Tag Archives: Thinkers & Doers

“So, How Do You Like DC?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question this summer, I’d be one rich intern.  Coworkers, friends, parents, and everyone in between have all asked.  Many have gone further to ask the more daunting question, “Are you going move to DC after graduation?”

Well the short answer to that question is, I really don’t know.  Yes, I have enjoyed my time living and working in DC, but just like any city, there are upsides and downsides to living here. So as a mental exercise for myself and as entertainment for you, I’m going to go through the pro and cons, in my opinion, of living in our nation’s capital.


1. Public Transit: The Metro system in DC is one of the best in the country. During rush hour, trains are running every 2 to 3 minutes, whisking you off to work while you sip coffee and read The Washington Post. There’s no sitting on I-10 waiting for an accident to be cleared up or fighting for a parking space at the office.

2. Policy Wonks: It’s sort of like being at the LBJ School, but scaled-up to city size. Everywhere you turn, you can find someone who wants to discuss politics, policy, or government. It is exciting to know there are so many people as passionate and interested in the same issues that you are. It also makes networking opportunities limitless.

3. Extracurriculars: DC has some fantastic restaurants, bars, professional sports teams, music venues, museums, and theaters and most of them are targeted towards the 20 to 30-something crowd.

So if you’re trying to get home after a late night out or going to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes you can’t help but wish you could hop in your car and drive yourself.

1. Public Transit:  Although the DC Metro will definitely get you to work and back on time (most days), the late evenings and weekends are rife with track work that severely limit and delay the frequency of tra

2. Policy Wonks: Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking about your or someone else’s work. DC never turns off the policy switch and everywhere you go;, from the gym, to happy hour, to a National’s game, people are talking about what they do and how important it is.

3. Tourists: Tourists arrive on massive tour buses and travel in packs wearing the same neon color shirt.  On weekends and holidays, they crowd the Metro, the sidewalk, and the museums. This seriously detracts from Pros #1 and #3 listed above.


Sure I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but you get the idea. Also, although this has been fun, it certainly hasn’t helped me gain any clarity on where I want to live after grad school.  I guess it’s a good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

The End is Near

Overall I have really enjoyed my experience this summer at the KDK-Harman Foundation. Here’s a feel good story to illustrate some of the unexpected good the summer camps do. There was a mother who had contacted one of the summer grantees and asked if her child could come to the camp. The mother explained that her daughter loves science, but her daughter is diagnosed with selective mood disorder. Therefore her daughter doesn’t talk in public. The severe anxiety her daughter experiences in social situations is expressed through her silence. The mother said don’t worry about her and don’t try to make her talk, she is perfectly fine and she’ll do everything asked of her….she just won’t talk. The camp let the little girl into the camp and during the second week the little girl was there the campers went on a field trip. The campers were divided into teams and had to solve a puzzle in the least amount of time. As the seconds ticked down the little girl got so excited and into the competition she shouted, “HURRY!”. Then she immediately looked shocked and didn’t say anything after that. This is a real testament to the camp culture that this little girl who won’t say anything became so relaxed she surprised herself and opened up a little bit.

There are many other stories that I have been told and witnessed that are similar to the one above. Students are finding out that it is possible to be a doctor or an engineer, they’re even figuring out that maybe engineering isn’t for them as a lifelong career, but hey, it was a unexpected good time. They’re also finding out that the struggles and frustration that comes with video game programming robotics, and most importantly, that overcoming the frustration they feel only makes the successes even sweeter.

With only a week and a half left at the KDK-Harman Foundation things have been fast and furious. My main focus has been organizing the shared summer learning workshop, dubbed Meet*Share*Learn (to the Power of STEM) or MSL(STEM) for short. I have been planning this workshop since May, so there actually isn’t much left to do. I have witnessed, firsthand, the efficiency and effectiveness of planning ahead…Hopefully,  I can transfer these new found anti-procrastination skills to my upcoming course in the fall semester. We’ll see….

As I have mentioned before the MSL(STEM) workshop is an opportunity for the non-profit organizations to come together and share their achievements and challenges this summer. Many of them are running into similar challenges such as getting students transported to the program and then keeping them engaged with interesting material so that they want to return for every day of camp. I am extremely excited about this workshop because this is the foundation’s opportunity to share our observations and results from our site visit evaluations. I developed the evaluation form and implemented the use of the form at all 11 programs this summer. I just completed my own solo drop-in visits on all 11 grantees. A product of these evaluations is a large matrix encompassing important indicators of successful summer programs. This is it, the findings from the analysis of this matrix is where the foundation can really help the grantees become stronger for next summer. The results from this evaluation tool pilot has been a long and laborious process with many revisions needed for next summer’s implementation. I feel good about this pilot though, and it’s been interesting experience to implement my first evaluation tool.

