Alumni in Action

Public Service Spotlight

Margaret diZerega

MPA-PNP - 2004

Director of the Family Justice Program Vera Institute of Justice

Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?

I am the Director of the Family Justice Program at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera). The research shows that when people who are incarcerated stay connected to their families and other important people, they have better outcomes while incarcerated and when they return to the community. In my role at Vera, I work with adult and juvenile justice agencies to help them integrate policies and practices that are family-focused. Our work is informed by interviews and surveys with incarcerated people and their family members.

In addition to my work at Vera, I'm also the board chair of a women's choir in Brooklyn called Bella Voce Singers.

Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?

I went to Williams College, where I studied American Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. From there, I came to New York and started as a full-time student at NYU Wagner. I had wonderful internships at Safe Horizon and at Local Initiatives Support Corporation's (LISC) Community Safety Initiative while at Wagner. After graduation, my LISC internship turned into a full-time position; I was a Program Officer working on partnerships between police and community development corporations. During this time, we also started exploring the issue of housing access for formerly incarcerated people. After LISC, I worked as a project manager and became the director of training and technical assistance at Family Justice, a Vera spin-off organization. I had an existing relationship with Family Justice, as they were my Capstone Client. When Family Justice closed, we moved the national work of the organization to Vera.

What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?

I had always wanted to work in the nonprofit field and I felt that an MPA would help me understand the management-side of organizations and that I would also increase my skill set beyond what my liberal arts education had prepared me for.

In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?

I do a lot of grant writing in my role and the financial management classes help me when it comes to preparing budgets and working with our fiscal department. I also really appreciate the strategic management class I took and the housing class I took that was a joint Wagner-law school course.

Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?

The reflective practice class I took really helped me gain insight into how we all approach problems from such different perspectives. I think it made me more aware of my own tendencies and helped me appreciate what a diverse group of staff can bring to problem-solving. Clearly my capstone was also very influential since our client ended up becoming my employer shortly after leaving Wagner.

Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?

During my capstone project, I started learning about the issues surrounding prisoner reentry. We gained a range of perspectives, from talking with Family Justice staff, interviewing government officials and Family Justice clients and family members. My capstone served as a great introduction to the issues and I've been working on them ever since.

Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?

I really wish I had taken the program evaluation class as well as more economics classes with Professor Ingrid Ellen. I would have really benefited from learning about program evaluation from a theoretical perspective in addition to the applied elements of that class. The more policy areas I learn about, I think the economic perspective is a very important one to understand because our primary partners are government agencies and if we cannot help frame some of our work from the economic perspective and cost-benefit perspective, we are missing an opportunity.

How are you involved with the Wagner community as an alumna (i.e. attending events, mentoring students, maintaining connections with other alumni, recruiting at Wagner, etc.)?

I attend a number of Wagner events each year including a wonderful event on homeless in NYC with Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Diamond. I've been very fortunate to serve as a panelist for some Wagner events and have had Wagner interns and met other Wagner interns who work for other parts of Vera. We often table at Wagner’s Career Expo as well. These have all been great ways to stay connected with the school.