Making Public Policy Personal with Anna Lenaker '19 MPA '20

After getting a master’s degree in public affairs at Watson, it’s common for folks to work in government, or with an NGO, or on a political campaign. Less common is what Anna Lenaker, from the Watson MPA class of 2020, did after graduating. She wrote a memoir.

The book, titled ‘Able to Be Otherwise,’ tells the story of Anna’s turbulent childhood, growing up with a mother who suffered from overlapping struggles with mental health, poverty, and addiction. On this episode Sarah talks with Anna about her at-times-unbelievable journey from the streets of Tijuana, to fire-ravaged forests of California, to the halls of Brown University. In telling this story, she also provides a powerful argument for how we might re-envision the role of public policy in an interconnected world.

You can learn more about -- and purchase -- ‘Able to Be Otherwise’ here or here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[THEME MUSIC] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. After getting a master's degree in Public Affairs at Watson, it's common for folks to work in government or with an NGO or on a political campaign of some sort.

Anna Lenaker from the Watson MPA class of Twenty-Twenty did something a little different after graduating. She wrote a memoir. The book, titled Able to Be Otherwise, tells the story of Anna's turbulent childhood, growing up with a mother who suffered from overlapping struggles with mental health, poverty, and addiction. Anna traces her at times unbelievable journey from the streets of Tijuana to fire-ravaged forests of California to the halls of Brown University. Aside from being beautifully written, the book also zooms in and out from the personal to the institutional to the global and back again.

ANNA LENAKER: I knew that in order for me to be happy, I wanted to contribute to these conversations on poverty, addiction, and climate change. And the first natural step for me to do that is to just share my very intimate encounters with all of these issues.

SARAH BALDWIN: As a result it's both a story about a mother and a daughter, as well as a commentary about how we might re-envision the role of public policy in an interconnected world. It was a fascinating and moving conversation. We started, well, at the beginning. Here's Anna.

ANNA LENAKER: So I grew up with a single mom. She had me when she was 40 years old, and she had my older half brother 17 years prior. So by the time I was conscious, aware of the world, and walking around, my half brother had moved out. And it was just Mom and me. And a lot of my childhood was really structured by this reality of us living paycheck to paycheck, and my mom's overall dissatisfaction with being stuck in that cycle of barely affording our basic needs and not enjoying her job.

SARAH BALDWIN: She and her mom lived in Southern California. But when Anna was seven, her life was entirely uprooted.

ANNA LENAKER: We had been attending a Pentecostal church for about a year. And during one of her experiences in a service, she said that she heard the voice of God instructing her to go to Mexico, and that Mexico would be this fresh start. So she drives late in the night, leaving me with my sitter, to Tijuana, Mexico.

And right when she crosses the border, she meets this yellow taxicab driver named Alex. And Alex, she decides, is the love of her life. It's the reason why God told her to go to Mexico. So just months after that initial meeting, we are packing our lives into a U-Haul and moving to Tijuana.

SARAH BALDWIN: Anna's mom had also struggled with another issue so many Americans face-- opioid addiction. It had started with prescription opioids.

ANNA LENAKER: And she, soon after our move, makes the switch to black tar heroin. And our life centers around that reality of her needing her daily supply. She took me out of school, and I end up being your sort of sales partner on the streets of Tijuana as we sell first our belongings to make money for our supply, and later buy things at markets in order to flip at a profit.

I would see what people want to buy. And I would look for more of that type of product and try to give them what they wanted, and make the profit so I didn't have to see my mom suffer. Because withdrawals, especially once your deep into heroin, I mean, they take over your whole body and mind. You can feel so sick. And I don't want to see my mom that way.

SARAH BALDWIN: I was very, very struck by this line you have-- that you saw strangers as life rafts.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah. We were living with Alex this guy she fell in love with. Off and on, Alex's family really took me in from the beginning. So when I wasn't with mom on the streets, I was often with Alex's mom, whom I called Abeulita.

She didn't speak a lick of English, and I didn't speak much Spanish. But we were able to communicate through our hand gestures, our smiles. We were able to enjoy watching telenovelas together or cleaning the house or sorting pinto beans for dinner.

