Policy expert expands his influence from city projects like Urban Peak and Denver's Road Home to the state as Hick's new policy advisor and policy director for health, human services and education
Like many undergraduates, when Jamie Van Leeuwen, PhD ’07, matriculated at Creighton University, he did so intending to flout his parents’ middle-income careers as educators. He wanted to become a surgeon and “fabulously wealthy.”
Instead, he says, “I fell in love with working with the poor.”
The trajectory from financially ambitious pre-med student to entry-level social worker looked like this: As Van Leeuwen prepared to apply to medical school, his undergraduate mentor, Dr. Gilles Monif, suggested that before locking into medicine, he explore his interest in international issues. Monif advised him to get a master’s degree in public health and then decide.
As part of the international MPH he was pursuing at Tulane University, Van Leeuwen traveled to Ghana’s Lagon University to work on DNA testing for malaria, where he got his first taste of how poverty and complex social problems intersect. Back in Colorado, he took a job at Family Tree Gemini House as a weekend supervisor and adolescent caseworker and became enamored of working with troubled and homeless youth.
Still interested in research and policy, Van Leeuwen returned to Tulane for a second master’s in sociology, where he studied street kids and inner-city heroin addicts. But the Big Easy wore on him. Even pre-Katrina, he says, “New Orleans was a great place to learn what was wrong, but there were not a lot of innovating interventions” to make things right.
Instead of completing his PhD in New Orleans, he enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder. Roxanne White, then-president of Urban Peak (currently Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff), recruited Van Leeuwen to spearhead the street outreach program for Urban Peak, a nonprofit for homeless youth.
His years at Urban Peak gave Van Leeuwen an enormous range of experience, running and developing programs to combat homelessness, fundraising, working with the media and serving on governmental task forces. Both White and Van Leeuwen were interested in using data-driven methods to help the poor. As his work with Urban Peak deepened, he began conducting research on intravenous drug use and testing for sexually transmitted diseases in nonclinical outreach settings.
Their research piqued the interest of Dr. Franklin James, a University of Colorado Denver professor of public policy in the School of Public Affairs (SPA). As he and Van Leeuwen worked together and became friends, James convinced Van Leeuwen to transfer to UCD and work with him.
“He pestered and pestered me and in March 2003, I called Franklin and said, ‘You win. I’m interested in coming over, if I can study under you.’” Van Leeuwen finished the semester in Boulder and was slated to start at UCD in the fall, when he learned that James had died of a heart attack on July 4.
“I felt duty bound to finish,” Van Leeuwen says. “And to the credit of SPA, Peter deLeon took me under his wing. I dedicated my dissertation to Franklin James. He was a great steward of the poor, and I was honored that he would have me as a student.”
In 2006 Van Leeuwen was appointed executive director of Denver’s Road Home, Mayor Hickenlooper’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. The job drew on his belief in the power of well-implemented public policy and his passion for combating poverty. Its stated mission, though, set the bar very, very high.
The “only way you accomplish something like this is to get the entire community involved,” Van Leeuwen says. “At the table we had the mayor’s office, nonprofits, United Way, business leaders and homeless individuals. We showed other cities it’s possible to tackle complex social issues with measurable goals and outcomes.”
Just over mid-way through the 10-year plan, Denver’s Road Home has made measureable strides: $50 million in new funds, 2,000 new units of affordable housing, 3,500 families saved from falling into homelessness and a reduction in chronic homelessness by 70 percent. The program was also recognized by HUD as one of the top six homeless programs in the country.
Last May, Hickenlooper tapped Van Leeuwen to become the policy czar for his gubernatorial campaign, a position that had Van Leeuwen drinking from a policy fire hose on unfamiliar issues such as agriculture and energy.
“It was one of the most extraordinary learning experiences of my career,” he says of the campaign. “SPA taught me how to write good public policy. My job was to assemble the smartest guys and gals in the room who understand these issues to synthesize, advise and guide. It was like being back in graduate school where you get up early in morning, get inundated with information, synthesize it and if you didn’t go to bed tired at night you hadn’t done your job.”
In January, Van Leeuwen became Hickenlooper’s new policy advisor and policy director for health, human services and education—another great opportunity.
One of the projects on the list is an exchange opportunity, called the Global Institute, through the grassroots nonprofit Come Let’s Dance (CLD) for students, business and policy leaders and medical professionals in Uganda. The idea is not to “fix Africa,” Van Leeuwen says, but to support CLD’s medical and business-empowerment initiatives while also inspiring research and ongoing interest in addressing poverty in Africa and the United States. “We’re excited about what public policy students can learn from Uganda,” he says, “and what Uganda can learn from them.”
Repurposed from the spring 2011 issue of CU on the Horizon