Episode 9: Yasmine Robinson

BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Implementing Public Policy (IPP) alum, Yasmine Robinson, to hear more about how she is utilizing what she learned in the program as she works to resolve public problems.

Yasmine Robinson is an environmentalist and urban planner who seeks to bring people closer to their natural environment through policy and planning. Yasmine currently serves as the Environmental Review Program Administrator for the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, and has previously served as Senior Environmental Planner at the New York City Department of City Planning and as Deputy Director of the City of Albany Department of Planning & Development. Yasmine earned her Masters of Urban Planning from the City University of New York, Hunter College and currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota. To learn more about Yasmine's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, PDIA Helped me Find my Way and my Voice.

For more information on Harvard Kennedy School's Implementing Public Policy (IPP) program, visit the website, read about the PDIA approach, and access the PDIA toolkit.


Salimah Samji Hello and welcome to the practice of resolving public problems podcast series. My name is Salimah Samji and I am the Director of Building State Capability at the Harvard Center for International Development. This new series on the practice of resolving public problems features interviews with alums of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive program at the Harvard Kennedy School. The episodes will focus on how our alums are using the PDIA tools and approach in designing and implementing public policy. We hope you enjoy them. Today, I'm speaking with Yasmine Robinson, who is an environmentalist and urban planner who seeks to bring people closer to their natural environment through policy and planning. Yasmine currently serves as the Environmental Review Program Administrator for the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board and has previously served as senior environmental planner at the New York City Department of City Planning and as Deputy Director of the City of Albany, Department of Planning and Development. Yasmine completed our IPP program in December 2019 and currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota. Welcome, Yasmine.

Yasmine Robinson Thank you.

Salimah Samji So, Yasmine, let's get started. It's been almost two years since you completed the IPP program. What do you still remember as being useful?

Yasmine Robinson I think the two most useful pieces that I took away from that IPP program are, first, the Ishikawa diagram of deconstructing the problem. I think that is super valuable, especially when working with other people that you need to engage in your problem solving activity. And I think because it's visual, that helps people to be able to see what's contributing and where, you know, where this could possibly go. I think the second part that has really been wonderful is the Triple A change space. That idea of needing authority, ability, acceptance in order to have a successful policy, whatever that may be, has really been powerful for me and has been also really powerful for people that I have shared that with. Another, you know, semi visual is there in that guide and showing people, you know, if you have one of those but not the other, you know, your outcome might not be what you are hoping for. And that helps you to be able to engage people or resources that you need to be able to get all three of those.

Salimah Samji You know, most people who have engaged with PDIA, whether it's through our executive education programs or other ways where, places where we've worked with country teams, it is the Triple A that they find to be really, really powerful because in places where they thought they could do nothing, at least identifying, like you say, what you're missing (is that authority, is that acceptance? Is it ability?) now, you know, you can build those and you can take smaller steps to do that, but you can actually build what it is that you don't have. Can you share some examples of how you've used some of the things that you've learned in our program?

Yasmine Robinson Sure. So I think, you know, with the triple change space, I was working on one project that was design and construction of a bike lane. And there were a lot of pieces to that puzzle for a variety of different elements. So it was a very dynamic and evolving project. But I was able to use Triple A change space to help people internally that I worked with in the city to say, OK, we need to get this width of the path for even very simple things. At one point we have a pinch point in the path and we have to hop onto a road, you know, so there's a lot of a lot of people involved. There's the state, there's the county, there's the railroad, there's internal. And how do you organize all of these, all of these different people who all have different motivations, people who are hoping for different outcomes. How do you get them all to agree on one thing? And even, you know, even in policy like a bike lane is the policy. It's not a written policy, but it's the city deciding we're going to have this, and that's a policy. So I was able to use that to organize, you know, large groups of people into saying, OK, this is what we're doing. This is why we're doing it. We need you to help work on this piece. We need this other group to help work on this other piece. And sometimes, you know, it's like throwing spaghetti at the wall. This is true, but when you have these sort of guiding principles, it helps you keep your eye on the ball.

Salimah Samji And how did that work out?

Yasmine Robinson Yeah, it worked out. Everything, you know, the bike path is built. People are using it. I love it. It's great. So, you know, it's you know, I think everyone has a different view of what success is. And for that project, my view of success was it's built, people are using it, and people are experiencing their environment in a different way on a bike that they hadn't been able to before. And we actually saw people saying, Hey, we want more of this, like this was really great to be able to to bike around and not feel threatened by traffic and to be off of the road. So that's how I define success in that case. And I definitely would not have gotten there without PDIA.

Salimah Samji That definitely sounds like success to me, Yasmine. Whatever other people's idea of success might be. You mentioned earlier how you've shared some of these learnings with your colleagues. If you could share a little bit about how you did that. You were the one who came to the program, you're the one who had this moment and felt that your views have changed, but the people in your office hadn't. And how did you kind of deal with bringing these new ideas to them?

Yasmine Robinson So when I got back from the class, I was extremely excited to share all of this information. I was really pumped, especially from meeting everyone else and seeing how other people were interpreting this information. And so I really wanted to share that with my colleagues. And so I set up a meeting immediately and we went through the whole guide. But I am definitely not as good of a teacher as Matt Andrews. So there was a few things I think that I may have lost in translation. But I think the really important part of that experience was being with the other people. And so I was trying to give that to the staff and give them that document. But I think that there's a little bit missing when it's, you know, just one person. But there's still a lot that you can pass on through sharing the experience of actually doing this and seeing it work. And when people see something that works, they want to do it. They want results, they want forward movement. So one of the best ways that I was able to use it was kind of in smaller ways, you know, and showing success and then people saying, Hey, how did you do that? And I'd say I used a lot of what I learned from PDIA. I think you can get a lot out of it when you're working in a group more than just when somebody is explaining it to you.

Salimah Samji There is definitely something to be said about learning in a group and being able to have discussions and create a shared language and understanding of whether it's the problem or the tools, et cetera.

Yasmine Robinson Another thing that I really took from PDIA was making relationships, strategic relationships. Especially when you're working in government, I think a lot of the time you're going to be in the middle of a lot of opinions. You know, it's sometimes I felt like you can't really please anybody. And especially when you're working in communities that have been historically marginalized through systemic racism, through redlining, all of these well-documented things that we know have happened and are still happening. There's a lot of trust building that you have to do, and you have to go in to those communities with a lot of humility. And not that I didn't know that before, but PDIA really showed me the power of doing that. And I think helped me see how others saw me because I see myself as just, you know, like just Yasmine. Just going along, doing her thing. You know, no one, no one special. But someone else from a community sees me as a high level government person who's making decisions about their life. So I would have to go into these communities and really try to see myself with the power that I had. Which is a strange, you know, it is a strange concept, but you know, whenever I have a Zoom meeting, even like any sort of public meeting, I check myself. I'm like, this is how they see me. And you have to work really hard to let people know that you care about what you do. And there's also an element of that where you may have to educate people about processes that are confusing even to people in government. You know, things that don't totally make sense all the time and help them to be able to use those processes to interact in a meaningful way or to make change in a way that they want to see. So another thing that I found really powerful through using these tools and through this process was teaching other people how to get the results that they want. At one point I thought, you know, I'm just the conduit of the information here. They have the energy, the knowledge that they have to be able to make changes, and I'm just here helping them get the tools out of the toolbox.

Salimah Samji I love it. You know, this is such a powerful example that you've shared this idea of trust, this idea of humility and being able to empower others. You know, like build their capability to be able to do this as well and that's not just about you. And those are just really wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing. You know, everyone who takes the IPP program joins the community of practice at the end, and then they stay in the community of practice and every new cohort that comes joins the community. What does the IPP community of practice mean to you?

Yasmine Robinson To me, the IPP community is a soft place to land. I think it's a place that's bubbling with ideas, with experiences, with knowledge. This group of people can mobilize really quickly. If you have a question like you can bring it to them and you will get a variety of different responses, different opinions, different backgrounds. Everyone in this community is extremely kind. You know, I think it's one of, if not the largest asset that I've taken away from, the whole experience is just being able to throw something out to this group of people internationally and get a response 24 seven. In the middle of the night, somebody is thinking about the question that I've asked or, you know, really lifting each other up, encouraging each other to keep going. You know, these people all know that this work is hard and that you will have ups and downs. But you know, even on days when I felt really down about what I'm doing or that I'm not making progress, I've thrown that out to people in the community and they say, No, you have to keep going. Everything you're doing is amazing and having a group of people like that is so valuable for your professional development, for your mental health. No, I can't say enough good things about this group.

Salimah Samji You know, Matt Andrews and I often say that this IPP community that we have created is by far the most impactful thing that we have done for exactly the kinds of reasons that you are mentioning. You know, we stand on the sidelines literally of this community and we just watch how much support there exists for community members and how they're just there for each other, whether it's sharing photos of babies born or deaths in the family or in most recently, Russia's invasion of Ukraine. With two members of our community who are living in the Ukraine and just watching the community rally its support is just really, really humbling for us as well. So as part of this podcast, I have a series of rapid-fire questions that I'm asking all the people who come on to this podcast. The first one is what are you currently reading?

Yasmine Robinson Well, I am currently reading two books. One is called Selbu Mittens by Anne Bardsgard, and it is about the history of traditional Norwegian mittens, which I think are really cool. And if you are into textiles or knitting or crafts or history, I suggest you look at this book, Selbu Mittens. And I just started a second book called Yellow Bird Oil Murder and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdock. And I'm only 13 pages into this, but it is great.

Salimah Samji I like the diversity of those options that you're reading. What's your favorite part of PDIA?

Yasmine Robinson My favorite part of PDIA is when people start to see things happening. Because it creates so much momentum, you know, and especially when you're working on a problem that's been really hard or a problem that has been worked on before and because of, in my case, you know, sometimes in government, you go through a process to fix something, but it doesn't always get to the best result. And so people keep working on the same different generations of government, keep working on the same problem. And when you can start seeing even a little bit of movement on that, I think it's really catalytic and you want to keep going. And bringing other people with me on that I think has been the most rewarding piece is empowering other people because if I keep these tools to myself, then I just keep them to myself and maybe I'll see some results. But if I can get everyone else going to and keep them motivated and excited, that is to me the most amazing thing I could do.

Salimah Samji What advice do you have for listeners who are working on public problem-solving?

Yasmine Robinson You probably went into this work because you see a lot that needs to change, that needs to be fixed. You see opportunity. But I think it's also really important to not let that totally take over. I think I've seen this, you know, with people who are super motivated, super high performing that they just never turn off. And I think it is really important to set healthy boundaries so that you have time for your brain to rest. Because if you burn out, you're not going to be able to work on your problems effectively. If you burn out, you're not going to be able to lead your team in a meaningful way. And if you burn out, you might lose your Joie de Vive and your, you know, and the excitement that brought you to that work in the first place. And then where are you? And I have a second piece of advice as well is that don't let it all be pinned on you. You know, you're probably especially if you're working in government, you're going to be working with a lot of different groups of people, a lot of different circumstances, and you're not going to be able to solve everything. But if you see where you can start chipping away and where you can build a community around you who can work on other pieces of the puzzle, you'll be able to do a lot more.

Salimah Samji I think our listeners will really value your advice, self-care and building a team or a community. Because you cannot, these are really complex problems, and you cannot go at it alone. Well, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your experience with us today, Yasmine, it's been a real pleasure.

Yasmine Robinson Thanks.

Salimah Samji Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website bsc.cid.harvard.edu. Or follow us on social media @HarvardBSC. You can also find links and other information under the description of this podcast.