Thursday, August 11 2022
Ashley Brittner Wells, a student in UM’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, is gaining valuable experience as a community engagement specialist for the city of Missoula.

MISSOULA – Engaging with municipal government can be difficult for residents if they don’t feel they have a meaningful voice. That’s where University of Montana student Ashley Brittner Wells comes in.

Brittner Wells is the new Community Engagement Specialist for the City of Missoula’s Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation. Her role in this position is to help interface the government with the residents of Missoula.

“I can focus on helping people engage with city government,” said Brittner Wells, a student in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at UM’s Baucus Institute. “It opens up conversations between the city and people who may feel they don’t have the capacity to reach out on their own.”

She has held a variety of different jobs, all in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

“I’ve always loved working with the public, and every job I’ve had has involved being a community liaison,” Brittner Wells said. “I feel lucky to connect the public to public service. I grew up in East Missoula and went to college here. I wanted to engage with the community in which I grew up.

While Brittner Wells had many of the skills needed for the position, additional training from the Baucus Institute’s inaugural Baucus Leaders Montana program helped her take those skills to the next level.

The Baucus Institute’s Department of Public Administration and Policy is housed within the Alexander Blewett III Law School. DPAP provides innovative public service education for pre-career and mid-career public administration and nonprofit students.

“Our Montana Baucus Leader program provides students with the opportunity to use their classroom skills to connect during summer applied learning experiences,” said MPA Director Dr. Sara Rinfret. “Our goal is to fulfill Senator Baucus’ commitment to public service. Ashley’s Baucus Leader experience provided her with additional skills and connections to land a new leadership position for city government.

“When I discovered the Public Administration Certificate, the first two weeks of the course had me hooked,” said Brittner Wells. “The program merged the skills I already had and then honed them. I am able to use the skills acquired in class daily in my position in the city.

She participated in a mentorship program with Missoula County and a fellowship with her future boss, Eran Pehan, through the Baucus Leaders Montana Fellowship at the City of Missoula.

“You learn with professionals working in the classroom, and the mentorship part gives you connections and helps you see the big picture,” Brittner Wells said.

Pehan is the Director of Community Planning, Development and Innovation for the City of Missoula.

“Ashley brings a wealth of skills — both natural experience and from the Baucus Institute,” Pehan said. “She comes to this position with a broad view of how a community works. It’s unique to be able to have a 10K view of a situation and to be able to go into the details to get things done.

“These skills make her very effective. She has the ability to listen to citizens, build relationships and coordinate people around issues. She is not afraid of conflict; she leans into it, giving people a voice.

The Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation promotes equitable growth in a sustainable community. It creates plans on homelessness, climate change and national policies at the local level.

“We study the growth of the city and ensure that we develop with fairness and inclusiveness,” Pehan said. “We want to make sure that as Missoula grows, no one is left behind. Ashley learns new skills through DPAP, then turns around and applies them. We can try new things and see how they work. It’s an incredible example of how real-world experience blends with academic experience.

Reflecting on this new position, Pehan sees the benefit of taking a longer-term approach to working with the community.

“Before Ashley’s post, we only interacted with the public on a project-by-project basis,” Pehan said. “Now there is one person who oversees all projects. It will turn into institutional knowledge that will connect the dots and make us more effective as public employees. It allows people to feel connected to local government in a way they never felt before. Government makes better decisions when citizens are involved.

As for Brittner Wells: “I feel lucky to be part of the department. This post is very exciting. People in our community are interested and want to get involved. I can help tell those stories and share those concerns and connect people. People know what they want. It’s more about bringing them to the table than representing them.

“It’s about empowering people.”

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Contact: Phil Stempin; director of events, marketing and communications; UM Blewett III School of Law; phil.stempin@umontana.edu; 406-243-6509.


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