Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, December 10, 2012

Dickinson plans to advocate for poverty policies


After completing her master's degree, Michele Dickinson became a policy and budget analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Michele Dickinson

Donations support student

Donors to the Clara Penniman and Alumni-Friends scholarship funds have eased Michele Dickinson's life as a graduate student.

"I appreciate donors' generosity to the La Follette School and its students," Dickinson says. "Their gifts are helping me achieve my goal of a career as an advocate for low-income people in Wisconsin."

The founder and first director of the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, Penniman established the Clara Penniman Award for Wisconsin Government and Public Management in 1998, and alumni and friends of the school continue to contribute to it in her honor. A specialist in taxation and public finance, Penniman was the first female chair of the University of Wisconsin–Madison's (then otherwise all male) political science department. She retired in 1984 and passed away in 2009. The center became the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs in 1983.

The Alumni-Friends Student Support Fund comprises donations to the school from people who want to provide financial support to La Follette School students. Donations like these help the school recruit top students who go on to become leading policymakers in Wisconsin and around the world.

Michele Dickinson's desire to lead a nonprofit organization and advocate for state policies to address poverty arises from her experience as a single, teen mother in concert with her undergraduate majors and volunteer activities.

"I am pursuing a public affairs degree because I would love to have an impact on how the state serves its low-income population," the first-year La Follette School student says. "As an undergraduate parent who worked close to full time, I accessed programs for low-income people. The process of struggling to make ends meet for years caused me to be very interested in the policies that governed public assistance programs and how they were administered."

In addition to her experience with public assistance, Dickinson credits her volunteer and leadership opportunities at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point with shaping her career goals. "By volunteering through the campus Sociology Club, I encountered many compassionate, intelligent and dedicated nonprofit managers who ended up serving as role models," says Dickinson. "In Stevens Point I had the great fortune to be able to experience many program from both sides — that of the recipient and of the administrator or volunteer. Together, these experiences have caused me to be at La Follette today."

After graduating in 2005 with majors in business administration and sociology, Dickinson became the UW–Stevens Point service-learning coordinator through AmeriCorps*Vista, using her experience to build university-community partnerships.

In 2008 Dickinson moved to Madison and became Family Living Conferences and Family Foundations coordinator for the University of Wisconsin, Cooperative Extension's Family Living Programs. In that role, she helps administer a large training and technical assistance grant from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families to provide training to home visitors across the state. Home visitors are professionals working in non-profit or county agencies, providing intensive, frequent and ongoing home visits to low-income first-time parents.

"The visits provide parents with parenting advice, information on early childhood development and referrals to other community resources," Dickinson says. "Home visitors often serve as a low-income family's advocate, connection to resources, coach, mentor and support. Research has shown that services such as these reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect and improve a child's readiness for school."

In addition, Dickinson coordinates five larger statewide annual conferences. Three of the annual conferences provide professional development for people who work with families. An example of one such conference is the Through the Eyes of a Child conference, which provides lawyers, guardian ad litems, judges, social workers and other professionals working in the family court and juvenile court settings with current research-based information to make informed decisions for and with the families they work with. The other two conferences are general outreach efforts, including Grandparents University, a partnership between Wisconsin Alumni Association and UW-Extension that bring grandparents and grandchildren to campus for two days to experience a real UW-Madison major together taught by faculty and graduate students. "I enjoy the variety of professionals, non-profit organizations and state agencies, plus the topical areas, that I come into contact with through all these events," Dickinson says.

She counts herself fortunate that her director at Extension was willing to reduce Dickinson's position to 50 percent while she goes to graduate school full time to complete her Master of Public Affairs degree. To help make ends meet, Dickinson is also waiting tables at a Madison restaurant three nights a week.

Scholarship funds from the La Follette School have provided a valuable financial boost. "Before I was awarded the scholarship, my family and I had decided I would only be able to attend one class per semester so I could keep my full-time job and minimize student loan debt," Dickinson says. "I was unable to imagine graduating with substantially more debt knowing that my desire to work in a non-profit meant that my annual income would not change significantly. The scholarship enabled me to accept full-time enrollment while achieving my other goals of minimizing student loan debt and contributing to the financial support of my family."

Dickinson plans to focus her studies on social and poverty policy and on non-profit management and administration. She looks forward to mastering statistics as part of her MPA curriculum. "My undergrad stats courses left a little to be desired," she says. "In the past seven years of my professional life I have encountered situations where knowing some statistics would have greatly improved my ability to make informed decisions based on available data. Knowing how to analyze the data, rather than just guessing, will be exciting. Each course will provide us with tools necessary to make informed programmatic and policy decisions."

Dickinson also will apply her professional, volunteer and life experiences to the classroom. In Madison, she continues to volunteer as host and receptionist at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry. Past volunteer activities include serving on the board of the Willy Street Grocery Cooperative and as volunteer coordinator for the Stevens Point Empty Bowls Committee. She helped to start the Wisconsin Interfaith Needs Response's Donated Wheels of Portage County, a program that provides vehicles to low-income people, and served as board president for one year.

"My volunteer work has opened many doors for me and changed how I viewed the world," Dickinson says. "I have had the great fortune of finding volunteer opportunities that have challenged me and provided learning opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise had. Through the variety of volunteer experiences I have had the opportunity to participate in community asset mapping projects, strategic planning, program development and implementation, and fiscal management for an organization with $37 million in sales annually. These are not opportunities you can often find within your first couple years in the professional world."

Dickinson emphasizes how much she values the very different perspectives she gained as a service provider and as a recipient of public services. "When I was using government programs such as BadgerCare health insurance, Section 8 housing, food stamps and energy assistance, I found accessing these programs difficult, tedious and demeaning," she says. "I was amazed at how often it felt like I lost several dollars of assistance for every dollar more I earned by working. I was once kicked off BadgerCare for making $5 too much in a month, despite the fact I had out-of-pocket medical costs of nearly $1,200 per month. It angered me. In turn, the volunteer opportunities provided me insight into how such things are calculated and why such limits are needed. This ‘foot on each side' perspective is unique to service providers and recipients and will hopefully help me make better programmatic and policy decisions."

"Most importantly though, my volunteer experiences provided me an opportunity to give back to the community that supported me," she says. "I want to help others in similar situations to also thrive."

Last modified on Wednesday, November 5, 2014