And other of Alex's siblings, the whole family was very much a haven during my time in Tijuana. They felt normal. Their day was centered around cooking their meals and cleaning the house and watching TV. And I really relished those days that I got to spend with them, and have that structure and stability and warmth.

SARAH BALDWIN: It sounds like your brother and his wife gave you that as well, because you leave Mexico, right? And you live with them for a while. And they provided more of a home, right?

ANNA LENAKER: Definitely. Yeah, after mom and I had pneumonia and were arrested, one night after all these sort of intense experiences, my sister-in-law-- so my brother's wife, shows up. And I was at her wedding when I was five years old. So she was a familiar, warm, safe person. And she shows up to take me back to the States.

But mom hitchhikes from Tijuana up to the high Mojave desert, where I'm living with my brother and Teresa, my sister-in-law. And she brings me back to Mexico, only for my brother and sister to go get me in Mexico six months later and bring me back to live with them. So it was this back and forth of me coming to grips with initially, I thought I could make it on the streets of Tijuana with Mom.

But these dissatisfactions of not being in school, of being sick all the time, of being scared got to me. And I realized by the second time I was going back to the States, to be with my brother and Teresa, that I just needed stability. I wanted to be in school. I had always loved school. I just felt like I needed to heal from all those experiences and rebuild myself.

SARAH BALDWIN: This love of learning, or this desire to be in school, which is where children belong, you got to live that, right, after you moved back to California for good? And then you win this district-wide spelling bee.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah, so when I first got back to the States, I'd missed 2 and 1/2 years of school. And the districts were telling us you're not going to catch up. She's going to have to be held back at least a year.

But my brother, being the supportive figure that he is, went to Barnes and Noble, bought a stack of workbooks, and monetarily incentivized me-- and I never really had my own money before, so it worked, to work through this entire stack of workbooks. And I did, and then I placed into my proper grade. And shortly after that, my homeroom teacher mentions a spelling bee.

First, it's going to be a school-level spelling bee, and then a district-level. And I'd always liked words. I like spelling. And I knew my mom had always been a very skilled typist-- like, 100 words per minute with perfect spelling. And I always thought that was very incredible. So it was in an effort to feel close to my mom, despite our separation, and practice this 10-page list of words.

And I eventually won the district spelling bee. And before I had won, I had just felt so constrained by my past circumstances. Like, since I had missed 2 and 1/2 years of school and had this atypical childhood, I had just thought that maybe I could catch up in school and make it by.

But I never thought I would excel. So it was the first time in my life that I actually felt that my pathway and my life was able to be other than the way I thought it was going to be. Or in other words, it was able to be otherwise.

SARAH BALDWIN: And so this turning point leads you-- eventually, you go to this really cool high school called Inspire. And then you realize that college is the next logical step for a good, smart student like you. And I love that you said when you were researching the colleges, you looked at the $70,000 yearly tuition.

And you imagined students eating freshly made pasta with gold flakes. I love that. That must have seemed just an impossible amount of money. Of course, then you got a full ride to Brown. And I wonder if you could just take yourself back there and describe-- it's not that long ago, and talk about your time at Brown, arriving as a first-generation college student.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah. One, I was so excited the moment I got into Brown. It still remains, I feel, one of the most intense feelings that I've ever experienced, and in terms of just pure joy and disbelief that something like that could have happened for me. Especially getting the full ride, and having it be economically viable as an option, was incredible.

So I get to Brown, and then things get very difficult. I had lived really for most of my life in Tijuana when I was a kid. So Brown was a big city, and there was people from everywhere. And I was excited to meet people from all these different states and countries.

But then I started to realize the wealth gap between us. And it really got to me initially, this concept of winter coats that cost more than a brand-new MacBook, which I had really had to scrounge all of my resources and my family's resources together to buy myself a laptop before Brown. But the idea that people had these coats and they had traveled to these far-off places, and they'd been at parties with the Clintons, that all overwhelmed me and gave me a sense that I was an imposter. That Brown had accepted me because I had this compelling sob story of rags to making myself into a good student. And I struggled to meet people like myself because I also struggled to be open about my past.

I didn't really want to tell everyone I met about my living situation. The fact that I was raised by my older brother and Teresa, and those sort of questions I got at the beginning of the school year of, like, what does your mom and dad do, just hit me so hard because I felt like I couldn't be honest about my mom and I hadn't met my dad. And that wasn't the most usual circumstance.

