Think tank, the Western Massachusetts Policy Center, setting up shop in Northampton

By MERCY LINGLE

For the Recorder

Published: 07-10-2023 2:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Western Massachusetts Policy Center could have been called the “Eastern Massachusetts Policy Center,” or even the “Washington D.C. Policy Center,” but founder and CEO Lauren Rollins chose western Massachusetts as a base location for her new training and educational school for policy.

A native of the greater D.C. area who relocated to western Massachusetts to get her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Rollins has observed that the region is often underrepresented in public policy matters and by the think tanks that provide expert analysis and recommendations on important social, economic, legal and governance issues.

That’s a void she hopes the Western Massachusetts Policy Center will fill starting later this year. At its core, the center will serve as a strategic partner and producer of anti-racist, grassroots public policy research. The center will do this by prioritizing engagement with local communities, incorporating diverse perspectives in policy discussions and allowing historically disenfranchised individuals to lead policy discussions, Rollins explained.

“The WMPC aims to provide the necessary resources and strategies to successfully bridge the gap between those with the power to make policy and the people those policies generally affect,” Rollins said a statement announcing the center’s launch.

Though she has yet to nail down a physical building for the center, Rollins plans to operate within Northampton and make the center’s services available across Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties. Once fully operational, the center will primarily be an educational space for people who are interested in becoming advocates, legislators or policy researchers.

Unlike a traditional think tank model, which Rollins describes as “top-down,” the Western Massachusetts Policy Center will pay fellows to go through a one-year training program that will ground them in specific branches of policy education, giving them hands-on experience to prepare them for the field. These fellows will be granted a $50,000 salary with benefits, paid vacation and housing, rather than having to pay to attend as is often the case with traditional bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in policy or political science. Rollins anticipates funding will come from community donations, local businesses and others who are interested in supporting anti-racism initiatives.

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The center plans to launch its first year of operation at the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024. Rollins’ ideal group of fellows for the first wave of trainees would consist of six people — two who have experiences in broken systems and who are focused on community work, two who are primarily concerned with doing the research necessary to support policy formation and two who are aspiring legislators.

No academic degrees are required to apply to the Western Massachusetts Policy Center. In fact, as the center itself functions as an alternative learning space, fellows with formal degrees will likely be in the minority.

The fellows will begin in a lecture-based environment, guided by Rollins and the other members of the board. They will learn the basics of policy, including the foundations of policy making, various legal barriers in writing policy and the details of lobbying. However, they will transition into action-based learning.

For example, Rollins stated she imagines a fellow might join the center with experience in the foster care system. This person would then bring their expert knowledge about the faults in that system to the center. From there, this individual could apply their growing understanding of policy, legislation and advocacy to address problems they identify.

The genesis for the Western Massachusetts Policy Center began in 2017 when Rollins was working on completing her dissertation at UMass Amherst. Political turmoil was at an all-time high and, rather than sitting in a classroom and talking about Shakespeare, she switched gears and accepted a position at a right-leaning think tank in Washington D.C.

She was soon promoted to head a policy team, and began advocating to end the company’s gender wage gap. Shortly after, she was fired. That led her to move back to western Massachusetts and begin setting up the policy center, which she claims will be the “only think tank in the country that’s open to the public.” Rollins has also worked as an adviser to Equity Based Dialogues for Inclusion, a diversity, equity and inclusion organization in Cambridge.

Joining Rollins in the endeavor are board members Ahmmad Brown, an assistant professor at the Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy; Christa L. Colly, the board secretary and a local therapist; William Johnson, treasurer and recent retiree after working for 25 years in finance management; and LaTonia Naylor, a local advocate who works primarily as a representative on the school board in Springfield.

While the center is working on recruiting fellows for the coming year, it is also actively working to promote voices from underrepresented groups. Currently, the center is asking people in western Massachusetts to submit stories via Instagram detailing instances in which they have been a part of a “broken, unfair or unjust system.” To submit these stories, one can find the link on Instagram at “wmasspolicy.”

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