July 5, 2022

As a FUSE Executive Fellow, Autumn McDonald (2015-16) worked with the San Francisco Office of the Mayor to help lead a women’s economic empowerment agenda, which included shaping policies and public-private initiatives, as well as designing the Bay Area Women’s Empowerment and Opportunity Summit. The event convened leaders to focus on solutions that would increase equity across the middle and working classes and the working poor – women in need of economic opportunity and reliable, affordable child care. As a result of the Summit, Autumn worked with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland to improve policy around workers rights and salaries, affordable childcare, parental leave, and explicit bias training for all city staff. 

After her fellowship, she joined New America, where she is currently a Senior Fellow, Head of New America California, and a member of New America’s leadership team. She leads New America CA in its mission to elevate community members’ voices, needs, and expertise through human-centered research, storytelling, and convenings. Her work focuses on issues of economic equity, community engagement, resident voice, policy influence, and narrative change. Additionally, Autumn serves as Vice Chair of the Lincoln Families Board of Directors. 

What was the impact of the FUSE fellowship on you, professionally and personally?

It was dramatic. Before FUSE, I was working as a senior consultant with FSG. I enjoyed the work, but the nature of consulting can be disjointed and rather broad. The opportunity to work in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on women’s economic empowerment really spoke to me, and I loved that there was a way into the public sector for someone further along in their career.

The fellowship allowed me to be innovative and a little bit daring, but still with the safety net of a shorter commitment.

My brain just exploded during my fellowship year. The people whom I was able to interact with and the type of work I was able to do completely changed the trajectory of my career. 

I met Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America and my current boss, because I invited her to speak at the Bay Area Women’s Summit. I worked with two mayors — Ed Lee of San Francisco and Libby Schaff of Oakland — to refashion the Summit to drive forward a broader policy agenda and get corporations involved in making real pledges, initiatives, and commitments to create more profound change. 

The mayors really appreciated having a FUSE executive fellow who could focus on large shifts like bringing implicit bias training to all public-facing City staff, including the Police Department. FUSE provides local governments with opportunities to think about what they want to accomplish beyond the daily fires that need to be put out. It’s important to go upstream, to find and address root causes.

What are the big challenges on which you are working now, what are you hoping to achieve in the next 6-12 months, and how has your FUSE experience prepared you to approach them?

At New America California, we do a lot of human-centered research, which really amounts to having in-depth conversations with workers and residents and hearing their authentic experiences. We talk to a lot of people about what makes it hard for them to earn income, and how that impacts their families. This helps us to surface pain points and opportunities.

We have done work on guaranteed income and other issues, interrogating the issues around “deservedness” and understanding the outcomes from these types of pilots. We want to understand where there is potential to revolutionize the safety net and other policies in service of those most marginalized and living in poverty.

Our next phase is to elevate that worker and resident voice so that it sways policy decisions. In the fall, we will be doing participatory policy labs, bringing local and regional policy makers into the room to co-design solutions to the economic challenges that our conversations have lifted up. 

I’m in the process of writing two upcoming articles, one on neoliberalism and race, and one on neoliberalism and narrative change. These each follow Jeffersonian Dinners on the same topics. They’ll explore what should follow neoliberalism and how a movement of everyday people can build a framework, a narrative, and policies that don’t gloss over the deep economic impacts of systemic racism. This exploration is a nerd’s dream! I feel privileged to follow a path that was absolutely opened up for me through my FUSE experience.

Related work and news: 

Stanford Social Innovation Review: The Racism of the ‘Hard-to-Find’ Qualified Black Candidate Trope

Slate: The Talk: It’s time for white parents to take over a grim ritual that Black families have performed for decades

CalMatters: What inclusive economic recovery can look like – lessons from Fresno

New America: Guaranteed Income – New America CA’s exploration of guaranteed income, health equity, and the safety net

New America: Worker Voices: A Guide to Solutions – How Human-Centered Research in Fresno, California Can Foster Broader and More Inclusive Economic Security