Alumna Cori Fain MPA-DP ’19 was a John D. Solomon Public Service Fellow during the 2018-19 school year. Now she works for the mayor’s office in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. SIPA News recently spoke with Fain about her work to strengthen the state’s most populous city amid the COVID-19 crisis. She also offered advice to students on getting the most out of their time at Columbia.
What role do you currently have in Mayor Randall Woodfin's administration and what is the scope of your responsibilities?
I serve as the director of strategic programs for Birmingham Strong, an agile public-private COVID-19 response vehicle in the city of Birmingham. We work alongside Mayor Woodfin, the city of Birmingham, and other public and private partners to build community resilience by ensuring that Birmingham’s residents and small businesses have access to necessary resources throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We pursue this vision through a two-part economic stabilization strategy: fortifying small businesses and empowering workers to meet community needs.
As the director of strategic programs, my responsibility is to develop, implement, and oversee programs that support our vision and promote community resilience. The Birmingham Service Corps, the flagship program of our organization, builds off the existing tradition of service within our community by enlisting recently unemployed workers as paid volunteers focusing on emerging community needs. To date, our service corps programs include a call center providing technical assistance for community members and small businesses attempting to access resources provided by the federal CARES Act, health screenings in public housing communities, and a sew-op of mask makers.
How is the city of Birmingham responding to the current crisis? What areas of strength have you witnessed?
COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally. The average Birmingham Strong worker was previously employed in an hourly position, most often as a food-service or retail worker. The city of Birmingham realized this at the start of the pandemic and moved mountains to support the creation and funding of Birmingham Strong. I believe this action speaks volumes about Mayor Woodfin’s work to put people first in an “all hands on deck” approach.
How did your time at SIPA prepare you? What is a class, professor, or experience that contributed to your success now?
During my time at SIPA, I took Leadership and Urban Transformation taught by Mayor Michael Nutter [SIPA professor and former mayor of Philadelphia]. This course was crucial in helping me understand the importance of transformational leadership and vision at the local level. In addition, Mayor Nutter's course exposed me to all aspects of a crisis for a city, including the importance of being innovative and imaginative to drive change across a wide range of urban issues. Mayor Nutter empowered me to grow as a public servant and continues to invest in me even after my time at SIPA.
What insights would you share with Seeples as they transition into the workforce amidst the COVID-19 crisis?
When I graduated SIPA less than a year ago, I never imagined that life would bring me home to fight a pandemic. Yet here I am. Be kind to yourself as you graduate. Stay true to your purpose, but let go of those rigid ideas around what “success after SIPA” looks like. Now, more than ever, we need public servants who believe in science, understand that inequality is growing, and are willing to stand in the gap and hold communities together.
— Daniel E. White MPA ’20