Six Questions for SPA Alum Alaina McWhorter, Special Projects Manager at the Denver Department of Parks and RecreationEllen Patterson | School of Public Affairs Dec 6, 2023
Thanks to her credentials from CU Denver as a Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP), Alaina McWhorter catapulted her public service career from an entry- to mid-level financial analyst to a government affairs specialist advising executive leadership at the State Legislature, the City and County of Denver, and numerous nonprofit partners on best practices to achieve policy goals and program outcomes. Much of her time is spent processing vast amounts of information and data to prepare recommendations for decision makers to easily digest the details of a complex social issue, consider potential solutions, and determine next steps to achieve strategic goals and outcomes. She then takes decisions and socializes them across stakeholders, staff, and partners to build momentum in knowledge sharing, issue advocacy, and the execution of timely calls to action.
As a leader in this capacity, she is the project manager assigned to the design and implementation of organizational strategic plans, city-wide and cross-agency policy initiatives, and high priority partnerships and contract negotiations.
Following five years in issue advocacy at the state legislature, Alaina is now the Special Projects Manager at the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation where she advises leadership and stakeholders on best practices to achieve strategic goals and priorities. She currently supports DPR and the Mayor’s office in Denver’s administrative transition to advocate for DPR’s accomplishments and strategic priorities, educates leaders on various regulatory challenges and potential solutions, and ensures continuity of park and recreation services through this time of significant operational change city-wide.
She also manages DPR fees, rules, regulations, and contracts authorizing the use of park land for specified park purposes. These projects allow her to work with, learn from, and advise leaders across the city with vastly different skills, knowledge, and experiences, feeding her endless curiosity to learn how local government and community organizations work collaboratively, proactively, and transparently to provide effective and meaningful public service to the Denver community.
What inspired you to pursue a career in public service?
I grew up in an affluent suburb in Kansas with very little diversity. From an early age, I recognized that the spoken values of my family and community seemed in conflict with our political values and actions. I saw my community repeatedly turn their backs on others they deemed undeserving of their love, their assistance, their compassion. There was no justifying that I had privileges of an incredible school system, endless recreational activities, and social and community gatherings all because my parents could afford to live in our zip code.
My freshman year of high school, I took a current affairs class that opened my eyes to global and national issues and the solutions others were pursuing to create a better world for themselves and others. I became passionate about wealth inequality and the inadequacy of providing reactive public services rather than addressing underlying social issues via proactive policies, regulations, and political will. I’ve spent the time since committed to advocating for underserved communities to elevate the voices and stories of the average person, connecting public services and practical solutions to the people and communities that need them most. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are on the menu.” As exhausting, frustrating, and divisive as advocacy can be, knowing you’ve done everything in your power to help someone else’s dream come true is a dream worth pursuing in and of itself.
What has been most meaningful to you about your career?
The most meaningful part of my career has been serving the Colorado Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee to not only balance the budget during the 2020 pandemic when Colorado faced an unprecedented budget short-fall, but to then rebound back with a multi-billion dollar economic recovery package aimed at serving and uplifting the individual communities most impacted by the pandemic, whether a laid off worker trying to pay bills or a small business owner trying to retain their staff.
In public administration, the opportunities to play a proactive role in implementing large scale solutions to serve the community are endless. You will meet influential and powerful people. You will have the opportunity to have your voice heard by those who can make a difference, as well as learn and grow from their mentorship and expertise. You can influence decision making in Denver now and through the future.
What part of your education at the School of Public Affairs has had the greatest impact on your work?
I would not have the skills, connections, or know how to not only access a career in politics, but succeed, had I not taken two courses: Political Advocacy and Urban Social Issues. No other classes gave me the experience needed to grow my detailed understanding of complex issues in city government and public service and the various strategies available to clearly, concisely, and effectively articulate a problem and recommended solution in a manner that gains attention and momentum from the right people at the right time.
It set me on a path to perfecting my elevator speeches regardless of the topic or audience. Every public servant should know their elevator speech, so they can advocate for themselves, their passions, and their dreams. For instance, I, Alaina McWhorter, believe in an equitable, just, and vibrant society filled with mentally and physically fit individuals able to pursue their dreams and find dignity in their contributions to society. Thus, I’ve dedicated my career to being the voice and advocate of underserved communities to ensure our society implements policies and programs that empower and respect all people and invest in their potential.
What is your favorite memory of the School of Public Affairs?
My favorite memory from SPA exemplifies the types of investment, intention, and compassion required to support the success of others. One class in particular (shout out Organizational Change Management!) at SPA had an incredibly passionate and inclusive group of students that frequently socialized with each other outside of the SPA setting. We went to a comedy club one night to support a peer who loved improv, we had brunches on weekends to discuss homework assignments, and the professor held a holiday party for everyone in class at the end of the semester.
Like many, I found social experiences like these in school were typically filled with angst. But, with this group of passionate, like-minded advocates able and willing to voice their support or opposition for complex social issues, talking and learning from each other came naturally as we all shared a foundation of public service values and a desire to help our communities. Despite the time that has passed since attending SPA, many of these same individuals remain great friends and colleagues in our public service careers here in Denver and beyond.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest challenges that your field faces?
The stereotypes that government is slow, siloed, and non-transparent can be all too real without proper planning, regulations, and resources. Unfortunately, the public often fails to see the numerous obstacles public servants face in effectively mobilizing resources to serve growing and evolving needs of a community. To improve these public perceptions, we must adequately invest in the human and technological resources necessary to:
- Consistently provide proactive, strategic, city-wide communications that mobilize all agencies, staff, partners, and resources in a coordinated, well resourced, and well-timed response.
- Address regulatory conflicts and contradictions that slow operational processes and create inconsistency and confusion.
- Effectively communicate government goals, operations, and opportunities to the public.
What advice would you give to current students at the School of Public Affairs?
My greatest advice to give to anyone entering a world of public service (and unavoidable politics!) is to position yourself as a trusted advocate, advisor, and partner able to accomplish anything simply by leveraging appropriate resources and a community of passionate people. I cannot recommend enough that you fact check everything you put out in the community to ensure you are a dependable, honest, and accurate source of information. Take the time to learn what research and resources are available and stay abreast of organizational challenges to position yourself to answer questions and provide recommendations in real time during leadership discussions, elevating you above your peers and establishing you as the person in the room people turn to for accurate information.
Be your authentic self, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, and never be afraid to tell someone you will follow up with additional information. Protecting your credibility as a reliable, informative, and trusted source of information is in my opinion perhaps among the most important things you can do to advance your career. Your leaders will absolutely take advantage of and reward you for your availability to provide rational, informed, data-driven recommendations to major issues in real-time.
Clearly identify your why and how. Tell a story that demonstrates your values, your needs, and your ideal outcomes. Reiterate. Listen. Respond.
Be an active listener and repeat back what you are hearing; this will help you mediate large groups and facilitate conversations effectively, particularly when diverging opinions arise.
Don’t be afraid of public speaking! Knowing how to articulate your vision and connect what you need to the skills and knowledge others can contribute will allow you to leverage groups to implement your vision and achieve career goals. But be humble and recognize how others contribute to your success.
Most importantly, prioritize your and your family’s well-being first, so you can preserve your ability to continue using your strengths to serve others.