MPA ALUMNI PROFILES
Senior Program Associate, Public Works: The Demos Center for the Public Sector
*The profile below was written before Mejia joined Public Works in July 2010, and when she was with the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center in Raleigh.
Elaine Mejia loves numbers, statistics, and the economy. More than that, she enjoys explaining them to other people. *At the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, she has ample opportunity to do just that through published reports, TV appearances, and a weekly radio commentary where she discusses topics such as state budget tax policy and how the downturn in the economy will affect state revenues. "I consider it my biggest success," she says, "when I've made a complex economic issue understandable—when another person feels empowered to talk about the issue on their own. That's my favorite moment."
Elaine's MPA experience had a direct impact on her ability to communicate clearly. "As students, we were trained to be clear and succinct. We learned to do enough research to be comfortable with a topic, and then had to limit our published brief to two pages."
She also talks about the program's emphasis on collaboration. "I had to learn how to be both a leader and a follower, and to understand the difference between leadership and control. That's useful now," she says, "as there are very few things you can decide on your own when you're trying to affect public policy. The MPA program was all about making every collaborative working experience as successful as it can be."
There was a gap between finishing the MPA program and becoming a manager, as Mejia worked as an analyst for the Orange County Budget Office then as a senior fiscal policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center before becoming director of the Budget & Tax Center. But she brings some innate and some learned skills to the task. "I like seeing when I've helped someone feel good about their work." Mejia says that can happen by being present to people in their work, not in an overbearing way, but in a way that can support what they're doing. "I ask, "what's in the way of what you want to accomplish? Is there a way I can help you get past it?'" And she makes sure the Center and her staff have the resources needed to do their work. "I would never have thought of myself as a fundraiser," she says, "but I love asking people for money to support the amazing work we're doing." The Budget & Tax Center focuses on state budget priorities, tax policies, and economic policies as they impact working families in North Carolina.
Mejia says that she learned a lot about how to create success from the MPA program, but also about how to manage failure. She was asked to re-write an early assignment in the program. She did, and got an "A" on the revision. "I learned two things from that experience," she says. "I learned that the program is a place with high standards. And also, that the professors are much more focused on helping you learn and grow than on ranking or judging you. At this point, I have a lot of mistakes under my belt, but I follow that early model of plowing through, learning from my mistakes, and trying not to make them again. That was a very empowering experience."
Working in state and county budget offices as a Governor's Public Management Fellow and then a staff analyst was a good early fit with Elaine's interests in economics, but eventually she became interested in the role of government and what it should do, rather than in how to do it. She says, "The MPA program gives you a wide range of skills that are generally useful in any field of public service. Not only has it allowed me to end up in a role that I'm really comfortable with, but I would challenge anyone to prove that they've used a higher percentage of their MPA courses than I have."