As an out-of-state student from California, Matthew Mitnick was just beginning to learn about the City of Madison and its residents when he arrived to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a freshman in 2018.
But by the time of his graduation in May 2021, Mitnick had his pulse on the community, especially regarding public safety issues. Through his mayoral appointment to the Public Safety Review Committee, membership on several other city committees, and a run for City Council, Mitnick became heavily invested in the community.
This work informed his experience as a UniverCity Alliance intern during his senior year. Mitnick combed through hours worth of municipal meetings to identify community opinions, needs, and concerns around public safety in Madison.
His efforts to identify themes around public safety from both community members and city leaders informed health and safety goals, strategies, and actions that were ultimately incorporated into Madison’s framework for decision making. Madison’s City Council adopted these strategies into the city’s Performance Excellence Framework in August 2022.
“That’s everything I want when I work on things and when students get involved in local government: To see their work and their ideas actually be realized into public policy,” said Mitnick, who graduated in May 2021 with a degree in political science and a certificate in public policy. “It’s pretty special.”
These health and safety goals were needed. Madison is required by state law to have a comprehensive plan that guides long term growth in the city, however, a health and safety component is not required.
Because of this, when Madison included health and safety as an element in its Performance Excellence Framework–a framework to reinforce best organizational practices that align with the city’s comprehensive plan–the city did not have an accompanying list of goals, strategies, and action.
“We knew this was missing since 2018,” City of Madison Performance Excellence Specialist Kara Kratowicz said. “I wanted to prioritize the work but competing priorities and the multi-agency effort required made it hard to begin.”
This is when UniverCity Alliance (UCA) was able to align resources at UW–Madison to meet the city’s needs. UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter connected Kratowicz with Mitnick, who was enrolled in his “Welcome to Your Urban Future” course.
At the time, Kratowicz had just been appointed to UCA’s Advisory Board by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and Mitnick was a member of the city’s Public Safety Review Committee, making him a natural fit for the project.
“It was in that very first UCA meeting that I (explained the gap in Madison’s framework) and then this partnership was paired,” Kratowicz. “It was clear to me that people are listening and willing to help me and the city, which was amazing and timely.”
Kratowicz said the project moved fairly quickly. Mitnick’s research “set the tone and pace” for the second stage of the project on public health.
“It was a milestone in a larger project timeline,” Kratowicz said.
Take ‘young people seriously’
Mitnick compiled existing data from public testimony shared during city meetings throughout 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, interviewed city agency subject matter experts, and synthesized the information.
For Mitnick, the work was an exercise in balancing his own opinions and previous work on public safety with the knowledge that local government must consider all perspectives when addressing issues.
“If we want to do a human-centered design, we have to be able to source where we got our input,” Mitnick said. “Although I’m in community with folks, I’m not in community with everyone. That also gave me a broader lens about local government as a whole where you have to be intentional about facilitating public engagement.”
Building on Mitnick’s public safety research, Kratowicz worked with an intern through the city’s Affirmative Action Student Professionals In Residence (AASPIRE) program to research public health practices and analyze local health-related data.
Together, the pair’s research resulted in nine strategies and 37 actions that are now included in the city’s performance excellence framework. City agencies are now aligning annual budget requests for realizing health and safety results across these strategies and actions. Progress will be reported out annually with the updates to the Imagine Madison comprehensive plan.
“It was really exciting to get this big project that I had identified as a need years prior through to a place where it’s formally adopted as a city,” Kratowicz said.
While the city was able to accomplish a long held goal, Mitnick also benefited as a student from partnering with Madison through UCA.
“It really made my experience as a student–the ability to work on an issue that I was already in community with folks on–very personal for me,” Mitnick said. “The mentorship that I had from folks over at UW–Madison on this project was second to none. It was fantastic.”
Additionally, the process illustrated to Mitnick the possibilities that can happen when “local government takes young people seriously.” In Mitnick’s mind, civic participation improves and local government more authentically represents the community when young people are given the opportunity to participate.
“It doesn’t matter if you lived here for 30 years or you just moved to a location, your voice matters, and these strategies and actions will impact people’s lives, for better or worse. It’s going to set up how the city operates,” Mitnick said. “As a student, it was very gratifying to see.”
Mitnick is now a graduate student at the University of Washington pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. He serves on the Human Rights Commission and is running for Seattle City Council, District 4.
No matter what students are studying while at UW–Madison, Mitnick recommended taking courses that partner with UCA because “local government is a place where it all comes together.”
“We need people from very diverse backgrounds and interests working on these issues because local government doesn’t just impact people who follow local government or study it or care about it,” Mitnick said. “You interact with local government when you walk on the sidewalk, ride the bus, you name it.”
Even if students don’t work in local government, learning how to civically engage in their community is valuable.
“Students should get involved with UniverCity Alliance because they will realize how their interests fit into the sphere of local government,” Mitnick said. “I think that’s pretty special and very unique to UW–Madison.”