So it wasn't until I started finding first-generation and low-income students like myself who, of course, we don't have the same story. But we have these similar sorts of feelings and experiences. But finding these people and having conversations and starting to open up more, I really started to feel that Brown was a home away from home. I had a community there. And this really manifested in so many different ways.

But one example is Mariana lived on my floor my freshman year. And she was also from California-- San Diego, pretty close to where mom and I grew up for my first seven years. And I was at that stage of my life too scared to seek out academic resources to help me with my writing. I had never written too many long papers. I'd never done an actual research paper and cited it, things like that.

So while I was too scared to seek out resources, Mariana volunteered to read my papers and help me through that process. And I did the same for her. So for our first two years at Brown, we were constantly swapping papers and encouraging each other, and noting the areas in which we had improved in our paper writing and applauding each other in that way. Now it's just a really special relationship, especially for me when I was too intimidated by the writing center to ever seek out help, and too intimidated by office hours to ever tell my professors that I was struggling.

SARAH BALDWIN: So you ended up concentrating in religious studies as an undergrad. And you say in the book, "I studied religions only to appreciate the way communities had learned to navigate suffering and impermanence." And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that.

ANNA LENAKER: So I wanted to study religion because it started when I was in Pentecostal church with my mom six or seven years old, and seeing how she experienced and felt about everything that she did during service. She just lit up whenever the pastor and others would pray over her. And that smile would last for hours, if not days, afterwards. There is a very special power there that I didn't understand. And for a time, the church really helped her be happy and find community, despite everything she was dealing with, from a childhood of abuse and neglect to bad relationships with scary men, to her mental health and addiction issues.

And I also turned to the Christian church at a time when I was very depressed, just a year or two after moving to the US and being separated from Mom. So I started taking courses when I was in high school at a local state university, and seeing how all these different peoples and cultures and thought systems came to terms with the hard parts of this life, and also the fact that everything is impermanent. So I had this spiral that was quieted by this exploration of how other people dealt with their life experiences that were just as difficult as mine.

SARAH BALDWIN: Your interest in religion and philosophy also connects with environmental issues for you, which is a theme that carries throughout your book. Could you talk about when you first read Thoreau while living in northern California with your brother and sister-in-law, and what that brought up for you?

ANNA LENAKER: So I came across Henry David Thoreau in my high school English class. I think I was in my junior year. And he talks about moving to Walden Pond to live deliberately, to cut out everything from his life that was not living, that was not important that he focus on, to decide what is important to focus on.

And when I read that in Walden, I took it as a personal challenge. I'm someone who has always struggled with the question of what I want to do in the future or how I want to contribute to our shared life here on Earth. So in the process of writing this book, I realized that as Thoreau wanted to focus on simple living and reflecting on society, and what was right and what was wrong, and how he could be happy, I knew that in order for me to be happy. , wanted to contribute to these conversations on poverty, addiction, and climate change.

And the first natural step for me to do that is to just share my very intimate encounters with all of these issues in an open and earnest honest way, with the hope of stimulating dialogue around it. But also is-- even though climate change-- as someone from northern California have been experiencing-- an awful wave, the aftermath of these massive unprecedented wildfires, but believing that things can change. That dialogue and conversation on these issues can change. That we can act on these effectively in a way that preserves the dignity and safety of people and animals, and trees in the case of the massive wildfires.

SARAH BALDWIN: So after finishing undergrad, you ended up getting a master of public affairs at Brown. For someone so passionate about writing and religion and philosophy, it doesn't seem like the most obvious next step after college. What drew you to that program and what do you feel like you got out of it?

ANNA LENAKER: The MPA program was incredible in giving me quantitative perspectives on these issues, which I hadn't had before. So my concentration was in religious studies, as we mentioned. And I hadn't taken in a single math or public policy course, or even political science course in undergrad, really.

So I had these strong qualitative experiences, and I knew people in my life had similar experiences who were poor, struggling with addiction, or who were refugees from the camp fire that burned through Paradise and other northern California cities. But I hadn't had the skills to articulate the scope of these issues or to interpret the statistics that are thrown out there, for example by climate change denialists. So I got all these things from the MPA program.

