#Changemakers: Asa Craig MPA ’17

Feb 04 2021
By B. Rose Huber
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Asa Craig MPA ’17 describes himself as a “young person coming out of a graduate school sabbatical.” After earning his MPA from Princeton, he went on to earn a law degree from Yale University.

Over the course of his graduate study, he’s interned or had fellowships with the Urban Institute, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office of the General Counsel, and a law firm; he’s also helped provide political analysis to the Black Economic Alliance, and spent some time on the Hill doing corporate governance research for U.S. Representative Gregory W. Meeks.

Craig most recently joined Sullivan & Cromwell LLP as a law clerk on the firm’s general practice team, where he hopes to focus on crisis management and corporate governance issues.

In this Q&A, he shares his top tips for being successful in any workplace setting, emphasizing humility, curiosity, and plain hard work.

Asa Craig MPA '17

Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?

Craig: Well, as it is 2021, one has to first unfortunately ask, “where to start,” as the reality is that we have a significant number of existential challenges facing us as a country. First, education. We’ve long had stark differences in educational attainment. Yet, despite the significant challenges posed by closed schools and disparities in students’ access to tech/internet, education has largely been a second-tier focus of policymakers. Why? Children are the future.

Next, one can’t even turn on the TV without seeing footage of a natural disaster. Each week, there seems to be a new hurricane, a new massive flood, or a new wildfire, the frequency of which seems to be happening at an increasing rate. We just can’t wish away the effects of climate change, but instead must work to both understand and appreciate the science, and more critically, have that reflect in our policymaking. Too many lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Beyond climate, you don’t have to look any further than the work of Princeton Professors Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton for a huge issue facing the country: wealth and income inequality. By any metric, there is a growing gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the United States. On one hand, this poses significant strain on the social fiber of the nation. On the other hand, as we wrestle with who has a safe space to quarantine, who is “essential” and can’t quarantine, and who has access to quality health care, we circle around questions that are derivative of wealth and income. Those well-versed in issues like hypertension, addiction crises, and spiking suicide rates will find this as no surprise, but Covid-19 has laid bare that, in many cases, wealth inequality is not just philosophical or financial in nature, but rather an issue concerning life and death.

Q. What are you most passionate about? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?

Craig: I am most passionate about issues of equity, power, and access, and how institutions and leaders respond to needs of different communities.

In college, this meant pursuing a double major in Africana Studies and government. I sought out courses that provided me a history of the Black experience in the United States, and tried to study race relations, social movements, and the Black community’s struggles for equality and power over time.

Prior to graduate school, I worked in education policy, where my key driving motivation was to try to figure out methods of providing Black and Brown kids who looked like me increased access to high-quality classrooms and schools. I had questions for the sustainability of philanthropy-driven policy work and looked to fellowships and graduate school as a means of further understanding how best to center communities in advocacy and policy change.

A recent project/initiative I’ve been excited about dovetails with some coursework I had in law school. After taking a course on corporate law and governance, I had the opportunity to intern on Capitol Hill with a member of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. Given my studies, I was tasked with researching companies’ public disclosure documents, as the goal was to understand whether the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s diversity disclosure provision was achieving its stated purpose of encouraging diversity within corporate leadership ranks. This short internship turned into a multiyear inquiry into how stakeholders can utilize mandatory disclosure provisions to increase the number of women and racially diverse leaders on corporate boards. I’m excited about the work, because just a couple years ago, company leadership was quite unrepresentative of the country writ large; the numbers of women and/or Black directors was few. However, now, there is an increasing focus on the need to empower diverse stakeholders at all levels, which is encouraging because directorships are keys to other management opportunities, and, as research shows, representative boards means better and/or more equitable decision-making.

In sum, as a Black male, I’m passionate about the challenges facing diverse, unrepresented communities and populations. I seek to understand how these communities can better obtain equity and power. I work to advance such efforts, and am interested in doing so either from within or outside the system.

Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?

Craig: A former boss of mine had a mantra that he used to share with the office: “There’s a universe of all the things you know, and there is a smaller universe of the things you can communicate.” Whether it is a team gathering, a meeting with a client, a white paper, or a policy memo, I’ve learned to spend more time thinking through the points I want to share and communicate effectively. In policy analysis circles, we often think that our “good data” or “code language” will speak for itself. But the distillation of a policy proposal to a one-pager or to a set of talking points is so important.

Second, you must always think strategically, and to do so backward. To expound, at one of my jobs, the leadership really worked to get team members to grasp the difference between objectives, strategies, and tactics. It sounds so simplistic, but I really had to work to “untrain” some habits in order to wrap my head around it, and now it’s hard to not see it when it happens. For example, you can be in a meeting with a bunch of people, and everyone is arguing over doing X or doing Y. But instead of arguing over specific tactics, the team’s energy is much better spent at pinpointing the final objective, and working through a range of strategies that might get the team there. “What is the ultimate end goal? What does that reality look like?” I’ve found that by trying to get folks to talk through a theory of change, the whole team can have more productive conversations, and it is easier to get everyone on the same page.

