Mengyi Xu ’14, Civic Consulting Alliance

Mengyi and Alex Sherman

I met with my host Mr. Alexander Gail Sherman ‘97 a couple of days prior to starting the actual Princeternship at his office on the 43rd floor of the Chase Tower. I have always had trouble with navigating around high-rise buildings, and of course, I got lost finding the Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA). It was a brief meeting for me to introduce myself and for Mr. Sherman to tell me about his work as a principal at the CCA. It is always nice to talk to alums because one is sure to find that nothing at Princeton has really changed. Mr. Sherman showed me his calendar for the rest of the week and we decided on the dates for me to come in and explore what pro bono consulting really means. I was also glad to chat with one of the newer fellows at CCA who just graduated from college last year. It was very interesting to hear about her career choices and why she chose CCA!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

After having finished judging a science fair at my high school, I took the Brown Line train to downtown and got off where Mr. Sherman and I had set to meet in front of the City Hall. From there we  walked over to the headquarters of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to meet with their newly appointed Chief Safety and Security Officer Jadine Chou. While we waited, Mr. Sherman briefed me on some background information about this meeting, which was basically part of an ongoing conversation between CPS and CCA on working collaboratively to reduce youth violence in Chicago, especially in areas for which CPS is responsible. In fact, Ms. Chou had just returned from an on site investigation over a shooting that took place that morning at a CPS school. Ms. Chou really emphasized throughout the meeting that she wanted to take on a comprehensive approach in addressing this youth violence problem. Mr. Sherman asked her how CCA could help. This was really important, as Mr. Sherman later told me, because in this field, you always want to make sure you are clear about what your clients need and adjust your role accordingly. CCA is very unique in the sense that a lot of their staff members are on loan from other businesses and organizations, so a good understanding of the clients’ (for the most part the City of Chicago or Cook County) needs allows CCA to devise the most suitable strategic plans. CCA helps its clients communicate effectively with their other partners. For instance, during this meeting, Mr. Sherman advised Ms. Chou to frame the youth violence question in a way that would bring out the storyline and to set deadlines for implementing the specific ideas. What really struck me was the number of names that was brought up during the meeting as collaborators. For my first meeting experience with the CCA, I must say that I was deeply overwhelmed. I am sure that a lot of time gets spent preparing for these meetings, and my subsequent encounters during the Princeternship confirmed this.

Right afterwards, we met up with Kristen from CCA and headed together to a meeting a couple of blocks away at Accenture, a global management consulting firm. Three other people were waiting for us from Accenture and C Change, a strategic marketing agency. This meeting was for all three relevant parties to talk about an upcoming advertising campaign that C Change has been charged to create for Accenture about Accenture’s recent pro bono projects. Since CCA had been the main liaison for Accenture’s involvement in pro bono projects such as the city leadership transition and city college projects, Mr. Sherman’s inputs for the content of the video were critical. When I asked him how he manages to keep everything straight in his mind, especially given that he was having these meetings back to back, he told me that that’s why he started the meeting with a round of introductions. That’s a strategy that he has developed over the years, talking about the general mission of the CCA and his role within the organization is a good way for him to switch gears and refocus between meetings.

Then we went back to the CCA office and Mr. Sherman took some time to prepare the agenda for the next meeting with Felicia Davis, who is the Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety for the City of Chicago. At this meeting, which took place at City Hall, Mr. Sherman debriefed Ms. Davis on CPS’s priorities in the violence prevention effort. We were joined by Lincoln, another member of the CCA team. They discussed the agenda items for the upcoming city agency meeting on violence prevention and Mr. Sherman proposed to put together a PowerPoint presentation to better deliver their ideas at the meeting.

Right after the discussion with Ms. Davis, we went to the Office of the Cook County President Preckwinkle for a meeting with her chief of staff, Kurt Summers. At this meeting, they talked about the progress of STAR, which stands for “set targets, achieve results”, a Cook County initiative to set performance metrics for its various agencies. It is a collaboration that includes the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the Board President, County Agencies, employee unions and residents. I must say that it has been a very busy and eye-opening day for me. So much happened!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I had an early start today. I arrived at CCA at 7:30 am because Mr. Sherman had a conference call with a representative from Microsoft at 8:00 am. It was my first time seeing an actual conference call machine, so obviously I was very excited. The person representing Microsoft was a former military member who had worked on the security teams for the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta. He joined Microsoft’s department on homeland security and counter-terrorism after retiring from the military. I surely was amazed by the interesting people that I got to meet during this Princeternship!

