EJB Talks Podcast

EJB Talks Alumnus Brandon McKoy

EJB Talks–Brandon McKoy MCRP ’13 on Policy and Strengthening Democracy in New Jersey

February 6, 2024
Stuart Shapiro returns for our 10th season of EJB Talks with alumnus Brandon McKoy MCRP ’13, who was recently named the president of The Fund for New Jersey. An alumnus of the Bloustein School’s urban planning program, Brandon talks about his recent career advancement, including an overview of previous role at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and his earlier time at The Fund for New Jersey. Brandon and Stuart discuss priorities for the Fund, such as supporting inclusive policymaking and strengthening democracy through improvements to electoral processes, legislative transparency, and civic engagement in New Jersey. They wrap up with Brandon sharing the message he tries to convey to Bloustein students in the classroom, encouraging them to understand the historical context of the issues they are looking at.

 

 

Transcript:

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapira, the dean of the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues and our alumni in the fields of policy planning and health are doing.

This marks the start of our 10th season of podcasting. To start the season, we are bringing back and alumni of our urban planning program, Brandon McCoy, who recently won our alumni Rising Star Award. But it may not be fair to call Brandon “rising” anymore with his new position as President of the Fund for New Jersey. Brandon appears to have risen. Brandon is also the first three-time guests to the podcast.

Welcome back, Brandon!

Brandon McKoy
Thank you very much, Stuart, thank you for having me. It’s great to see you.

Stuart Shapiro
It’s good to see you again, too. So the last time we spoke, I think roughly a year and a half ago, maybe you had recently joined the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Before we get onto your new position. Can you talk a little bit about some of the work you did there?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah. So when I was at CBPP, you know, obviously, it’s a tremendous and stalwart organization that does a lot of very important policy work, both at the federal and the state level. Tax and budget, policy, work, housing, food, immigration, just health care, a whole bunch of stuff. And my job was actually in support of the National Network of State-Based Organizations. So in New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective is the member of that national network, but overall, it is 42 groups in total. Forty states plus DC and Puerto Rico, a total of 450 staff.

And actually I wasn’t doing a whole lot of policy work in this role. It was more so, thinking about how are we ensuring that these organizations that are healthy and sustainable. Policy work is not something that happens at the snap of a finger or overnight. And so if you’re going to be doing this work, you need to be around for the long haul. And how are we building pipelines of leadership, how are we really authentically incorporating principles of equity and inclusion and justice internally and externally with the work that we’re doing? And, how are we just being better partners?

You know, a lot of folks sort of think of policy work in this very, sort of top-down ivory tower, think tank sort of way. And, you know, from when I was at NJPP, I really tried to leave the organization to not be that. And as the goal for the entire network to is, how are we showing up and working alongside community, not on behalf of community? And so, yeah, it was two years and some change at the Center on Budget, really focusing on that for the entire network, I learned a whole lot of stuff. And it was great.

Stuart Shapiro
Fantastic. Was it the lack of policy work that brought you back to The Fund for New Jersey, or was it something else?

Brandon McKoy
I’m always, you know, trying to get my policy fix. So I did miss it a little bit. But, no, I think it was just, actually, no, I worked at The Fund for New Jersey as my first job out of grad school out of Bloustein.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
I was the first fellow that they had. And Kiki Jamison had just started working there as the President, about three months before she hired me. And so she announced around, I think, the middle of 2023, that she would be stepping down. And her family moved to Canada for a variety of very important reasons. And so, once she announced that I just had some folks ask me questions like, so we know, you just went off to do this thing. But what do you think about this opportunity?

Stuart Shapiro
Oh! ((laughing))

Brandon McKoy
And I think the world of Kiki, of course, and I think the world of the Fund itself. And I had a tremendous experience when I worked here previously as a fellow. And so, just very excited to be able to be, you know, guiding such an institution that has been at the forefront of a lot of really important policy and advocacy work across the state for so long and really supported issues that I think people may take for granted. But had been really important and significant to the landscape, the policy landscape and advocacy landscape of the state.

Well, let’s hear a little bit more about that. Can you, for our listeners who don’t know what The Fund for New Jersey is? Can you describe it a little bit, and talk about the kind of work it does?

Yeah. So on paper, it is a philanthropic foundation that provides grants to organizations that are 501C3s. You know, doing nonprofit work across the state. The organization focuses on organizations that are doing policy work. And so, when you look at our list of grantees over the years, you’ll find organizations like the ACLU, or the NJ Institute for Social Justice, or a variety of environmental organizations or housing-based organizations. And so, you know, the tagline is that we’re working to improve the quality of public policy decision-making, when it comes to the most significant issues that are affecting the people of New Jersey, and our region at large. And I like to think that my experience, you know–people know me as a policy person, and I am a policy person–but also just understanding, again, what it takes to do good work over a long period of time and helping organizations to do that work in a healthy fashion and in an impactful fashion. And, yeah, making sure that they’re able to grow and be strong and help, you know, folks think about what the future in New Jersey needs to be.

Stuart Shapiro
And is that… you talked a little bit earlier about sort of, policy with the community versus policy for the community. How does that fit in?

Brandon McKoy
So, I think, obviously encouragement. And maybe, kind urging, when it comes to what it is that we’re hoping to see across the state. And just making sure that when we are looking at what are the pressing issues in New Jersey, and what are the things that are getting a lot of attention, and then also things that are not getting so much attention. But are also super important. A lot of these things are about power ultimately, at the end of the day. And you know, which communities have power, which communities get actual attention, which communities are prioritized, and getting investments or getting invested in, you know, rather, broadly speaking. And taking the time to be a voice for and with communities that are often overlooked and historically marginalized, and making sure that anything that folks are working on, that is meant to improve the lives of people who are, you know, sort of struggling. That it is not done without their inclusion or their say so right? There’s a phrase or saying, you know, nothing about us without us.

And I do think there’s a bit of a wave here of more policy people, leadership, analysts, in general, taking that seriously and saying, well, you know, we haven’t fixed all these problems. ((laughing)) So maybe there’s something to the idea of, you know, let’s be more understanding and aware of what is the appropriate role for us to play? And how do we actually get to success?

Stuart Shapiro
Great. So how would you describe your priorities? What going to be different at The Fund for New Jersey? What’s going to be the same? There’s obviously a lot of good work going on there that you want to continue. But what new are you bringing to the organization?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah, I mean, I definitely am not trying to rock the boat for no reason. And I’ve actually, you know, I’ve been saying to folks over… I’ve been working for about a month now, in the role. I’ve been saying to folks because I folks like oh, what are you gonna change?

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing))

Brandon McKoy
I’ve been on the other side of, you know, as a recipient of grants of a program officer, or a new president, or whatever, coming into a foundation. And I don’t know if it’s like feeling like they need to justify their hire or whatever it may be, but like wanting to just sort of change everything. And even if they were to look at their predecessor and say, hey, there is a lot of good stuff here but sometimes still making decisions to change stuff.

And so like I said. I think the world of Kiki. I think the organization of the foundation has been tremendous. And so, there’s already a lot of great stuff happening here. And I’m not trying to just change it for change’s sake. So I’m still wrapping my arms around things and understanding what the landscape is and what’s happening. But one thing that I am particularly interested in seeing, or at least paying greater attention to, is just, you know. In the past few years of traveling the country and supporting the groups that were a part of the network that I worked with. I would share stories of advocacy and some of the work that I did in New Jersey. And most of the time I would get blank stares or mouths agape. And just when it came to how does our government work? Or how does how does democracy manifest here? And, you know, the only folks that didn’t look at me weird were folks in Illinois and Chicago. ((laughing)) They have their own sort of culture, you know, a notorious culture, sometimes, of how things work.

But really like, when it comes to respect for the role of the public and public policy? And when it comes to, I think really thinking about what does representation mean, what does democracy mean, at the local level, at the county level, at the state level, and everything in between, and the federal level of course. You know, New Jersey could be better about some of those things. And so, you know, I had my own experiences when I was president of NJPP and working as an analyst there. When it came specifically to the budget and the budget getting passed in 10 minutes. And nobody really had an opportunity to understand what was in it. And so this is a document that is spending $50 billion or more, right?

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
And so, those are not healthy public processes. Those are not things that encourage participation or generate much faith in the public when it comes to government. And we should take that seriously and actually change things to ensure that people, that the public are engaged in an authentic way when it needs to be. And that we are working on behalf of the public at all times.

Stuart Shapiro
So we’re wrestling with these questions of democracy writ large right now, right?

Brandon McKoy
Right.

Stuart Shapiro
I mean, on many different levels and many different aspects. But let’s focus on what you were talking about. They’re sort of the processes here in the state. What can an organization like The Fund for New Jersey do to sort of push for processes? And what would processes… I mean, you mention the budget as one, but what? What processes are the ones that you think are in the greatest need of changing in order to be a more democratic “small d” state?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah. You know, I think it’s… to me, it’s not so much about The Fund for New Jersey pushing for stuff. But it’s about some of your more stalwart institutions and organizations pushing for things. And so the things that ACLU has been working on, things that The Institute for Social Justice has been working on, New Jersey Policy Perspective, League of Women Voters. Like, you know, folks that have been attuned to these challenges and needs for a while, what is it they want to see? But you see some work around things like the electoral processes in New Jersey. And is it you know, a situation where people feel like anybody can run for office and have an honest shot?

Stuart Shapiro
Mmm hmm.

Brandon McKoy
And that has come up in recent weeks, in recent months, in recent years. Because of how New Jersey is very unique in having a ballot line and how that manifests and what impact that has on voters. And, you know, taking a real look at that and saying is that, you know, is that helping us have the strongest democracy that we can have? When it comes to just transparency about, you know, what bills that are being heard in the legislature? And how much time do people have to read those bills? And are amendments being made at the last second? And just things that just, you know. I think a lot of times, people have to find transparency by well, you know, lawmakers will say well, we have an understanding of it.

Transparency is not determined by whether lawmakers understood something. Transparency is determined by whether the public understood something. And so, you know, New Jersey is a very interesting place, right? Like North Jersey, there’s a lot of orientation to New York. And South Jersey, there’s a lot of orientation to Philly. And I think because of that, sometimes there’s a lot of things that don’t get brought to light or are allowed to sort of happen in quiet ways. But how are we increasing awareness and interest, most especially interest in what’s happening in our own backyards here and what’s happening in our name? Because this is our government, and they are making decisions on our behalf. Not always in ways that are with our say-so.

Stuart Shapiro
So let me try… let me make sure I understand. I would put sort of three buckets in what you talked about there. Electoral reform, you know, how we do elections, the party won on the ballot line and such. Legislative reform, how we pass laws and such. And then sort of a broader, maybe more nebulous, kind of how do we enhance engagement? And to what extent do the first two, help with the third? Are they necessary? Are they sufficient? What are your thoughts?

Brandon McKoy
Well, I think when the first two are weak, it harms the third.

Stuart Shapiro
Yes.

Brandon McKoy
When people don’t think that their vote matters, or when people think that their voice doesn’t matter. When people think that decisions are already made before the public has a chance to weigh in. Then it can depress you know, that third bucket. And you hear a lot of folks talk about their concerns when it comes to the health of democracy on like a national scale, and on a federal level. But like, that doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
You know, what happens at the state and local level influences that. And so how do we make sure that we are doing our level best here in New Jersey to strengthen and enhance the health of multiracial democracy so that the things that we see elsewhere improve? Like let’s, you know, hope will be the change you want to see in the world.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
But it’s weird to see, you know, some folks will complain about these things happening elsewhere or at the national level. Okay, well do what you can with what you have right here in front of you.

Stuart Shapiro
How do you… and this is one of my bugaboos. How do you overcome the mindset, though, that I see–and maybe it’s social media that makes it worse. But, you know, I didn’t get what I want. So democracy must not be working. And how do you move from sort of an outcome-focused understanding to more of a process-focused understanding? Because it may just be that more people want the opposite of what you want?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah. No, 100%. And I do think, oftentimes, I hear people talk about, well, obviously, they didn’t, you know… lawmakers or whoever didn’t succeed, and they must not care. It’s like, well, you know, not everybody is in agreement here. There are people who oppose that idea.

Stuart Shapiro
Right, exactly! ((laughing))

Brandon McKoy
They’re working just as hard ((laughing)) to either to prevent it from happening, or remove it from the books or whatever it may be. And so. I think there’s just, I mean, it can sound kind of quaint, or, you know, sometimes, but like, basic civic understanding and civic engagement about, like, how the processes work?

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah.

Brandon McKoy
And, you know, how does lawmaking work? And how does your local town council work? And know, what is the counter? When do things happen? You know, what does your mayor actually have the power to do? And what do they not have the power to do?

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
Maybe that’s a county executive thing, or maybe that’s a governor thing. Sometimes I’ve listened to folks calling to ask the governor, with Governor Murphy, and like, it’s great to hear people bring all sorts of issues and challenges to the most, you know, what seems to be the most powerful position in the state. But sometimes it’s stuff that is super local. It’s like the governor doesn’t have any control ((laughing))

That’s stuff, we used to have to discuss when I was at Bloustein, we had teachers that said home rule is the only rule, right? Like there are certain things that only municipal government can do.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
And so, just having a better understanding of that stuff. I think social media can be a very sort of toxic force. And like, it can make it just seem like everything’s terrible and awful all the time. And I do think sometimes there’s like, just being overwhelmed with information. And so to me, the salve is, hey, instead of like doing scrolling through Twitter all day, like, I’m gonna go to my town council meeting and like, be in community with the people that live around me. And what are the challenges that we’re all facing together? And let’s, let’s tackle some of these things.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, I agree. 100% there. So we’re lucky enough to have you teaching for us. As a senior policy fellow. Let’s, let’s wrap up by sort of bringing this back to the students to what you say to them in the classroom. What’s the message you give around these issues to your students?

Brandon McKoy
I try to encourage them to have a sense of history. And to understand what has happened before them. Like the world existed before you. ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
Believe it or not! ((laughing))

Brandon McKoy
Right, a novel idea. And sometimes it can feel like people are, as they are learning about these issues. They’re like, well, obviously, this is the answer. Obviously, here’s this fix. And why isn’t it just fixed already? It’s like, well. I’m sure if you look into it, you will find a fascinating story or reason as to why we have not fixed the thing, right.

And so… as somebody who, you know, I just turned 37. So I’m sort of, you know, getting to middle career now. But, you know, you look at me, I’ve got a young face. I look like I’m 25 or something. And I used to come up against people looking at me, like, who’s this young kid? You know, do you think I was like an intern from the newspaper when I was at the state house or something like that? ((laughing))

I found that, the more that I could clearly demonstrate that I not only understood, but appreciated the history of whatever history I was working on. And appreciated the efforts of people who came before me. And really, actually understood deeply, like, what worked and what didn’t, and why. And maybe why were things different now, or why were they not different now? I found that I was able to get a lot further by at least, you know, clearly communicating that type of stuff.

And so the thing that I teach about right now is the racial wealth gap. And it’s to sort of help students explore like, this is not like some act of nature. Like, this is something that exists as a policy choice. And so let’s explore the various policy decisions that have occurred over the history of this country and before its founding to get us here. And what are the things that keep it in place and like, understand that this is something that’s happening for a reason, not just because it has to be.

Stuart Shapiro
It’s not an act of nature for sure. That’s great. I will tell you eventually, the benefits of looking younger start to outweigh problems. ((laughing)) But I hear you. There was a time when it was it was a significant challenge.

Brandon, thank you so much for coming on. It’s great to talk with you again.

Brandon McKoy
Thank you so much.

Stuart Shapiro
Big thank you as well to our producer Tamara Swedberg and to Karyn Olsen. We’ll see you next week with another talk from another expert from the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.

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