And perhaps most invaluable was my experience doing my consultancy at the Clinton Foundation. I was working with their Health Matters initiative. That was basically working on rolling out community programs to faith leaders to train them about addiction, to combat stigma, and to equip them to help people who might be in their faith communities who are struggling with substance use.

And I got to do all of this while working with faith leaders and thinking, what if the Pentecostal pastor that my mom saw every week had been equipped and known about what is addiction, and how can I point this woman who's struggling towards resources in her community? Because faith leaders are such authority figures in their communities, and they have so much sway and there's so many people they interact with. And that, for me, was a perfect example of how I could use my MPA with my previous history to really enact change in a way that I think is going to be effective.

SARAH BALDWIN: I wonder if you could talk about these two notions that you wrote about-- global eco-consciousness and local eco-consciousness.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah, I'd love to. This all started when I was-- so I took a year studying abroad at Oxford during my undergraduate career. And during my last term there, I decided I wanted to do an independent study on human and environmental relationships, and how religious traditions tie into all of that.

I was first thinking about Indra's net from Buddhism. So Indra is a deity in Hinduism and Buddhism. The ceiling of Indra's palace is this huge net. You can't see where it ends, and it extends endlessly in all directions.

And at each intersection point of the net where one rope intersects the other, there's a glittering jewel. So each jewel in the net reflects all other jewels and has its own image reflected back at itself. So no matter the distance of one jewel-- which we might consider one person, is from another person or jewel, I have all of them reflected in my own being.

We're interconnected in this way. And I don't escape unscathed, for example, from a world that lets people sleep on park benches in the cold or my mom's substance use or the forest fires in the Amazon, for example. So that's a concept of global eco-consciousness-- of being aware of oneself's embeddedness in this intricate web of relationships to all else.

And on the flip side is this concept of local eco-consciousness, which is the idea of seeking intimacy with one's surroundings, either by taking a walk or reading about a place that you live in and getting to know how the place used to be, how it's changed. Are fires occurring much more frequently than they used to? Did the creek that used to run full with water and life, is it now like dry and sad-looking?

So taking that ownership over the place one is embedded in builds this intimacy and concern for harm coming to it. And I think it's an outlet into caring more, being more vested in this macro issue of climate change. So global and local eco-consciousness are just different ways to think about our relationships to others, to the environment and climate change. But they're useful inroads to engaging with it on a personal level.

SARAH BALDWIN: I'm so sad that we are running out of time, Anna. But I would love to ask you to read an excerpt from your book, toward the end, about how you see your vision of the world.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah I'd love to. This is just the first third of my epilogue that I'll share. "When COVID first began taking over the world in March Twenty-Twenty, I headed home to Jay and Teresa's house in the hills of northern California to finish up my graduate degree. No longer able to venture out into the world, I began dreaming of the world I wanted to emerge once the pandemic subsided. It looks a little bit like this.

I dream of a world where we do not blame people who are trying to meet their suffering substances, but lend them our empathy and care. I dream of a world where even if our homes are currently safe from the effects of climate change, we care that others homes are aflame, flooded, or frozen. I dream of a world where poverty is understood not as an individual failing or as a product of laziness, but as a system failure, symptomatic of the way our society and economic systems devalue certain people and certain jobs. It is through our breaths that demand change that we'll breathe the future into existence. It values all of our breaths. But it will take many breaths, but there are a lot of us.

And while I dream of this world to be breathed into existence, I think of Mom. My dream is simply of a world that would allow me to take a walk with Mom in the heat of California's summer without breathing in smoke. It is a world where, though she suffered from depression abuse, Mom would have been able to access mental health care and substance treatment she needed. And in this world to come, Mom's job as a secretary would have paid enough for us not to have had to live paycheck to paycheck, reliant on the kindness of strangers for our groceries."

SARAH BALDWIN: Anna, thank you so much for talking with us.

ANNA LENAKER: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It really means a lot to be able to come back to Brown and speak about my experience and beyond.


ANNA LENAKER: Thank you, Sarah.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Alina Kulman, Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can learn more about and buy Anna's book Able to Be Otherwise at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. We'll put a link in the show notes.

If you like us leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Or if you have a friend who you think would like the show, tell them about it. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally Thanks.


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Dan Richards

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