By Natasha Lerner
Ms. Lerner received her MPA, specializing in International Health from New York University – Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service (2015), and her BA in Global Politics with a double minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Poverty and Human Capability Studies from Washington and Lee University (2013). She is a Program Associate at EngenderHealth, an international NGO, working in sexual and reproductive health. Her internships have included the Council on Foreign Relations, United Nations Development Program, PCI Media Impact, Center for Reproductive Rights, Women’s World Summit Foundation, Housing Works, and DoSomething.org.
“You have to make the comfortable a little uncomfortable if you want change,” writes Natasha Lerner, W&L 2013 . “But it is not just the people in power that you have to make a little uncomfortable to get them to do what you want; as an advocate, you’ll be even more effective if you are willing to make yourself a little uncomfortable as well.”
The Shepherd Program was an important draw for me to attend Washington and Lee. During my college search process seven years ago, I had initially assumed that all the schools I was considering would have similar academic programs for my interests. Thus, I didn’t focus too much at first on comparing classes among schools. Rather, as I narrowed down my list, I zoomed in on other college aspects: location, campus beauty, extracurricular activities, study-abroad options, and career opportunities. When I stepped foot on the bucolic W&L campus for a tour, I soon realized that it had everything I was looking for, and more. At the pinnacle of that eye-opening realization was the unique opportunity offered by the Shepherd Poverty Program. Academically, personally, professionally, and even via extracurricular activities, it would offer a meaningful leap in the life direction that I wanted to pursue. I was hooked. This is why I am excited to learn about the growth of the Consortium to other universities, so that students across the country can experience this enriching, challenging, and thought-provoking program.
Prior to college, I had assumed that as a politics major I would need to piece together a transcript that honed in on the specific issues that mattered most to me, such as “what we owe each other as humans,” “why gender inequality is so entrenched in society,” “why health disparities are so wide among neighbors,” and “how can we use evidence and facts to find solutions to fundamental social problems.” As a student at W&L, the Shepherd Program, via its multi-faceted components, helped me navigate complex subjects across a comprehensive academic framework, alongside peers and faculty grappling with the same questions.
For me, the most exciting part of the Shepherd Program’s academic courses was that questions of poverty and human capability, often discussed in broad emotional rhetoric, could be evaluated academically. Evidences could be tested, regressions run, indicators developed. I could find concrete reasons to argue for what I could only emotionally plea for before.
I was involved in many of the Shepherd Program’s offerings during college, but the two that fundamentally changed me were the internship through the Shepherd Consortium and the Capstone Project. My main interests lie in advocacy and organizing and in monitoring and evaluation — often deemed separate disciplines. But the Shepherd Program showed me how they can be strengthened by each other.
I completed my internship in Washington, DC, at Housing Works. The organization’s mission is “to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.” I worked on local, national, and international HIV advocacy on the ground in DC, New York City, Los Angeles, and Detroit. I learned one of the most vital lessons that summer, which has shaped my public service career: You have to make the comfortable a little uncomfortable if you want change. But it is not just the people in power that you have to make a little uncomfortable to get them to do what you want; as an advocate, you’ll be even more effective if you are willing to make yourself a little uncomfortable as well.
This was a sentiment I took beyond the realm of advocacy. My Poverty Capstone was a needs assessment I conducted on behalf of Project Horizon, a local domestic, dating, and sexual violence shelter, to improve services to LGBTQ victims of violence. As I completed the Capstone, I realized just how far outside of my comfort zone I would have to go. Never had I conducted a needs assessment. As I poured through highly technical books describing how to design such an evaluation, I felt nervous and uncomfortable, but I knew what a reward it would be to create actionable change and improve services. This is when I fell in love with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and where I learned that in many ways M&E is the advocacy of program. It is the mechanism that pushes back, that asks what is our impact and what can we do better, that seeks to reason improvements, explain failures from which to learn, and celebrate successes.
After graduating from Washington and Lee, I enrolled at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where I earned a Master of Public Administration focusing on Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy and International Health. In graduate school I continued exploring many of the questions I debated in W&L classes and around the lunch table with my Shepherd Program peers. I reread many of the same foundational books and articles from W&L’s Poverty 101 and continued to hone my skills to be a more effective public servant.
Ultimately, the Shepherd Program provided me —on top of factual teachings, job skills, thought-provoking philosophies, and extracurricular learning activities — with the understanding that working in public interest, working every day toward visceral and sometimes hard-to-explain ideals, can be a profession. This was a key realization for me: that public service is worthy of a highly skilled, professional workforce, committed to utilizing tools and resources effectively for a greater good. Public service is important and matters to both the individual and society. The Shepherd Program showed me that the study of poverty and human capability mattered far beyond the classroom.
I now work at EngenderHealth, an international NGO that focuses on sexual and reproductive health, as a Program Associate in the Knowledge Management, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research department. It sounds like a mouthful of highly technical language, and it is. When I go into work, whether it is to evaluate the impact of one of our programs, to design a new organizational policy for research, or to build a new tool to improve learning across our projects, I often utilize the lessons I learned in the Shepherd Program.
I recently traveled to Lomé, Togo, for two weeks to help with monitoring and evaluation of a West Africa regional project. This exciting career opportunity was both challenging and invigorating. While there, whether meeting with local midwives in the health facilities we support, working with local partner organizations to improve data collection, writing the annual report, or designing a theory of change and a logic model, I constantly reminded myself of the lessons I learned as a student of the Shepherd Program: 1. The emotional individual story initially drives us, but the data is necessary to impact long-term and systematic positive change; 2. If you’re not doing things and asking questions that make you feel a little uncomfortable, you’re not doing enough; and 3. Public interest deserves the devotion and skills of a professional because this work matters.
It was only through the thoughtfully designed, multifaceted, and comprehensive Shepherd Program that I was able to absorb these lessons with peers and faculty on parallel journeys to my own. A piece-meal academic program would not have provided the same value and galvanizing force in my professional trajectory. This is why it is so important that the Consortium continues to grow.