Finally, one of the most important lessons or skills I learned was to never respond in the heat of the moment, especially if it is something upsetting. Take a night to sleep on it.

Q. When it comes to decision-making, what are the most effective strategies? How do you make critical decisions and forge a consensus?

Craig: There are two broad camps of decision-making: the make a quick decision and explain (if necessary) while implementing, or take the time to build consensus, and, if you have to, make what is sometimes an unpopular decision. I am much more in the latter camp. Where there are decisions to be made, I stop and first ask, “Who might this affect?” I then take a close look at who is involved in making that decision, and I look specifically for whether there is proper overlap between the decision-makers and those who would be affected by the decision.

There are downsides to this approach. It takes longer and by building in time for identifying who should be participating in the conversation, reaching out and informing those individuals, and incorporating ideas and feedback, you in many cases have added significant time prior to making a decision.

Why spend the time and elongate a decision-making process? My view is that on the back-end, you have so much more buy-in for whatever approach is taken, as the decisions were made via a transparent, incorporative process. This may be buy-in for the decision itself, or buy-in — rather, trust — for the team that made it. We so often talk about diversifying organizations and teams, and also of empowering specific communities, but when key decisions arise, it’s imperative that we inquire whether those stakeholders are actively participating in such decision-making. It is eye-opening how many times, in education, as one example, where decisions are made affecting Black and Brown families, yet no Black and Brown individuals were at the table participating in the decision.

Inclusive, informed decision-making not only makes for more sustainable results, but also empowers individuals by bringing them to the table and giving them voice.

Q. In what ways did the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs prepare you for your career?

Craig: The School trains policy leaders. The School is also committed to diversity and personal mentoring, which all community members receive.

I was first introduced to the School while in college through the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute (PPIA JSI). I was lucky as a rising senior to have had the chance to spend about eight weeks in a Princeton residential hall over the summer, where I had the chance to study statistics or economics for the first time. Despite my interest in politics, government, and policy analysis, I was previously unexposed to the subjects’ importance to policymaking. The summer experience of classwork, a speaker series, and mentorship opened my eyes to the study of public policy, and provided me an understanding of what it meant to pursue such a career path.

But the School didn’t just show me what was available, it counseled me how to get there. As the summer was wrapping up, I had my eyes locked in on getting to graduate school as soon as possible, and talked of readying applications that fall. But I vividly remember a conversation I had with Associate Dean Karen McGuinness, where she encouraged me to not only explore the subjects upon my return to college, but to get out in the world and work for a few years before even considering graduate school. I took her guidance to heart. In retrospect, her words were so helpful for me: my years spent working at a nonprofit, and also working in philanthropy and education were so pivotal for my personal and professional development.

I share this story to highlight two things. Princeton prepared me for my career by making a commitment to and investment in me as a person. This started well before I stepped foot on campus for math camp, as it was the School’s efforts to identify and cultivate a diverse roster of future policy leaders that initiated my connection to Princeton. Yet, what you get from the School is not just a “packaged” set of classes and trainings, but a hands-on mentorship and guidance. Even though I wasn’t really a “student,” I had access to the School’s professors and leadership, and was able to benefit from individual consultations on how I should proceed in order to continue my development.

The School prepared me by being a small community that endeavors to build up its members, all the while working to make a more inclusive, diverse policy community.

Q. How do you think the School trains students to be policy leaders? What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?

Craig: If I were to describe how the School trains students to be policy leaders, I think of three C’s: competency, curiosity, and community.

The School excels at ensuring students develop a competency in the fundamentals of policy analysis. It also nurtures students’ curiosity through the speakers it brings to campus, new ideas for class offerings, or funding to study a language across the globe. Finally, the School fosters community. The School brought 70 individuals from across the globe and facilitated our learning from and working alongside each other. The experience at Princeton amplified my understanding of how to hear, incorporate, and support others’ interests, needs, and ideas.

In short: The School makes you become competent in the language of policy analysis, it encourages and rewards your curiosity, while showing you how to give and take and work alongside others as part of a community.

Q. How can young people entering the workforce be successful?

Craig: I like to think of myself as a young person re-entering the workforce after a “graduate school sabbatical,” so I am among the young counseling the young. I think the key suggestion is to always find a way to be helpful — and humbly make yourself indispensable.

The people that were successful in my workplaces were those that anticipated what was next. Be the person that, after a meeting one day, anticipates the team having to have a follow-up meeting on another day to discuss a related question or hurdle. If you can preempt the need for that meeting by solving an issue most didn’t realize they had (yet), you slowly become the person people want in meetings and on projects.

Also, it’s easy in today’s world to just get your assignment and assume that’s your piece. Certainly, do that part well, but the more that you can show ownership — or, more simply, just an awareness — for other moving pieces, the less likely that you get siloed.

Finally, do all the above without people really noticing that you’re doing it. As a young, new workforce entrant, the biggest danger is telling other people you know the job better than they do. You may truthfully be the smartest person to have walked campus since John Nash (RIP!), but no boss or senior person wants to be told by a new hire that the new hire is better than they are. Trust me, it does happen — you’d be surprised.

Be humble, make yourself indispensable, and always think three steps ahead.

#Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.