Harnessing the Power of Narrative in City Leadership

August 31, 2018
City Leaders gathered around a conference table

Harnessing the Power of Narrative in City Leadership

August 31, 2018
City Leaders gathered around a conference table

Harnessing the Power of Narrative in City Leadership

August 31, 2018

Aug. 31, 2018 - When Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mayor G.T. Bynum delivered his State of the City address in November 2017, it was full of statistical analysis, key data points, and listed goals.

“It was an audit,” Bynum later realized–informative, but not particularly compelling.

This year, he wants members of the Tulsa community to experience something different: a State of the City narrative, bringing together his personal story, the community’s collective story, and a call to action.

Bynum and 39 other mayors spent a full day in July learning about how–and why–to structure this type of narrative from Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz and his team. Ganz has decades of experience in community organizing, and one focus of his work at the Harvard Kennedy School is what he calls ‘public narrative’–a way of harnessing the power of narrative to do the work of leadership, enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.

In July 2018, 40 mayors began their year of Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative programming with a three-day convening in New York City. The first day of the convening was devoted to Ganz’s public narrative, which gave mayors like Bynum a chance to reflect on how they frame city challenges, issues, and goals when addressing others.

The public narrative framework includes three pieces, Ganz explained to the mayors: what he calls the ‘story of self,’ the ‘story of us,’ and the ‘story of now.’

Using videos from his past workshops and even clips of stirring speeches from movies, Ganz broke down the three pieces of the framework for mayors and explained the need for each one.

Telling a ‘story of self’ can begin building a relationship with one’s listeners (or constituency) by illustrating why you’ve been called to leadership, This requires sharing specific moments of personal experience, as Joyce Craig, the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, realized during class.

Ganz asked Craig to try out a ‘story of self’ at the beginning of the workshop, and as she spoke, he kept pushing her to get more specific, asking her to share specific moments in which she learned to care. The more specific the details, the more emotionally present she can be, he explained, and this enables others to “get” the meaning a moment actually had for her.

“It makes you realize how important those details are,” Craig said.

She planned to think more about her ‘story of self’ upon returning to Manchester, Craig said, because she believes telling it to constituents will help her connect with them.

“Sharing your personal story, what motivates you and what challenges you’ve encountered and overcome, that shows you’re just like anyone else in the community,” she said.

The ‘story of us,’ Ganz continued in the second part of the workshop, evokes specific moments of shared experience among the listeners that bring shared values to life. These are moments in which the group of people experienced a challenge, had to deal with it, and learned from it. They are moments of both challenge and hope, with the potential to result in a collective choice to work together because of what is shared.

Ganz asked several of the mayors to practice developing a ‘story of us’ to unite the group in the room. They each tried to speak about a shared experience, whether a shared excitement from earlier that day, or the shared experience of deciding to run for mayor.

To hear other mayors speak about their group as a whole was “really powerful,” said Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California. He said it illustrated the unique ability they have as a group because each mayor can affect change in their own community, so connecting with other mayors magnifies that power to affect change.

For Bynum, the demonstrations of ‘story of us’ created a feeling of humility and of community. They highlighted the similarities between the mayors, making him feel that they speak a shared language and understand one another’s struggles.

“I realized I’m not unique in what led me to being mayor,” Bynum said, “but I’m also not alone.”

Both Tubbs and Bynum said they’ve used the ‘story of us’ before, though they may not have called it that. They remembered speeches given to constituents, staff, or community groups, where they mentioned issues in the group’s collective memory or collective awareness, and told the audience of their value, as a group, as the best people to address these issues.

“It was not as formalized as this when I spoke about the ‘story of us’ previously,” Tubbs said. “Now, I appreciate the structure and how to do it very intentionally.”

Ganz noted that all three pieces of the public narrative framework are designed to “bring craft, intention, and purpose.”

“We’re taking what you know implicitly, and making it explicit,” he said.

Ganz explained that the ‘story of self’ and ‘story of us’ center on moments in the past–moments of individual or collective challenge that required choices, and had outcomes that helped them learn. The ‘story of now’ centers on the present moment, Ganz said: “a moment, in which we’re confronted with an urgent challenge to which we must find the hope and the courage to respond.”

Telling a ‘story of now’ that resonates means looking at a current challenge and “bringing out the emotional force of the challenge, not muting it,” he said. “Then, finding sources of hope in shared values, and turning the challenge into a choice, and offering a strategic pathway to action.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he has certainly used the ‘story of now’ as a politician running for office, but hasn’t used it much since taking office in January 2017. A very straightforward “pathway to action” is asking people to vote, but mayors in office working on specific issues aren’t always able to articulate pathways to action as easily.

“We need to use this framework while governing, not just while running,” Stoney said.

He said he plans to use all three pieces of the framework upon returning to Richmond.

“I’m focused on shepherding some big projects this year,” Stoney said, “so I can use public narrative to help ‘humanize’ what needs to be done, for who, and why. Everybody will want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’ when it comes to investments in the city. This will give us a way to answer that.”

Twenty-two Harvard graduate students take their talents to U.S. and international cities

June 10, 2022, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the flagship program of the Bloomberg Center for Cities, is pleased to announce the 2022 Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellows. This group of 22 outstanding Harvard Master’s and professional degree students was selected from a highly capable pool of more than 150 applicants from across nine Harvard Schools.

Briana Acosta
Briana Acosta
Kitchener, Canada
Building Resilience: Supporting Youth Mental Health Post-Pandemic
Larisa Barreto
Larisa Barreto
San Juan, PR
Improving Trash Collection Services
Virginia Carefoote
Virginia Carefoote
Salt Lake City, UT
Public Private Partnership Neighborhood Development
Liz Cormack
Liz Cormack
Kansas City, MO
Mapping the Journey Back to the Community After Incarceration

Students will work in local government in the following cities, all recent participants in the Initiative’s programming for mayors and senior city leaders:

  • Amarillo, Texas
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Bogotá, Colombia
  • Brownsville, Texas
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Green Bay, Wisconsin
  • Hampton, Virginia
  • Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Islip, New York
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Kitchener, Canada
  • Moncton, Canada
  • Pomona, California
  • Portsmouth, Virginia
  • Riga, Latvia
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • San Juan, Puerto Rico (two Fellows)
  • Savannah, Georgia
  • Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Tshwane, South Africa


They will contribute meaningfully to innovating government services, applying the tools of data-driven decision-making, human-centered design, and cross-sector collaboration to help cities tackle complex challenges such as gun violence, youth mental health, equitable economic development, and homelessness, improving the lives of city residents.

Paul Dingus
Paul Dingus
Tshwane, South Africa
Building a Citizen Relations Platform To Improve Oversight and Transparency With Residents
Isabel Mejia Fontanot
Isabel Mejia Fontanot
San Juan, PR
Improving Trash Collection Services
Hayley Glatter
Hayley Glatter
Islip, NY
Activating Regional Aviation: Crafting a Marketing Strategy for Long Island MacArthur Airport
Ryan Herman
Ryan Herman
Amarillo, TX
Analyzing the Root Causes of Gun Violence to Create a Starting Point in Combating the Issue

Since 2018, the Initiative has placed 86 Harvard graduate students in paid summer roles in 59 U.S. cities and nine international cities (some with multiple placements). Fellows work closely with city leader supervisors, addressing complex problems such as affordable housing, community safety, early childhood development, equitable economic recovery, and racial equity and access. Fellows deliver work such as analyses, plan designs, and new resources to assist mayors and city staff in advancing key priorities.