The icing on the cake for this workshop is the foundation’s recruitment of engineers, medical technologists, doctors, and chemists for the event. We wanted to bring together non-profit organizations and STEM professionals for several reasons.

1) Non-profits can understand the needs of the STEM workforce pipeline.

2) Provide an introduction for possible STEM industry internships for young people.

3) Provide an introduction to corporate funding for NPOs.

I am especially looking forward to this aspect of the workshop because these company representatives are really passionate about STEM education and this could broaden the horizons of the afterschool and summer programming for economically disadvantaged children. In my next (AKA last) post I’ll detail the fun and excitement of the workshop and the final outcomes from my internship.


New Federal SNAP-Ed Model: Easier Said Than Done

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I am working on the USDA SNAP nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed. I also mentioned that recent federal legislation significantly expanded the scope of the SNAP-Ed program mission and activities. I’m going to tell you a little more about those changes and the challenges associated with making sure they happen on the ground.

Traditionally, states have used their federal SNAP-Ed funds to provide low-income children and families with lessons on how to shop for, prepare, and eat healthier meals.  The new federal regulations expand the list of “allowable uses” of SNAP-Ed funds to include policy and environmental level changes that create healthier schools, workplaces, and communities for low-income Americans. States can still use the funding for nutrition education lessons, but are encouraged to take a more holistic approach and affect change at all levels of the Social Ecological Model. So what does that really mean?



Well, it could mean a range of different things and really opens the doors for innovation by state agencies and their community-based partners.  It might mean working with public or private groups to establish a new farmers market or mobile fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood without a grocery store. It could mean consulting with convenience and corner store owners to increase the number of healthy options that they stock. It may mean collaborating with other organizations to establish a farm-to-school program that increases the amount of fresh, local produce served to children in public schools.  To determine the best use of funds, states agencies must assess the health needs or gaps that exist in an individual state or community.

That all sounds great, right? Well it is, except that it’s easier said than done. Many state governments and agencies have experienced cuts in their budgets and reduction in staff. This may hinder their ability to recruit and collaborate with new community-based organizations in their state. It may limit the amount of assessment a state agency can do to determine what the needs of their low-income populations truly are.  States agency staff may not be aware of the various non-profits and local entities that have the resources to implement policy and environmental level interventions.

Our job at the federal level is to provide adequate guidance and resources to improve the ability of states to successfully implement the new regulations. The federal SNAP-Ed team here at FNS has published tool kits, provided professional development tools, and released policy memos and guidance which clarify and exemplify possible new uses of the SNAP-Ed funding. This information is passed down through a network of regional and state-level administrators, who then pass information down to community-based organizations which receive grant money to implement programs.  As you can see, this is a long chain of communication and it’s likely that it will take some time for the true intent of the regulatory changes to be realized in every community where SNAP-Ed operates.

In my view, this is an illustration of the challenge of working within a federalist structure of government. Federal changes must be communicated to states that then must interpret those changes and implement in the way that makes sense for their population. Although this requires a great deal of time, effort, and error along the way, it makes sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for changing the health behaviors of Americans. The nutrition interventions needed in rural Arkansas are vastly different than those needed in downtown Los Angeles. It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for them…within federal guidelines of course.

Payday and Auto Title Loans: The Cycle of Debt, City Ordinances, & Loopholes

Since my last entry, things have kind of slowed down a bit in the School-to-Prison Pipeline area of work at Texas Appleseed so I’ve been helping out on the Payday and Auto Title Loan project. Texas Appleseed is a member of the Texas Fair Lending Alliance along with 70 other organizations that are all working to develop and implement meaningful reform that will end the cycle of debt caused by these types of loans.

Before working on this project, I always drove by these types of businesses, but never knew how they operate. I even lived right across the street from one when I first moved the Austin and was still oblivious to their practices. Payday and Auto Title Loan places are popping up all over Texas and there are about 200 storefronts in the Austin area alone, and around 3,300 in the state.

Payday Loan: a small cash advance with a two-week loan term that carries interest and fees

Auto Title Loan: loan with a typical one-month term that uses car title as collateral and carries interest and fees. If the borrower defaults, the loan company can take the car

These loans are pretty easy to get and they’re quick so they seem appealing, but the majority of these loans carry huge usurious rates, approximately 500%-1,000% APR and also come with excessive fees. It creates a cycle of debt because borrowers are often only able to pay off the high fees month after month, making the minimum payment without ever paying down the principle. Sometimes borrowers even have to take out another loan to pay off the first loan.

