New York is a beast, different from cities like San Francisco and Seattle, both of which have instituted some form of mandated food recycling. We have unique challenges in our densely packed neighborhoods. And I have unique challenges in my densely packed studio apartment, namely: if the litter box is in the bathroom, and the trash can under the sink, where under heaven am I going to put the compost bin? And the smell…

Guess now’s the time to buy stock in Glade. Unless…

Movie Distributors Leave the Bronx Out in the Cold

argo_bannedBy Wanda Mercado, Colin Powell Center Administrative Director

When asked, “what are you doing this weekend?” my response was merely, “a friend and I are planning to catch a movie”—either Lincoln or Argo, both Oscar-nominated films. Once the Oscar list is published, this is something that we, like so many other people, routinely do each year: We make an effort to see each of the major movies in advance of the awards. The top movies this year are complex; they evoke lots of human emotions and address complicated issued. One leavesthinking: “Let’s follow up with coffee and a long conversation to dissect the essence of the film.”

My friend and I decided to look through the movie listings in the Bronx, where she lives and I was visiting, to find out where those films were playing. Lo and behold, neither Lincoln or Argo, nor a single one of the serious Oscar-nominated films were playing anywhere in the vicinity. The vast majority of the films in local movie houses were explicitly violent: Hansel and Gretel (I can’t imagine how parents are explaining this version of the classic fairy tale to their children) was featured in two out of the five theaters), Django Unchained, and Gangster Squad also seemed to be everywhere, and rounded out a bloody, graphically violent array of films. Nowhere in our Bronx area could we go to find anything like a quality film.

Give Us the Option
I couldn’t help thinking how different our choices would have been had we set out to see a film in Manhattan or Brooklyn. What are theater owners and movie distributors trying to tell us? That Bronx residents can’t relate to meaningful, thought-provoking films with little-to-no violence? To a degree, of course, many of the nominated films include some violence, and I’m not saying that such films—or even the gory ones I described above—have no place in our culture. But why must the entertainment industry assume that no one in an entire borough of 1.3 million residents (more than the entire populations of Atlanta and San Francisco combined) would be interested in thought-provoking movie experiences? Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in  New York—even residents of the Bronx—were given the option of seeing quality, less violent films in our neighborhoods?

Read more about Wanda Mercado and our other contributors here.

Understanding NYC Investment Policy Formation and Its Impacts

New York City Comptroller John Liu. Photo by Cityyear, courtesy Creative Commons.

By Sergio Galeano, Leadership Fellow

My experience as a summer associate within the NYC Comptroller’s Office was nothing short of a wonderful learning experience. The internship offered me a great opportunity to have a firsthand glimpse of policy formation and of the important connection between the public and private sectors.

As an institutional investor, the NYC Comptroller’s Office spends a great deal of its capital and resources in the form of policy. As an independent governmental agency that serves as both an advisor and check upon the Office of the Mayor, the Comptroller’s Office is in charge of overseeing the budget and finances of the city of New York. More importantly, it is responsible for overseeing the long-term sustainability of the five major pensions funds within NYC. Within the Corporate Governance department, I participated in policy implementation and safekeeping the pensions’ viability and public image within the capital market. Overall, a large portion of the policy guidelines deal with financial oversight and fair business practices.

Increased Scrutiny and Activism
The financial recession and the subsequent passage of Dodd Frank spurred a revamping of current policies to take into account increased levels of scrutiny and accountability within the corporate environment. In addition, increased activism in the areas of environmental sustainability and climate change have left many companies with little choice but to adapt to higher standards to ethical behavior. Together, social and environmental issues make up a bulk of the policies the office implements in order to justly represent both the NYC residents whose pensions are on the line, as well as the broader set of stakeholders who are affected by the practices of the corporations the pensions invest in.

At the time that I entered the summer associate program in the early summer, the policy manual in use was in many ways outdated and lacked key provisions, which recent years had brought to the forefront of corporate governance. While political issues such as that of apartheid and the IRA were no longer relevant to the times, other issues, such as greater levels of financial supervision, were lacking from the pages of a manual, which in many respects portrayed the city’s position on numerous controversial issues.

Setting Investment Policy on Key Issues
I was tasked with editing and revamping the current policy and presenting the director of corporate governance with an updated and adapted manual that could be used to replace the outdated version. By the end of a month, I was privileged to say that I was as well familiar with every page and detail of the office’s policy and stand on many key issues. In addition, I helped create a presentation that would be directed towards the board of trustees regarding how to better consolidate and compromise on certain policies. These included, for example, ones in which the teachers’ union and police union were at odds with.

In many respects, public policy is a reconciliation between the objective viewpoint of statistical research and economic theory, and the subjective lens through which individuals gauge the social implications and measured effects of policy. Actions that are mathematically and theoretically sound may have adverse effects on different populations. At a time when much debate has focused on the right balance of government and private enterprise, public policy and its long-term implications have become an ever more valuable asset that must be strengthened and justly implemented. My experience at the NYC comptroller’s office fortified my understanding of such issues and sparked a great deal of intrigue with a field that will play a crucial role in my future career.

Read more about Sergio and our other fellows here.

Save NYC’s Abandoned Buildings, Save the Planet


By Alex Davies, Communications Coordinator

In a January 2012 report, grassroots advocacy group Picture the Homelesssurveyed vacant buildings and properties in New York City, finding enough space to house nearly 200,000 people — four times the homeless population of the city.

As the Center expands its work on environmental issues, I’ve been thinking about how the expression, “the greenest brick is the one already in the wall” applies to the report. It’s the unofficial mantra of the design section of TreeHugger, an environmental blog I contribute to. Here’s a simpler way to put it: It’s a waste (of time, money, energy, and resources) to build an entirely new structure when there’s one already there. 

The Picture the Homeless report focuses on the social and economic costs of vacant properties, charging: “NYC’s laissez-faire free-market strategy for dealing with empty buildings and lots harms communities and helps big real estate.” In its view, owners of vacant properties refuse to undertake renovation until the neighborhood gentrifies, at which point they sell to developers, who demolish the old buildings and construct new ones.

READ MORE: Students and the Homeless Share a Classroom to Advocate for Change

Build Resilient

Sidestepping the political and economic issues here, I want to address the environmental question Picture the Homeless didn’t bring up. For those who don’t spend their time reading and writing for environmental blogs, “resilience” has replaced “sustainability” as the new buzzword.


Resilient buildings don’t need LEED certification; they don’t rely on fancy technology to reduce energy use. Rather, they are simple, durable, and stand the test of time. Ever been to the Louvre or the Coliseum? They were built centuries ago and are still in use, serving 21st century functions. The palace becomes a museum, the gladiatorial arena becomes a tourist attraction. That’s resilience.

Winning the Battle for Earth, in NYC

21st century environmentalism is not about national parks, it’s about cities. In urban centers, people share resources: buildings, transportation, space, and energy. Resilient buildings play a vital role in that. A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found reuse of buildings almost always has less of an impact on the environment than new construction.

READ MORE: As the Rivers Rise, 3 Ways Harlem Needs to Prepare for a Wet Future

The vacant buildings cataloged by Picture the Homeless may be abandoned, but they’re still standing. That’s not to say they’re all fit for habitation; many may be beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and should be demolished. But I doubt that’s the case of more than a small minority.

New York is one of the world’s biggest cities, and among its most imitated. So the title of this post is not as hyperbolic as it might seem: If we can save these buildings, use them to house the homeless and hold off devastating climate change, other cities will take notice and follow suit. — Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers.