Policy Task Forces

Policy Task Forces are the most distinctive feature of our undergraduate program. They address unfinished questions of public policy, often characterized by rapidly changing circumstances. Topics are selected for their timeliness, their suitability for research and task force deliberation, and their public importance. Task forces often blend domestic and international concerns, economic and legal analysis, scientific and political approaches, and ethical and institutional issues. The nature of the problem requires students to go beyond library research and interact with government officials and others actively engaged in the relevant issues. Task force members debate proposed recommendations as a group and combine information from their individual research, guest speakers, field visits, and group discussions to arrive at a set of recommendations on the policy problem.

For more detailed information, please access the SPIA Undergraduate Program Guide to Junior Independent Work.

Getting Started in Data Analysis: Topic Selection and Crafting of a Research Question - Independent research projects start with the selection of a topic and the crafting of a feasible research question. This video maps the initial steps to help...


Topics for Spring 2024 Include:

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMRamón Cruz

As a candidate, President Biden put forward the most progressive and pro-climate platform of any candidate in the history of the United States. His administration started right away putting together legislation, executive orders, and administrative programs to make these a reality. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act together with the Justice 40 Initiative represents an unprecedented achievement to reduce climate pollution and make historic investments in clean energy, especially in the communities that needs it the most and that are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. With its Whole-of-Government approach, President Biden placed climate justice at the center of his administration. This represents a proactive approach to what many environmentalists and disadvantaged communities have been advocating for decades. But does it really achieve this? This Taskforce will explore the origins of the environmental justice movement, key aspects of climate action-oriented policies, and dive into how different federal agencies are working to implement these pieces of legislation and the Justice 40 Initiative. Our policy group travel trip and guest lecturers will involve some interactions with officials in charge of environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Ramón J. Cruz has over 20 years of experience intersecting the fields of sustainability, environmental policy, urban planning, energy and climate change. He has worked in the public sector in his native Puerto Rico as the Deputy Director of the Environmental Quality Board, the state environmental regulatory agency and as appointed Commissioner of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission. He has also worked in the non-governmental sector in senior positions at the Environmental Defense Fund, the Partnership for New York City and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He has been a consultant for the World Bank, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). From June 2020 – June 2023, he served as President of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organization with 3.8 million members and supporters in 64 chapters across the United States. He is currently the Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Ramón have served in numerous boards of directors and is a common op-ed writer in several publications. He is a graduate of American University in Washington D.C. and Princeton University in New Jersey.

Monday 1:30-4:00 PM Raquel Mazon Jeffers/Wendy McWeeny/Jhenielle Reynolds

This course will introduce students to the maternal mortality crisis facing the United States and New Jersey. This class will examine the multipronged, multi-stakeholder effort to make New Jersey the safest place in the nation to give birth and raise a baby. Students will study the conditions that led to the historically poor maternal health outcomes in the state. In conversation with movement leaders, practitioners, course facilitators, and one another, they will explore the policy and practice components of the birth equity movement, including philanthropy, community organizing and activism, clinical and non-clinical care providers (midwives, doulas, perinatal Community Health Workers) and health care policy and financing.

As a final project, students will make policy and program recommendations to State leaders to ensure improved maternal health outcomes in New Jersey. This course will be taught by practitioners with experience in state government, philanthropy, and birthwork.

Raquel Mazon Jeffers is co-director of The Community Health Acceleration Partnership (CHAP), where she is focused on creating more integrated and community-based care systems at the state and national level. Ms. Mazon Jeffers brings over 30 years of experience leading transformative public health initiatives. She’s impacted health and behavioral health systems on behalf of Government agencies, foundations and non-profits. Much of her work has focused on delivery system reform for vulnerable populations. Together with her CHAP colleagues and partners, Raquel is working to change the role of philanthropy, carving out new spaces for donors to listen, putting the decision-making power in the hands of community members, and ensuring that investments facilitate sustainable, positive community health change. Before joining CHAP, Ms. Mazon Jeffers was a Senior Program Officer at The Nicholson Foundation, where she led grantmaking on population health, telehealth, and maternal and child health. Prior to Nicholson, Ms. Mazon Jeffers served as Deputy Director of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services for the New Jersey Department of Human Services. In this role, she modernized New Jersey’s addition system of care increasing access and integrating behavioral health and primary care services. Ms. Mazon Jeffers holds two Master’s degrees, one in Public Health and the other in International Affairs.

Wendy McWeeny is co-director of The Community Health Acceleration Partnership, where she leads the team in building high-impact community health programs through collaboration, capacity-building and mobilization of private and public resources. Throughout her career, Wendy has worked to advance birth equity, strengthen community-based workforce programs and policies, and build philanthropic alliances to better coordinate and leverage public dollars. Wendy has worked in philanthropy for over two decades, primarily as a senior advisor at the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the family foundation of Ray Chambers, U.N. and WHO Special Envoy and founder of Wesray Capital. Wendy staffed projects in Newark, NJ prior to heading the Foundation’s global portfolio, where she helped to establish two non-profits, Millennium Promise and Malaria No More. While at the MCJ Amelior Foundation Wendy also supported the establishment of the first Office of the UN Special Envoy for Malaria, which had an instrumental role in increasing financing for malaria interventions and decreasing malaria deaths by 50%. Her work with this office expanded to supporting Community Health Worker programs in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to an interest in growing and financially sustaining community-based workforces in Africa and subsequently the U.S. Wendy received her BA from Princeton University, where she also received a Master’s in Public Administration from the School for Public and International Affairs.

Jhenielle Reynolds (she/her) is a deeply curious, passionate advocate for reproductive justice and holistic wellness who brings a global, intersectional perspective to her work. She is currently the Program Manager of the Community Health Acceleration Partnership (CHAP), where she leverages her experience as a birth worker for systems-level change. As Program Manager, Jhenielle partners with CHAP’s directors to support the organization’s portfolio of maternal health and community health grants and serves as CHAP’s liaison to the New Jersey Birth Equity Funders Alliance.

Jhenielle is also a practicing birth doula and Integrative Lactation and Feeding Specialist who embarked on her journey in birthwork after learning from and working with a team of midwives and obstetricians in rural Argentina to learn more about the framework of parto humanizado which loosely translates as “humanized birth” and centers the needs of the birthing person during labor and childbirth. She currently works with expectant families living and birthing in northern New Jersey and some parts of Manhattan. Jhenielle’s professional experience has crossed public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. These experiences provided her the opportunity to toggle between engaging directly with communities and larger systems. Her experiences in higher education and philanthropy include working as an admissions officer, virtual college adviser, and overseeing program operations for a national grant-funded initiative at Bloomberg Philanthropies that provided free college advising services to over 80,000 high achieving low-income students across the country. Jhenielle received a BA in Global Studies focused on Global Health in Latin America, with minors in Medical Anthropology and Spanish for the Health Professions from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMEduardo Bhatia

Explore the dynamic alliance between Panama and the United States, delving into a century-long political partnership that spans economic, political, security, and social realms. Navigate the significance of Panama as Latin America's paramount commercial center, boasting the globally pivotal Panama Canal and Tocumen airport. Recent unrest stemming from the privatization of a copper mine adds a contemporary layer to the narrative, echoing the intricate interplay of politics and economics. Join the Junior SPIA Task Force in dissecting the intricacies of current U.S. policy towards Panama, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and crafting insightful public policy recommendations. An immersive experience awaits, with the prospect of engaging directly with key stakeholders, including the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador, Mari Carmen Aponte, during a potential Spring Break 2024 visit to Panama.

Eduardo Bhatia is an attorney, advocate and expert on fiscal matters and public policy with over 25 years of experience championing government/democracy reforms and public and private coalitions to achieve fiscally responsible policy targets, economic development, quality education and renewable energy goals. He is currently the John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs & Co. Visiting Professor and visiting lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University and a Board Member of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. Bhatia holds a B.A. in Public and International Affairs from Princeton University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.


Tuesday 7:30-10:00 PMCarol Martin

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) advances America’s foreign policy interests while improving lives in developing countries. USAID's Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG) Strategy supports citizens’ participation, rights, and inclusion, for example, through free and fair elections, and governance, through the transparent, accountable, and efficient delivery of such government services as justice and access to education, food, healthcare, and jobs. DRG programs are implemented in partnership with national governments, international agencies, the private sector, and local and international civil society organizations. There is ongoing debate, however, about the sustainability and effectiveness of USAID’s approach in advancing US national security and achieving broader social and economic development goals.

The task force will analyze lessons learned and best practices to assess the impact of USAID’s DRG bilateral development assistance in select countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The task force report will be in the form of policy recommendations for strengthening USAID DRG programs.

Carol L. Martin, PhD served as Democracy and Governance advisor for USAID at the Regional Center for Southern Africa in Botswana and USAID/Mozambique and as a Senior Policy Advisor for the US Department of State’s First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She has also consulted overseas for global non-governmental organizations and served as the executive director for the African Studies Association.

Tuesday 7:30-10:00 PM — Martin Flaherty

The People’s Republic of China [PRC] presents the greatest and most complex challenge to the realization of international human rights. No other society has realized so many economic and social rights so quickly and on such a vast scale. Yet the PRC remains among the greatest and most persistent offenders of civil and political rights. Assaults on human rights and the rule of law have increased dramatically under Xi Jinping. Domestically, the has engaged in often brutal crackdowns on ethnic and religious minorities, civil society groups, lawyers, human rights advocates, and academics, including Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Beyond its own borders the PRC has also sought to stifle criticism of its actions beyond its borders. Finally, the PRC has also sought to undermine international human rights law at the UN and in other fora.

This Task Force will study the PRC’s ongoing assault the rule of law and consider what possible steps that the US government under the Biden Administration should respond. Specific topics include: academic freedom, legal reform, anti-discrimination, the environment, women’s rights, and LGBT issues, as well as possible responses in international forums, including the UN. The Task Force will make recommendations to relevant organizations in New York and Washington D.C., including the Council on Foreign Relations, Congressional Staff, the State Department, and National Security Council staff at the White House, and Congress.

Martin S. Flaherty is Leitner Family Professor of International Law and Founding Co-Director of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School and Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School. He is also a founder of the Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, and President of the American Association of the International Commission of Jurists.

Monday 12:00-2:30 PMDerek Kilmer

In recent years, polling suggests the American public views the U.S. Congress less favorably than headlice, colonoscopies, and the rock band Nickelback. Indeed, the U.S. Congress has seen unprecedented levels of partisanship, a decline in the exercise of the constitutional powers originally vested in Article One of the Constitution, the frequent inability to pass important legislation (including basic budget and spending bills and reauthorizations of critical programs and even entire agencies), and the overall erosion of institutional capacity. Every 20-30 years or so, Congress establishes a committee focused on recommending institutional reforms. In response to rising dysfunction, the most recent iteration of such a reform committee was the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (“ModCom”), established in the 116th Congress with a mission of making Congress work better for the American people.

This policy task force will review many of the systemic challenges facing the U.S. House that have led to the underperformance of the institution. The class will review subject areas covered by the ModCom as well as other factors that contribute to the institution’s challenges, including issues related to:

  • Reforming campaign finance, redistricting, and primary election processes
  • Strengthening the ability of the institution to recruit, retain, and have more diverse staff
  • Improving the use of technology to engage constituents and solve problems
  • Encouraging evidence-based policy making
  • Reclaiming the institution’s Article One authorities including the power of the purse, oversight, and war powers
  • Modernizing rules and procedures to improve efficiency
  • Limiting division caused by cable news, social media, and other outside forces
  • Facilitating greater civility and collaboration within the institution
  • Making significant structural changes to committees and/or the institution itself
  • Establishing rules for the continuity of Congress

The members of this task force will act as though they are staff members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Each week, class will resemble a committee roundtable, with issue briefings detailing some of the challenges and considerations for the week’s topic, witness testimony from visiting experts, and then a free-flowing conversation in hopes of understanding problems facing the institution and potential reforms/recommendations. Task force participants will be expected to complete the week’s reading, prepare a one-page summary of key takeaways, and actively engage visiting experts. Each junior paper will focus on a specific area of potential reform that will contribute to a broader final report to be presented to former members of the Select Committee and to members of the House’s Fix Congress Caucus.

The task force will be geared toward students with an interest in serving in or working in Congress, with students being provided opportunities to engage current and former congressional leaders, staff members, and others.

Derek Kilmer currently serves as United States Representative for the residents of Washington’s 6th Congressional District. He serves as Ranking Member of the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Modernization, Co-Chair of the House Fix Congress Caucus, and as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. For four years, Kilmer served as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a committee that made more than 200 recommendations to make Congress work better for the American people.

Kilmer was born and raised on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the son of two school teachers. Motivated by the economic challenges that faced his hometown, Kilmer focused his studies on economic development, earning a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s School of Public & International Affairs and a doctoral degree from the University of Oxford in England. Kilmer worked professionally in economic development, focusing on growing jobs in his region. Later, he served in the Washington State House and the Washington State Senate before being elected to Congress in 2012. For his work on reforming government, he has been recognized by organizations including the Bipartisan Policy Center, Issue One, and the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications.