By Marty Levine, University Times
Kristen Maser Michaels works for Pitt, but she’s probably much better known outside the University.
Michaels leads CONNECT, the Congress of Neighboring Communities at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), which brings nearly all the municipalities surrounding Pittsburgh together to help coordinate their policies and public works.
CONNECT may be a bit hidden from the larger Pitt community, but it is well known throughout Allegheny County. More than 60 municipal managers, council members and mayors, along with county and City of Pittsburgh officials, showed up at its most recent meeting last month in Dormont to learn about new ways to coordinate with utilities so streets don’t have to be dug up multiple times in one year.
CONNECT is also the way GSPIA students link to jobs that use their degrees. GSPIA students from the Master in Public Administration program have worked with CONNECT and then gone on to be hired as the assistant manager in Robinson Township, the manager of Edgewood Borough and in many other local positions.
“They see what this work means out in the world and how policy is executed,” Michaels says of GSPIA students who get involved with CONNECT. “It’s been really incredible to watch that happen. And GSPIA has become the feeder to local government here.
“Being a manager of a local government is a massively important job,” she adds. “At the end of the day the buck stops there. Their job is not partisan. Their job is taking care of residents. I think these community servants should get so much credit for the work that they do.”
Michaels arrived at CONNECT in 2010, but it was only a part-time job at first, so after two years she left for a full-time job elsewhere. She returned to CONNECT full-time in 2013.
The organization began in 2009 with a focus on all 37 of the small towns that border the city of Pittsburgh, and today has all but one as members. Four nearby but non-contiguous municipalities also have asked to join the group, to take part in its work and benefits. CONNECT’s meetings regularly involve representatives from the Port Authority, the Allegheny County Health Department, the Department of Human Services and myriad other local officials who see an opportunity to bring coherence to the many simultaneous and complementary efforts undertaken locally.
“Instead of addressing this 40 different ways at 40 different times, they want to solve this in collaborative ways,” Michaels says.
“The newest and probably most hot topic we’re working on now is the opioid epidemic,” she notes. “I can’t see how there isn’t a role for local governments here.”
Through CONNECT, she has created a group that includes county officials and representatives of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, local ambulance companies, health providers and others to help determine what role local governments should play in grappling with the epidemic. A CONNECT forum on the subject is planned for this summer.
Other focal points include the ownership and maintenance of regional sewer systems; dealing with blight and abandoned properties; transportation issues; and coordination of infrastructure improvements. For the last issue, CONNECT is helping introduce municipalities to a common computer rendering of plans so they can upload detailed schematics of their intended work and allow utilities, plus state agencies that control some local streets, to work in concert.
In addition, CONNECT is collaborating with local paramedic services, which often face steep budget shortages, to seek better funding mechanisms. Michaels also has put together the CONNECT community paramedic program to target people who call 911 the most often for preventative care. These people are assigned a caseworker in their community who provides in-home services, keeping this group from overloading emergency rooms.
Michaels didn’t always think she was destined for such work.
Now 34, she grew up in Oakland and attended Miami University of Ohio as a journalism major, then interned after college at a large Chicago public relations firm.
“And I hated it. I didn’t fit at all,” she recalls.
Intending to move to Washington, D.C., she stopped back in Pittsburgh on the way. “Within a week of being here, I found myself with a job, an apartment, a car and a boyfriend,” she says. “The claws were in, and I was here.”
Her new job was in PR, but again, she didn’t feel comfortable; working as a marketer for a nonprofit environmental group wasn’t a good match for her either.
“Even doing marketing for a cause I care about just wasn’t right,” she says.
Then she saw the ad for executive director of CONNECT.
“I was kind of a weird applicant,” she admits; GSPIA was likely looking for someone with a public policy background, she says.
But when the school learned about Michaels’ work volunteering with local nonprofits on her own time — at Kelly School in Wilkinsburg, for instance — they recognized her organizational skills.
“I feel like I got really lucky,” Michaels says.
She has since cofounded Free Store Wilkinsburg, where of course all the merchandise is given away. Begun in December 2015, it was modeled after Braddock’s Free Store, founded earlier by Giselle Fetterman, wife of the town’s mayor.
“The concept is pretty naïve,” Michaels admits. “I just thought that it was beautiful. The concept is amazing. You come and take what you need, no questions asked, and you give what you can.”
Last month she launched a new local nonprofit called For Good PGH with Fetterman to inspire local businesses “to create positive experiences for people,” she says. Perhaps a local hair salon will offer free haircuts to foster parents and kids, or a restaurant will serve to homeless people the same meals it serves to paying customers.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t trying to make this a fairer place for people,” Michaels concludes. “I’m just lucky I get to do this work in my day job and outside my day job.
“People who say ‘I hate politics’ have always driven me crazy,” she says. “There’s no ‘they’ who are politicians. At the end of the day it’s about how we as a country are going to take care of people.”
One positive from the election of Donald Trump as president, she says, is encountering people who say: “‘I’ve never cared before — now I care.’ They’re paying attention. Neighbors are going to school board meetings who made fun of me before for all I do.”
Adds Michaels: “I hope the fact that the University is engaging in activities that are having a really positive effect on the municipalities that comprise our region is something the University can feel very proud of.”