Sohee Hyung
Sohee Hyung
Brownsville, TX
Shaping a New Economic Ecosystem: Gap Analysis for Brownsville’s NewSpace City
Wladka Kijewska
Władka Kijewska
Riga, Latvia
Spreading Joy in the Public Realm: Crafting an Urban Design Placemaking Plan
Jacob Metz
Jacob Metz
Green Bay, WI
Increasing Supplier Diversity, Procurement, and Contracting
Abdurrehman Naveed
Abdurrehman Naveed
Honolulu, HI
Assessing the Impact of Fiscal Policies on City Hiring Practices

This year’s class of Summer Fellows includes 12 graduate students from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), four from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, two from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one from the Harvard Divinity School, and one earning a joint degree at HKS and Yale Law School.

Jiwon Park
Jiwon Park
Moncton, Canada
Improving Social Amenities Through Coordinated Community Development and Municipal Planning
Jess Redmond
Jess Redmond
Scranton, PA
Expanding Economic Opportunity for Residents and Business Owners
Naomi Robalino
Naomi Robalino
Pomona, CA
Engage Pomona
Nicah Santos
Nicah Santos
Portsmouth, VA
A Whole Community Approach to Reducing Youth Gun Violence
Kacey Short
Kacey Short
Scottsdale, AZ
Increasing Engagement with Young Adults and Persons of Color in Scottsdale

“Summer Fellows are catalysts and emerging leaders,” said Pascha McTyson, the Initiative’s Program Manager for Student Engagement. “The Fellowship is beneficial to everyone—the students who apply their skills and capabilities and gain valuable exposure, and the cities that gain extra capacity and new knowledge and tools to innovate and serve their residents.”

Elena Sokoloski
Elena Sokoloski
Hampton, VA
Reimagining Public Safety: Analyzing Data to Provide Proactive, Effective, and Efficient Service Delivery
Kenashia Thompson
Kenashia Thompson
Savannah, GA
Holistic Approaches to Improving Public Safety
Brett Turner
Brett Turner
Chattanooga, TN
Understanding How Many People Are Experiencing Chronic Homelessness and Their Needs
Cina Vazir
Cina Vazir
Bogotá, Columbia
Evaluating Higher Education Conditional Cash Transfer Programs
Emma Winiski
Emma Winiski
Baltimore, MD
OpioidStat

Seven emerging leaders take up new roles in US cities

August 4, 2022, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the flagship program of the Bloomberg Center for Cities, is pleased to announce the first recipients of the Bloomberg Harvard City Hall Fellowship. Seven accomplished Harvard graduates have accepted positions in city halls around the country, where they will make significant contributions over the next two years.

The City Hall Fellows are working in these cities, which have participated in the Initiative’s programming for mayors and senior city leaders:

  • Boise, Idaho
  • Pueblo, Colorado
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Springfield, Illinois
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Syracuse, New York
  • Knoxville, Tennessee

The Bloomberg Harvard City Hall Fellowship places Harvard master’s or professional degree graduates into leadership positions in city halls, where they will contribute to lasting change by applying skills and helping build capabilities in city government. The Fellows will help their host cities tackle pressing and significant challenges identified by each mayor. Central to each Fellow’s work will be strengthening their host city’s capacity to sustain the work beyond the two-year fellowship term.

The inaugural class of City Hall Fellows includes three master’s degree graduates of Harvard Kennedy School, two from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and two from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“I’m delighted by the knowledge and energy of this inaugural group of talented professionals,” said Bulbul Kaul, the Initiative’s Senior Program Director for City Support and Student Engagement. “The City Hall Fellows will take on complex challenges that are top priorities for each city’s leadership, ones that will benefit from fresh perspectives, new uses of data, and collaborative and innovative approaches to help diagnose and address the underlying causes and symptoms. We look forward to the cities’ future progress and accomplishments, achieved with their Fellows’ contributions over the next two years.”

The City Hall Fellowship team is planning future cohorts and will invite potential host cities to apply in fall 2022. Fellowship applications will open to eligible Harvard graduate students at that time, and the Initiative will announce the second annual cohort of Fellows in summer 2023, following a competitive application process. Fellows receive a competitive salary and benefits, robust professional development opportunities, and a unique opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

Visit our Fellowships page and join our email list to get the latest information.