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interstory Community Feature: Shahirah Mahmood (Easterseals DC MD VA)

Get to know interstory member Shahirah Mahmood in this community feature interview!

Shahirah Mahmood is Senior Project Manager of Measurement and Evaluation at Easterseals DC MD VA. She lives in the Washington, DC area but is originally from Singapore.

What do you do for work?

I am the Senior Project Manager of Measurement and Evaluation at a human services non-profit, Easterseals DC MD VA. In that capacity, I develop programmatic and operational measures to assess program efficiency, effectiveness and overall alignment with the organizational mission. I am also creating a centralized data repository (Data Lake) across 10 programs and developing dashboarding solutions that optimize workflows, enhance program quality and drive strategic decision-making.

What inspires you in your work?

My work aligns with my values and fulfills my need to engage in scientific inquiry while working on programs and services that directly impact people's lives. In line with one of my values, living a life in service of others, I am inspired by our clients and their caregivers who confront adversity, hardship and prejudice daily. Yet, they have found the courage, strength and perseverance to show up, achieve their goals and continue thriving. My organization collects a repository of "Mission Moments" stories - a compilation of “thank you” notes. These are real-life accounts of hardship from a caregiver who is taking care of his or her parent with dementia and sends that parent to our Adult Day Services; or a veteran who was at the brink of suicide and received behavioral health services from our behavioral health clinic; or a single parent who was able to enjoy some respite from caring for his or her child with special needs through our Respite Services. These heartwarming stories reflect the resilience of the human condition and demonstrate how, with the proper support and social infrastructure, we can create a community where all individuals can live with dignity.

Where do you see yourself in five years professionally? Ten years?

In the next five years, I hope to grow the "Data and Evaluation" team at my organization and be a thought leader in the evaluation, data and non-profit/social services space. I am grateful and excited to be in the middle of a fascinating and innovative project from which I believe other small and medium non-profits could benefit. I want to scale our cloud solution across the organization and other Easterseals' affiliates. I also want to share our experiences and lessons learned with other organizations embarking on similar evaluation and data/cloud journeys.

In 10 years, I hope to carve a senior leadership role that combines all of the elements above – research, evaluation, strategic leadership within the impact/data/digital information space. I would cherish the opportunity to contribute my expertise and experience by working with other executives and senior leaders in my field. As a former academic, I also see myself finding opportunities to teach applied courses in universities such that I can combine my love for theory/research with practical and programmatic insight.

I believe strongly in the power of using data, information and technology to facilitate, coordinate and ultimately enhance the performance of nonprofits and social services. I want to be involved in such a coordinated cross-sectoral (industry, non-profit, government) network effort that collectively addresses social issues.

I am increasingly drawn to research that examines how different organizational entities - with distinct business models, organizational structure, culture, value proposition and structures of accountability - articulate, strategize and implement social change. Similarly, I am curious about how different organizational creatures with differing levels of technological maturity and at various points in the continuum from data fragmentation/silos to data integration, use information to solve organizational problems. I hope to explore these issues further in my work and apply them to solve organizational and business issues within the social services sphere.

What program(s) have you participated in (from childhood until now) that have had a significant impact on who you've become?

This would be my doctoral program in Political Science - both coursework and dissertation writing phases. The coursework phase was an intellectually and emotionally intense experience. It taught me how to persevere under immense pressure and expectations. It was my first experience living abroad, being thousands of miles away from family, and being completely independent and self-reliant. It forced me to balance self-care with my course workload and teaching commitments.

The dissertation writing phase prepared me for my current role. Writing a dissertation is an exercise of discipline, strategy, goal-setting and self-love. It is easy to throw in the towel when you have what feels like an amorphous, colossal and complex task ahead of you. The exercise of carving out manageable chunks of work, setting realistic, time-bound yet adaptable goals, along with a tenacious, can-do attitude are lessons I have learned while writing my dissertation and are now being applied to my current role.

The task ahead of me as Senior Manager of Measurement and Evaluation at Easterseals is to develop a performance measurement and evaluation system and fully integrated data system. We have set ourselves an ambitious goal of getting all of the data systems fully integrated by 2023. For a medium-size non-profit operating more than 10 programs, this is a huge undertaking. We have made good and steady progress, working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create the Easterseals Data Lake. We are in the final stages of our Proof Of Concept (POC), integrating data from our first use case. We are excited for our program directors, administrative staff and senior leadership - the primary users of the Data Lake - to play around with the dashboard once it is up and running. With a successful POC, I believe we will have sustained commitment from supporters, funders and donors to move to the project's subsequent phases.

What causes are you really passionate about? Why?

I am passionate about a multitude of causes, but I would say the top three are: expanding good-quality and inexpensive educational opportunities for lower-income, vulnerable and marginalized communities; ending homelessness; and creating sustainable growth through conservation and investing in green jobs and infrastructure.

I believe expanding education (preschool, K-12, higher education) opportunities for vulnerable, marginalized, low-income children are critical to upward social mobility. Aside from the troves of data and research to back this up, I have experienced how quality education can contribute to upward social mobility. While I was privileged to be raised by parents who prioritized education, I am a first-generation college student. Growing up in Singapore, I had access to low-cost, good-quality education in a country where teaching is a respected profession and teachers were paid a decent (enough) salary. While there were disparities between the opportunities that a student would receive in elite and neighborhood schools in Singapore, as well as debilitating pressure on students to perform in national standardized exams, I believe the overall pros of the Singapore education system outweigh the cons, from a comparative US-Singapore perspective. Teachers are grossly underpaid in the US, and because of the way schools are funded via the property tax, you have an inherent system that exacerbates inequalities. Federal-funded educational programs like Head Start and welfare programs like TANF, Medicaid, SNAP and SSI, while sorely needed, are insufficient to meet the needs of a shrinking middle class and burgeoning low-income families. Good-quality education that centers critical thinking and analysis, communication skills and fosters an innovative and inquisitive mind are crucial elements for students to succeed in the next economic frontier.

I am also passionate about ending homelessness, and I believe in a housing-first approach. A housing-first approach that provides permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities (housing, food, access to healthcare) before they can secure employment and attend to other issues like mental health and substance abuse. Given that women with young children and adults and youths with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the population of people experiencing homelessness, it is essential to recognize that a housing-first approach needs to be accompanied by a whole host of wrap-around services. This expansive network of coordinated services across several support social services is paramount when we think about lifting a generation out of poverty. Numerous case studies have shown success in the housing-first approach, and we should consider scaling this approach to other cities and municipalities (see a concise study by the Urban Institute and DC's approach to implementing Housing First and other related approaches).

While I have always practiced recycling, reducing and reusing plastic products, my desire to lead a greener lifestyle and learn more about sustainable living is driven mainly by my daughter and future generations ahead of me. I am really impressed by and in awe of members of Gen Z who have led the charge to address climate change. Global youth collectives worldwide and in developing economies also link the issue of climate change to social crises and economic inequities. We have much to learn from these young leaders and their bold methods for organizing and pushing for change.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I don't have much free time. =) I am a mother to a young daughter, and our family is about to grow!

But if I do, I love to go for long walks with my husband - preferably in nature, go out on sushi dates with my husband, read anything/everything that I am curious about, and pick up a new skill (or several new skills). Once it is safe to travel, I'd like to plan trips to Singapore, Malaysia and London (visit family), Thailand/Cambodia (beaches), Croatia (beaches and family friend) and Alaska (Northern Lights).

What’s something that you really want to learn about or learn how to do?

I want to learn how to arrange my lifestyle to make it more sustainable. I've always wondered if there is a market out there to start a business to help families or individuals like myself lead a greener lifestyle, or a similar business that would work with retail supermarket companies to introduce sustainable packaging or no-package purchasing for bulk and raw items.

These are the other skills that I want to learn, but in no particular order: sewing, upscaling furniture, composting and gardening, building a terrarium and self-sustaining aquarium, playing the piano and learning Spanish.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

I thought long and hard about this because I believe everyone has unique opinions/perspectives, and I enjoy understanding different individuals' worldviews. Although my academic training was in political science, I've always enjoyed unstructured interview techniques applied by ethnographers to learn about other societies, cultures, etc. The aspect I enjoyed the most during my 14-month fieldwork in Indonesia was the interviews with my informants. You can learn so much more by talking to other people than you can ever learn from reading a textbook or a research paper.

To answer the question, I will situate it in my current reading interest, mainly what's happening on the ground in Myanmar right now – the military takeover of civilian rule under the NLD. Anyone following the news about Myanmar will know that civilian rule introduced in 2011 was primarily cosmetic, as the military junta still controlled parliament and political life. Before the state of emergency was declared earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, had faced a torrent of criticism over her complicity in the atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority.

I would like to have dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi because her actions towards the Rohingya minority profoundly contradict my opinions of and reverence for her. Growing up, I learned about Aung San Suu Kyi's non-violent fight for democracy and liberation for her country and the painful personal sacrifices she's had to endure for her people. Amongst them were being under prolonged periods of house arrest and barred from returning to Myanmar if she visited her ailing husband in the UK. I grew to respect and admire her conviction, resolve and courage in the face of profound duress and adversity. However, despite the complications of living in and governing a multi-ethnic community, Aung San's personal defense of the military's deplorable and heinous actions towards the Rohingyas has left me disgusted and perplexed about who I once admired and respected. Mostly, I'd like to understand the reasons for her seemingly contradictory actions and her worldview on human rights, which appears very selective at this point.

What topic are you an expert on? In other words, what can people ask you about?

It would be the work that I am currently focused on - program evaluation, developing performance indicators and managing a technical project with cloud infrastructure. While my field knowledge on this is a little dated, I still read and am knowledgeable about research on social movements, including feminist and religious-based organizing.

What are some online websites/resources that you find yourself referencing frequently that might be interesting for others?

Is there anything else that you'd like to share about yourself or your work?

I love connecting with people, learning new things/perspectives and sharing my knowledge. Thank you for reading my lengthy feature, and if there is anything that piques your interest about the work that I'm doing or if we share similar interests, I'd love to hear from you!