The City of Austin implemented a city ordinance in an attempt to end the cycle of debt by requiring the following:

  1. Limit loan size – Payday loans limited  limited to 20% of borrower’s gross monthly income and Auto Title loans limited  to less than 3% of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70% of the vehicles value
  2. Limit the number of installments to 4 and rollovers to 3
  3. Proceeds from each installment or renewal must reduce loan principal by 25%
  4. Register with the city

The past few weeks, I’ve been visiting Payday and Auto Title Loan places throughout Austin to see if they are following the ordinance. I’ve been to about 25 stores myself, and it’s been really eye opening. I have been surprised with the number of customers that visit these stores. At one place, I even had to wait 40 minutes to speak to a worker because they were so crowded at the time!

A lot of the places that I’ve visited have found a way to get around the ordinance by sending borrowers to their other storefronts outside the city limits to make their payments, and they have been very open about it. One woman even told us: “They found a loophole.” Others have openly acknowledged the fact that they are required to follow the ordinance now and explain how it has changed their loan practices (i.e. “we can’t loan you as much as we used to be able to” and/or “you don’t have as long to pay the loan back”).

There have also been several places that openly encourage you to take out the max amount that you’re able to, even if you don’t need to borrow that much money. Some also explain that you can keep the loan out as long as you want, provided you make the minimum payment, which is just the interest and fees. I can definitely see how people are easily trapped in this cycle of debt after visiting a number of businesses.

Other places though, are following the ordinance , and we even stumbled upon a few that are very upfront and encourage people to pay the loans off as soon as they can, urge them to take only the amount they need, and explain honestly that the loan can become extremely hard to pay back over time. So there have been some bright spots in my visits.

I think that it’s an issue that everyone needs to be aware of. As a student, I could easily see myself unknowingly getting involved and taking out one of these loans and being hit with the reality of it later down the road. Overall, this is not something I expected to work on this summer, but it’s been extremely revealing. It is an issue that I will continue to follow and remain interested in after I leave Texas Appleseed this summer and I’m grateful that I’ve been exposed to it.

Settling in at USDA

Hi all! I’m officially two weeks into my internship at the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  My office is located just outside of D.C. in Alexandria, VA, and I’ve finally started to figure out my way around town and the massive building that I work in. So what exactly will I be doing at USDA this summer? My work at FNS will be primarily focused on the federal nutrition education program called SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed).

Did you catch all of those acronyms?  I’ll try to not to bore you with too much bureaucratic lingo, but I want to give you a sense of exactly what I’ll be focused on this summer.  SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program) serves over 47 million low-income Americans in the form of electronic benefits that can be redeemed for food at most grocery outlets. While there are few restrictions on the types of food items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, the federal government is focused on improving the nutrition of SNAP recipients.  To do so, Congress appropriates funds ($285 million in FY 2013) to SNAP-Ed, which USDA distributes to states according to the funding allocation prescribed by statute. Each state, in turn, implements its own unique version of the SNAP-Ed program.

While states do have flexibility in how they run their program, as with any federal grant program, there are many guidelines, regulations, and reporting requirements that state agencies must adhere to.  In fact, many of the rules and regulations were recently altered significantly by federal legislation, meaning that there is a lot of education that must occur between the national office, regional offices, and state agencies. That’s where my work comes in this summer!

To start, I will be combing through the annual SNAP-Ed plans and reports submitted by each state to better understand what is happening on the ground across the country.  Each state agency contracts with a number of sub-grantees, creating a network of organizations that implement the SNAP-Ed program in slightly different ways. For example, most of the federal money that Texas receives goes to regional food banks and Texas AgriLife Extension sites, which provide nutrition education classes to low-income individuals in their communities. In California, on the other hand, the majority of the funds are spent by the state Department of Public Health and local public health departments with a focus on nutrition-related social media campaigns as well as nutrition education classes.

However a state chooses to deliver the SNAP-Ed program, they have to submit an annual plan. All of those plans must be collected, approved, and archived by the federal office.  They currently exist as a pile of CDs on my desk, and call me a wonk, but I am thoroughly excited to explore them!



After about two weeks in Ethiopia, my life has finally calmed down enough to write. I’ll start from the beginning….

“Congratulations! You have been selected as an intern for USAID Ethiopia’s Economic Growth Team for Summer 2013. You would be assigned to work with our Contractor on the Capacity to Improve Agriculture and Food Security Project.”

