February 16, 2024

Careers in Child and Family Policy: Policy & Advocacy Work in the Nonprofit Sector

By Phoebe Ducote, PPS '25

On January 19, 2024, the Center for Child and Family Policy (CCFP) welcomed panelists from three nonprofit policy organizations for its Exploring Careers in Child and Family Policy Speaker Series. Neil Harrington from NC Child, Brennan Lewis from Equality NC, and Elizabeth Paul from the Public School Forum of North Carolina gave students insight into working at nonprofit policy organizations. The panelists shared how they landed their current positions, what they enjoy and find challenging about advocacy work, and tips for pursuing non-profit policy careers.

  • Neil Harrington is the current research director for NC Child, where he works on issues including early care and education, child health and safety, and family economic security.
  • Brennan Lewis works as an education policy associate at Equality NC, supporting and implementing education policy strategy to improve school environments, create stronger advocates for LGBTQ youth, and inform inclusive school board policies and state laws.
  • Elizabeth Paul is the policy and research manager at the Public School Forum of North Carolina, where she leads research, advocacy, and publication work focusing on school finance and student outcomes.

The speakers began by acknowledging that it can be hard to identify opportunities because child and family policy nonprofits are typically small, and one must seek them out. The panelists talked about looking for how their interests intersected with different non-profit policy organizations to identify places they would be interested in working. Each had different pathways into child policy, including starting in political campaigning, working internships while in school to make connections, and networking with friends.

Listening to the panelists talk about their work opened my eyes to opportunities I had not thought much about. As Duke students, we often aim for the highest level of whatever we want to pursue. For most students in policy work, that means aiming to work in DC. However, as the panelists talked, it was clear how much policy work happens at the state and local level. Many students overlook this level of policy work because of our own bias to the “size of the work.” The panelists highlighted how many policies are determined by states, counties, and cities, and how one’s work can have direct, tangible impact at this level.

Policy change happens where there’s opportunity. Part of this work is recognizing that the (political) window is sometimes closed. And during that time, it is just as important to hold on to the work, so you do not fall behind.

Elizabeth Paul

When they talked about their work, one thing that stuck with me was they all talked about how working in advocacy can be a struggle at times because policy change is impacted by so many factors. Elizabeth Paul spoke about this, explaining that “policy change happens where there’s opportunity. Part of this work is recognizing that the (political) window is sometimes closed. And during that time, it is just as important to hold on to the work, so you do not fall behind.”

For me, one of the most impactful parts of the panelists’ discussion was when they talked about their academic paths and the importance of taking time to figure out what you want to do.  When asked about their decisions to pursue an MPP rather than attending law school, two panelists highlighted the importance of taking time after a bachelor's degree to figure out how to “create change for yourself and allow yourself to think about what your next steps will be.” This opened my eyes to a world beyond the common Duke student path of going straight to graduate school and helped me realize the importance of introspection regarding my own educational path.

These perspectives and conversations are exactly why the Center for Child and Family Policy offers these speaker series and opens the opportunity to receive invaluable glimpses into different careers within child and family policy. The panelists’ shared experiences provided a rich overview of the complexities and rewards of pursuing a career in nonprofit and advocacy while underscoring the necessity of perseverance, creativity, and strategic thinking within policy advocacy. This inspired reflection on leveraging personal and academic experiences toward meaningful employment opportunities and provided helpful advice for every student contemplating careers in public policy.

Phoebe Ducote is a junior majoring in Public Policy (B.A.) with a minor in Education and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She is getting her teaching license and is planning on attending law school.