CCA has been asked by the City of Chicago to coordinate the safety and security measures during the G8 and NATO meetings that are both taking place in Chicago in May of this year. So obviously, our contact was the perfect person to talk to. Our contact gave CCA a lot of very constructive suggestions in terms of finding the right people to staff these events including names of his former colleagues. He talked of the criticality of developing both preventive and reactionary plans of action, including logistic plans. Things like evacuation plans, responses to riots, and even the availability of respirators in hospitals are definitely not what one thinks about when talking about consulting, yet these are the things for which CCA has to prepare the relevant City agencies for the upcoming summits. This meeting really opened up my eyes to the complexity of CCA’s client cases – Mr. Sherman’s work is really about bringing experts from all relevant fields together and using his own expertise to facilitate collaborations to best address his clients’ needs. This was a mind blowing experience and I almost felt that I myself was learning to think about issues more critically, comprehensively and strategically – too bad that the conference call only lasted for an hour.

Then at 9:00 am, we went over to the City Hall to meet with Juliana Stratton, who is the Executive Director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council. This is one of the many meetings that revolve around the STAR initiative and ways to use it as a management tool for the relevant city agencies. During this meeting, Mr. Sherman and Juliana also discussed some details about the One Summer Chicago Program, which is an initiative that seeks to place high-risk youth (CPS students mostly) in jobs over the summer and consequently reduce violence in relevant communities. The program partners with city and county agencies as well as private sector businesses to identify suitable placement opportunities. Some of the issues discussed included who should be the target audience of this program (who is qualified, how is the database of eligible youth created and maintained, etc), how many spots will be offered, what types of programs should be offered, as well as concerns with engagement and evaluation. This was basically a preparation for the general meeting with relevant city agencies later in the afternoon.

Afterwards, Mr. Sherman had an hour or so to work on preparing materials and recommendations for his clients, such as a draft framing document that Ms. Chou requested at the meeting yesterday. Finally, the long-awaited One Summer Chicago Planning Meeting came around. I believe there were about 25 people in attendance, representing various city agencies and organizations that would be involved in or affected by the One Summer Chicago program. I was rather surprised but also glad to see some familiar faces around the otherwise somewhat intimidating conference room. After a customary round of introductions, the attendees jumped straight into the logistics of the initiative. Everything from the timeline of the placement process, youth qualifications to the management of the application portal to the impact of the program and whether or not it should be shaped into a year round program was talked about. I was very surprised that a group of this size was able to generate efficiently so many productive ideas.
Thursday, December 28, 2011
Today, I got to experience a different side of CCA, no longer so much running around between meetings but a quieter day at the office. I had expressed to Mr. Sherman earlier about my interest in the Chicago tourism offices merger project that some of his colleagues were working on, and so he introduced me to Kelly Ruppel, an associate principal at CCA. She gladly explained to me the project. She told me that currently there are two main agencies, Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture (COTC) and Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (CCTB), which one is a 501c3 non profit organization and the other a 501c6 membership based organization, they have overlapping roles for the city of Chicago tourism industry. Thus, it has been decided that it is in Chicago’s interest to consolidate the two and centralize resources to really market Chicago as a prime tourism destination. CCA has been charged to determine the exact procedure for the merger such as legal structure, etc. Ms. Ruppel asked me if I would be interested in helping her do some research on funding viability for the merged organization. I was thrilled to get this chance to experience first hand the work that they have to do on a daily basis. However, the actual task turned out to be much harder than expected. Finding the organizations’ past funding sources was definitely not as obvious as it might sound and reading through their financial statements to find clues was difficult. After a morning of Googling and searching on the websites of foundations (MacArthur, Joyce, Prizker, etc), I finally came up with a good list of past grants awarded to the COTC. Hopefully, it would be useful for the project.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Princeternship as it allowed me to experience the daily activities of a field that I didn’t even know existed before this winter. Before meeting Mr. Sherman, I had no idea that pro bono and consulting are compatible concepts that one could put together in one phrase, but after this Princeternship, I can’t but marvel at the potential of this exciting field. Thanks to Career Services for giving me this opportunity and thanks to Mr. Sherman for allowing me to be your shadow at all your meetings! I had a great time at CCA!