You may have noticed the city of Denver has had an influx of new residents recently—about 50 people per day moved here in 2016, according to census data, making Denver the fastest-growing city in the U.S.

So how does a growing city manage the growth pains? One way is with the help of resourceful and educated employees, such as CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs (SPA) alumna Dionne Williams.

Dionne Williams, Deputy Director for Denver’s Office of Children’s Affairs
Dionne Williams, Deputy Director for Denver’s Office of Children’s Affairs

Williams brings a passion for public service to her role as Deputy Director for Denver’s Office of Children’s Affairs, where a typical work day might involve sitting on a task force for rolling out retail marijuana sales, managing relationships with Denver’s cultural institutions and analyzing the performance metrics of My Denver, a program that provides nearly 100,000 children and youth with free access to museums, theaters, rec centers and pools.

“For much of the work we do in Denver, there is no model to follow,” Williams said. “In the case of retail marijuana sales, our team had to come up with fast and flexible solutions under intense media scrutiny. Now Denver is a model for the nation.”

Serving the city

Williams handles the challenges of working for a rapidly growing city with the aplomb she gained from years of work in the public sector and a master’s degree in Public Administration. Before accepting her current position, Williams served as an analyst for multiple departments in Denver, including public works, treasury, general services, and parks and recreation.

Although her undergraduate degree was in environmental biology, it was a job with Denver’s treasury department where she discovered a love of public service. “Working in local government is fulfilling,” Williams said. “When the city implements a program I’ve assisted with, I can see the results as I drive down the street.”

In her current capacity as deputy director of the Office of Children’s Affairs, she draws on all of her experience in local government to change the lives of the city’s youth. For the My Denver program, which aims to ensure “any youth” access to “any Denver facility,” Williams acts as the point of contact for cultural institutions that participate and ensures that transportation exists to connect kids to culture.

“My Denver gives youth from low-income neighborhoods a place to play and get a meal after school, but it also provides students from every background access to Denver’s wealth of cultural and health resources,” she said.

A degree in the city

Suffice it to say, Williams’ workday involves a series of diverse projects. To address the complexities of public service, and based on the advice of a supervisor, she made an early-career decision to boost her experience and skill set with a master’s in Public Administration.

“Getting my MPA made my career take off,” Williams said, “but more importantly, the research and relationships I built during my time at CU Denver still shapes my decisions and assists my work.”

Dionne Williams at commencement with her mother
Dionne Williams at commencement with her mother

Williams worked full time while she obtained her master’s, and she found the downtown campus easy to commute to from her office at the treasury department. SPA’s location in the heart of the city also meant that the program maintained close connections to city employees and government officials. Williams loved that her professors were former mayors and current city staff members that could give real-time advice and relevant solutions to current challenges.

“My MPA prepared me for the administrative and operational processes that are part of managing and growing the city,” Williams said. “In my classes, I met stakeholders and learned to understand the needs of different groups.”

Williams’ coursework had direct relevance for the My Denver program and all the other work she has done for Denver. For her capstone project, she surveyed cities that utilized program-based budgets, which allow citizens to have more say in how the city’s money is spent, and she made recommendations for Denver to follow a similar approach. “That project taught me practices and methods for increasing citizen engagement that I’m still using today,” Williams said.

The ability to immediately apply her coursework in her professional life eased some of the challenges of working full time, raising a family and earning her degree. Evening, weekend and online classes also helped her juggle multiple demands on her time.

In addition to skills, connections and resources that she could apply in her work, Williams credits the promotion she received six months after graduating to her MPA. “My career has taken off since graduating,” she said. “I have no regrets!”