Aubrey Sitler (2011 BA in English and Spanish)

Associate (Homelessness Technical Assistance) at Abt Associates in Chicago, IL

Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?

Technically, I’m an Associate at Abt Associates, but my more meaningful title is “homelessness technical assistance (TA) provider.” I support communities nationwide in building systems that will equitably and effectively end homelessness, ensuring that people who have experienced homelessness hold authentic decision-making power throughout the design, implementation, and ongoing improvement process. Most of my work is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but I sometimes work on projects funded by states, local governments, or philanthropies.

I’m currently our team’s youth homelessness TA lead, so I spend most of my time working with communities that are part of HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP). This program provides funding and TA to effect transformative change in each recipient’s system dedicated to youth and young adults under 25 without a parent or guardian with them. Our role as YHDP TA providers is broad and deep. We provide technical expertise in the weeds of what HUD funding can and can’t be used for, and we help to hold the big-picture vision of what it will look like to end youth homelessness. We uplift core principles like authentic youth collaboration and racial, LGBTQia+, and intersectional equity, and we facilitate planning and training sessions with up to hundreds of communitywide partners. The work is complex, always moving, and challenging. I love it.

More broadly, Abt Associates is a public sector consulting firm and federal contractor that specializes in research, evaluation, and implementation (that’s what I do as a TA provider) across domestic and international policy fields.

What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?

I’ve always been compelled to work toward justice. And by “justice” I mean actual justice – fairness, equity, moral rightness – not the brand of justice our justice system promises but often fails to deliver on. For a long time, I thought I would be a lawyer, but during my senior year at Wake, I went on a school-sponsored service-learning trip overseas that changed my course. During this trip, our group bore witness to some pretty heinous situations – among them, we saw a group of women with disabilities receive electroshock treatment while they were awake, with no muscle relaxers or other interventions to alleviate the pain. It still gives me chills to remember that day, in part because there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop it (we did try). There was no law or person protecting these women from this treatment. There was no justice for them in this situation. It made me realize that, while working within the law holds some specific types of power, it didn’t allow for the type of advocacy and systems-change work I wanted to contribute to.

Two years after graduating from Wake, I began a dual master’s degree in public policy and clinical social work (MPP/MSW) at the University of Michigan. When I would tell people what I was studying, many raised their eyebrows at me, wondering what a super micro-focused degree (clinical social work) could possibly have in common with a super macro-focused degree (public policy). I’ve always maintained that these fields are inextricable from each other: you cannot possibly make good policy if you aren’t connected to the people most impacted by those policies on the ground. I wanted to enter a field where I could help be a bridge between the critical work that’s happening on the ground and at the people making decisions at the highest levels of policymaking and program design. I started at Abt shortly after graduating with my MPP/MSW in 2016, where my current role is in many ways exactly what I envisioned.

Between college and starting at Abt, and well before feeling equipped to advise people on program and system design and implementation, I had numerous other experiences doing direct-service and policy work that continue to inform how I approach my work today. Most formatively, I worked at a day center for adults with developmental disabilities, I facilitated domestic violence intervention groups with perpetrators, I worked as a case manager for adults with major psychiatric diagnoses in Melbourne, Australia’s public mental health system, and I worked in the policy and strategy division of a state-level veterans’ agency. Each of these experiences and fields overlaps with each other and, of course, with homelessness.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?

Homelessness is a high-stakes issue. People die on the streets across the country every day, and many more people endure acute and ongoing trauma from sleeping unsheltered or being unstably housed. I work with so many people who are committed to providing care to and advocating for policy and funding solutions for unhoused folks on every level, but often it doesn’t feel like enough. Often, it feels like the institutions and systems that cause homelessness will always be working harder and smarter than we are. When I log off of my computer for the day and walk by the encampment that’s a few blocks from where I live, or notice that more tents have popped up in the park along the lakeshore, it doesn’t feel like we’re doing enough. When it’s February in Chicago and I go to meet a friend for brunch, I invariably pass at least one person who slept outside in negative windchill overnight, and it doesn’t feel like we’re doing enough. The juxtaposition of unhoused folks’ ongoing reality and my extreme privilege for getting to work and take home a salary in this field is challenging and, at times, painful to sit with.

At the end of the day, though, I remind myself that this work and this movement are not about me. I am not solely responsible for why people experience homelessness, nor could I ever be solely responsible for the solution. I focus on what I can control – treating the people I encounter in my neighborhood with dignity and respect, and spending my time at work making space for and uplifting that core value of ensuring funding gets to and power sits with the people closest to the pain of homelessness. To loosely quote Ron Chisom, co-founder of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: “People don’t need programming — they need their power back.” I am committed to playing my part and being a cog in a wheel of the movement that’s trying to make these institutions and systems function differently – to institutionalize housing as a human right.

To that end, those moments when it feels like we’re not doing enough then become reminders of why it’s so imperative to keep showing up each day.

What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?

True work-life balance can be elusive, but it is possible. I’ve learned that it’s easy for me to fall into a pattern of living to work, which is a recipe for misery. To combat this, I’ve learned to be intentional and strategic about how I spend my time both on and off the clock, ensuring that I’m spending more time on things that give me energy than those that suck it away. I also prioritize doing something life-giving every day – running, cooking, painting, playing the piano, boxing, calling a friend I haven’t seen in a while, taking a long walk with my golden retriever, Poppy. Never let your loyalty to a company or job outweigh your loyalty to yourself. You are the only one who is ever going to have your best interests at heart, so set the boundaries you need to prioritize your humanity, health, and mental health; no employer is going to do that for you. Know your values and your worth, and don’t settle for a working environment that dismisses either of these.

We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?

It’s important to me to build authentic relationships with the people I work with and encounter professionally. For me, this means finding people in my vicinity whose values and orientation to our world align with mine, and getting to know each other through the context of whatever work we share. This naturally leads those connections to be relational, trusting, and centered in our shared humanity, rather than being transactional.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?

Find your learning edge and lean into it. Consider what specifically compels you about the work to end homelessness, identify the strengths you bring to the table, and get involved – volunteer at a drop-in center, contact a local service provider to ask about job opportunities, and get to know your neighbors experiencing homelessness. There is room for everyone at the table who wants to contribute to the movement to end homelessness.

What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?

I don’t anticipate leaving this field or Abt any time soon. In a lot of ways, my current role is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and there’s enough variety in the types of TA we do at Abt to keep me invested and learning for a long time. I get to work with inspiring and brilliant people on a daily basis who are committed to making our world a more just place and dismantling white supremacy culture in the systems we build, and I foresee being energized by the importance and challenge of this work for a while.

Story published in August 2022. For current updates about Aubrey, visit her LinkedIn page.