STARTUP WEEK 2020: A Journey of 4,000 Miles Begins with a Single Zoom Call

Driving Innovation in Local Government During the Pandemic
  • Dressed as famous American painter Bob Ross, Joe Grochmal takes a photo for ELGL's 2020 "City Hall Selfie Day" in front of the Great Barrington, MA Town Hall. The Lab went on to win the Best #CityHallSelfie With a "Famous Person" category.

I commute more than 4,000 miles to work every morning. 4,001 if I take the scenic route and venture to Kaladi Brothers for my hat trick of morning iced brews. 

I near my destination, five minutes early, primed with caffeine, ideas, and energy. I boot up my laptop and open Zoom, Slack, my notes, and Canva. As I open my Zoom call and wait for the other party to join, I cannot help but think how much easier this is than riding the packed, Manhattan subway nine months ago. 

A picture pops up on my screen and my commute is completed. It’s Mark Pruhenski, the Town Manager of Great Barrington, Mass., my hometown and we’re ready to get down to work. 

I’ll say it outright: I love working in local government and believe in its incredible, untapped innovative potential. My work in this field began during the summer after my sophomore year at Harvard when I accepted an internship with the Great Barrington Town Manager’s Office after my original summer plans fell through. 

At first, I felt that in taking this position, I had failed. After all, I was spending the summer working at home while my friends from school were working at Goldman, Google, and Bain. Yet, after a week, I realized that I had the capacity to drive real change in local government, by bringing my academic and work experiences, fresh ideas and a youthful energy to the table. 

My first boss, Jennifer Tabakin, was incredible, and immediately provided me with real opportunities to grow and employ my skills and ideas. I left my summer internship knowing that I wanted to continue supporting my hometown through innovation, and a little over a year later, signed up to be a Lead for America Hometown Fellow, supporting the Town Manager’s Office on projects ranging from environmental policy to zoning. After graduating and moving to NYC, I spent my days working at a boutique PR firm and my evenings and weekends working for Great Barrington. 

Then COVID hit. Everything changed.

In the span of one month, I lost my PR position due to financial challenges that the company faced due to the pandemic and moved back home. It felt like everything had been turned upside down. 

Yet, despite this sudden, unexpected change of plans, I found redemption and opportunity working in local government. Jennifer’s successor, Mark, invited me to work with his office full time, and provided me with a number of fascinating projects, great freedom in carrying out this work, and, perhaps most importantly, a place to find personal meaning.

On a warm May evening, I sat on my back porch on a Zoom call with Great Barrington’s Economic Development Committee and discussed the impact that the pandemic was having on our community. The outlook was anything but positive. Businesses were hurting and needed support. 

Cultural centers, the backbone of our community were shuttered and needed support. People were uncertain and concerned about the source of their next paycheck and needed support. As we neared the end of the call, I asked “and what about youth in town?” 

While we did not have the time to address this point, an answer was sorely needed. Other recent graduates had, like me, lost jobs due to the pandemic and moved home. Students who were in higher ed programs were sent home when their schools moved to virtual learning, and many had summer internships and job plans cancelled or put on hold due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. 

As I signed off the call and went for a run, I reflected on the three questions that local government needed to answer in this challenging time:

  1. How can Great Barrington improve resident and visitor experiences to support the local economy and mental health?

  2. Are there new ways through which we can market and promote the town to foster economic development and increase regional diversity?

  3. While we have long spoken of the need to retain young talent, now that they're here, how can we aid in their professional development and make the most of their talents?

After a night of careful thought and consideration, spent in front of my TV with a PS4 controller in hand, I had the answer: establishing a municipal innovation lab in Great Barrington, with a summer fellowship program for area youth, called @GBLabs.

Coming up with the idea was one thing. Gaining approval from a pandemic-rattled monolith that was my local government was another. After a Zoom conversation with Mark and our Assistant Town Manager, and their subsequent approval, I launched the lab amid the unknowns of the pandemic and of my ideas for the program. 

Long story short, it was a resounding success! @GBLabs launched in early June and quickly recruited four area youth, with varied life experiences, backgrounds, and interests, ranging from teaching to journalism to poetry. 

The five of us spent the summer working with town staff, committees, and the community, maintaining, creating, developing, and launching projects focused on town policy, economic and cultural development, municipal marketing, and, sometimes, just plain fun. While we originally supported just active projects, after two weeks, the Town Manager challenged us to create our own initiatives and programs. 

This decision unlocked the true creative potential of the Lab and allowed for local government to reach new levels of innovative capacity. Beyond our work on projects, the Town Manager shared that our presence in the building and the work we did inspired other staff members to take a more creative, energized approach to their work. 

Our Lab space, originally an abandoned meeting room, transformed into our office, by employing posters and modern furniture from my NYC apartment, against the ambient backdrop sounds of muffled classical music, a humming Nespresso machine, and phone calls all serving as the official Lab soundtrack. Town staff frequently dropped in to share their thoughts and ideas, which morphed into a number of our projects that resulted from these conversations. 

At summer’s end, I sat down with Mark to discuss the future of the Lab. Did the town view the Lab as valuable? Would the project be allowed to continue? If so, could I run the Lab from Anchorage? 

A resounding “yes”, on all points! Since arriving in Anchorage two months ago, I have continued running the Lab and overseeing its work. Last week we passed Great Barrington’s first land acknowledgement, and have been working with an area business owner, Robin Helfand, on creating a training program for businesses and their staff, establishing effective COVID-safety protocols and communicating them to their customers. 

Our fellows went back to school on campuses or in living rooms. While the negative impacts of the pandemic continue to mount, the COVID outbreak spurred a community, a group of displaced students, and a budding entrepreneur to take on municipal government and community challenges and succeed with flying colors.

As you participate in Startup Week, I encourage you to be invested, and attend as many sessions as you can and ask every question that comes to you. I also encourage you to not simply view entrepreneurship and innovation, as elements exclusive to the private sector. Our institutions of government, particularly on the local level, are seeking creativity and innovation at this uncertain moment in time. The responsibility to improve our communities begins with us. Do not be afraid to engage with your local government, and bring your ideas to the table. If I can travel 4,000 miles every day, then you can drive change in your community.

Joseph Grochmal is a member of the Alaska Fellows Program at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. Hailing from Great Barrington, Mass., Joe’s experience is in government, working at the intersection of people, policy, and press on the local, state, federal, and international levels.

11/19/2020 - 12:57pm