Back in March, I accepted an internship with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) in Ethiopia. My initial letter offered very little insight into what I would actually be doing (I mean, Economic Growth in Ethiopia could mean anything?) but I have wanted to go to Africa and work in international development since high school, so I definitely was not going to pass up this opportunity.

After accepting the offer, I really had to dig for what I really knew about Ethiopia. My first thought, and the first remark by many when I told them I was going to Ethiopia, was this:

Ethiopian mother and child


The country experienced devastating famines in the 1980s and 1990s, and pictures of starving children are permanently engraved in the minds of many of us. However, after writing a research paper on economic growth and human development in Ethiopia (I choose Ethiopia after finding out I was coming here), I was surprised to quickly learn that Ethiopia has a booming economy today and has made impressive improvements in primary education, and child and adult health.

With more prodding, I received more exacts about what I would be spending my summer doing, besides drinking lots of bunna (coffee), and exploring the konjo (beautiful) country. I discovered I would not be working directly with USAID, but instead with Fintrac, a USAID contractor on a project called USAID-CIAFS. CIAFS implements a broad range of capacity building activities to address human and institutional impediments to agricultural change and improved food security. More specifically, they provide leadership development and training for many federal and regional government agricultural workers, they assist in the development of University curriculum, and write best practice documents to inform agricultural technical experts and policy-change markers. While the country is not nearly as vulnerable to famine as it once was, the population is growing and it is critical to ensure that there is enough food to feed everyone. Agriculture also employs 85% of the labor force and makes up 40% of the country’s GDP and 83% of exports. Agriculture exports are expected to fuel the country’s economic growth to meet its 2025 goal to be a middle income country.  Increasing agriculture capacity, and ensuring an adequate food supply is essential to Ethiopia’s future.

Unfortunately, climate change threatens the sustainability and productivity of the country’s agriculture sector. So, this is where I come in! The Ethiopian government wrote an excellent plan recognizing the impact climate change will have to their economy if appropriate adaptation strategies are not put in place. One of my intended end products for this internship is to document already existing best local climate change adaptation techniques and strategies, develop strategies to scale-up these best practices, and assist in the creation of global climate change curriculum at universities across the country… in two months. Ambitious, I know.

My first week here, I spent two days at the Embassy for an orientation, one day in my office and then left with 3 co-workers and about 50 Ethiopians from the Ministry of Agriculture to visit 12 best-practices sites in six days, in six different “cities” in the Southern region. You can see my pictures below:

Kelly Steffen and workers in agriculture fields

The trip was incredibly eye-opening and will inform my work as I move forward. The site visits were conducted in Amharic so I was basically pushed off the deep end when it comes to language immersion. I look forward to writing more about my work, travels and the fun touring I do in Addis Ababa with the 18 other USAID interns here!

One last thing, hook ‘em!

Ethiopian children




Truancy Courts in Dallas County

I am doing my summer internship at Texas Appleseed in Austin, TX. Texas Appleseed is a non-profit, advocacy law center that works in a lot of areas including: foster care, juvenile justice, school-to-prison pipeline, payday loan reform, and immigration. During my time here, I will be focusing specifically on issues relating to the school-to-prison pipeline.

School-to-Prison Pipeline (in a nutshell): If you are not familiar with the S2P pipeline, basically, it’s a problematic national trend wherein kids are being channeled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Children that have learning disabilities, come from low-income households, and/or have troubled histories are being punished and pushed out of public schools instead of receiving the educational and counseling services that they need. This is partly due to “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize violations of school rules. These policies have also been shown to disproportionality impact minority students.

So, when I arrived at Texas Appleseed almost three weeks ago, everyone was busy working on a complaint to the Department of Justice about truancy ticketing practices in Dallas County. The complaint focuses on four school districts: Dallas ISD, Mesquite ISD, Garland ISD, and Richardson ISD and claims that the court process used in these districts for prosecuting truancy in adult court is unconstitutional. Texas Appleseed, working alongside Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law, argue that prosecuting youths in adult court qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the various attendance policies violate the civil rights of students with disabilities, health issues, and those students whose first language is not English. The complaint tells the stories of seven students who found themselves in the Dallas County courts for truancy violations and the stories are pretty moving.

Since I started, I have been working on this complaint, and it has been an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience. I’m very excited to continue my work at Texas Appleseed, and I am excited that my first project has been so important, and I’m interested to see what becomes of it! The complaint was officially filed this morning to the Department of Justice and several news sources have also published articles about the complaint.

I’ve included links to the various news articles below: