Alum Spotlight - Ajenai Clemmons
Ajenai Clemmons graduated from Drake University in 2002 and has since earned her Master's in Public Policy from the University of Denver. She is completing her Ph.D. at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.
What is your academic and professional background?
I grew up in Denver and came to Drake because it was very academically competitive, had an international relations major, and a strong study abroad culture. Twenty percent of the student body studied abroad at a time when 2% or 3% of Americans held passports. I loved my Drake experience and studied abroad in Chile and Guatemala.
When I went back to Denver, I began working at a Hispanic-owned law firm where about 80% of our clients were Mexican nationals. My Spanish improved considerably. We specialized in workers’ compensation law, so our clients were often the ones literally doing back-breaking labor in factories and fields, on construction sites, and cleaning hotel rooms. Working with a vulnerable population sensitized my perspective. During this time, I got involved in politics. I attended a meeting for the Colorado Black Women for Political Action, the president of which took me under her wing. She and a couple of her colleagues helped me to get elected Delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
I returned to school for a Master of Public Policy at the University of Denver while still working full time. I transitioned jobs to work for the City and County of Denver when we had very controversial, back-to-back shootings of people of color. The mayor and city council created an agency of civilians to oversee misconduct allegations regarding police and sheriffs in Denver, and I became their community relations ombudsman. I ran our police-citizen mediation program and went to a hundred and fifty meetings across the city, talking with people from all walks of life about how our agency worked. I also met with police, observed training at the police academy, and shadowed officers by foot on their beats, in their cars, by helicopter, and in schools. It was an incredible experience and honor, not only to have worked for our government in such a meaningful role, but to have helped build this agency from scratch.
From there, I finished my master’s and ran for office. The Democratic party recruited me to run for the University of Colorado Board of Regents, which I didn’t win but learned a lot from doing. I also participated in a few policy-related leadership programs, which led to my next job. I moved to D.C. to become policy director for a national association of African-American state legislators. We kept legislators abreast of policy issues, model legislation, and concerning trends that were likely to hit their states. We also helped them interface with Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Administration.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?
I wanted to get a PhD to learn how to do academic research—how to analyze a study, test it, or carry out my own original study. When I was a practitioner of public policy, our role was to collect the best ideas that would improve quality of life. Most times, we made decisions based on evidence that was being filtered through a think tank or advocacy group. This is commonplace, but I wanted to be able to go to the original data sources and know, myself, if what they were claiming was true.
You’re currently in London, working on your dissertation. Could you tell us more about your research?
My research is focused on the most harmful and helpful factors in the policy-community relationship, with the intention of making it more effective. My dissertation compares African Americans and European Muslims. Clearly, the groups are very different, but there are some striking similarities. One is systemic discrimination in education, hiring, and housing resulting in segregation. Two, both European Muslims and African Americans face pervasive criminalization by media. In the United States, media and politicians paint African Americans as predators and in Europe, they paint Muslims as terrorists. The third similarity is exclusion from constitutional rights and civil liberties that their compatriots enjoy. Labeling an area a “high-crime community” in the U.S., or a community as a “national security threat” in Europe, has shielded law enforcement from observing people’s rights the same way they would be bound to in other communities. Fourth, both groups have expressed concerns about being over-policed and under-policed, in that victims may be left more exposed as perpetrators are not as vigorously brought to account.
I’m conducting in-depth interviews of Black men in the U.S. and Bangladeshi Muslim men in the U.K. who are between 18 and 29 years old and who live in heavily policed areas. The idea is to understand what they want to feel safe. How do they assess police performance? What do they do when police have not met their expectations? That’s broadly what I’m trying to find out, through about 50 interview questions.
Do you have any advice for current Drake IR students?
I think this is true for a lot of jobs, but particularly for anything policy-related, which includes IR: it is almost all reading and writing. I’ve written newsletters, government reports, correspondence to dignitaries, proclamations, legislation, press releases, and public remarks for myself and others. Sharpen your writing skills as much as possible. Reading widely helps, because you expose yourself to different writing styles. But, you can only become a stronger writer through practice—LOTS of practice. At the same time, make sure you take stats classes!
Study abroad for one year so you can become fluent in a foreign language. You need that time to truly immerse yourself and get to the point where you can think in another language and be your full self.
Also, never underestimate the importance of networking. The last time I got a job without any help from a network was 2003, and it was the worst paid job I’ve ever had...until being a Ph.D. student.
What work have you done since graduation that has been most meaningful to you?
A friend and colleague of mine, Mpanzu Bamenga, was originally an undocumented immigrant from the Congo and moved to the Netherlands when he was 8. He became, ultimately, a human rights attorney and a city councilman. I went to visit him one time and we spent a day in his office crafting a piece of legislation. He had a vision for a law to strengthen anti-discrimination measures and beef up the power of a certain agency. We thought through what the agency’s structure and powers should be. We went over his document word by word, getting precise with the language. In some areas, I pointed out loopholes that needed to be closed, but there were other areas where it was a bit over-prescriptive. Here, I recommended pulling back a bit and simply stating the values and goals, so the intent of the legislation was clear. This would allow some flexibility and even creativity in how that agency was going to achieve those goals.
Everything about our process of co-authoring the legislation made it a special experience. Not only did I get to think through the steps it would take to make this agency more effective and impactful, I also enjoyed working through the language which had to give clear guidance while withstanding a political process. All of that was exhilarating to puzzle through together—learning from my friend about Dutch politics and culture and celebrating afterward with burgers and fries at his favorite restaurant. And, the bill passed with all except one vote.
Interview conducted by Grace Kaetterhenry, 2019