Colleen Graber empowers change at Public Policy Associates
Rosie the Riveter is an iconic American image from World War II that represents and embodies a time in our country when women were called to action. She has inspired and empowered women for generations with her “We Can Do It!” attitude. About 75 years later, this image still speaks to women today.
For Colleen Graber, chief operating officer of Public Policy Associates Inc., Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of strength.
“She is a symbol, historically, of how women took on a role that was needed and yet new for women around World War II, when the men were off fighting,” Graber said. “The image is strong and isn’t showing stereotypical womanhood; she’s not in her kitchen in her heels doing the mopping, which is really the social expectation of that time period. She’s a new vision, at that time, for what women can be – and it still resonates now.”
It just happens to be a coincidence that Rosie portrayed women working in factories and in nontraditional occupations for women, while Graber works toward bettering conditions for those in similar industries. Public Policy Associates provides research and evaluation services as well as strategic consulting to a variety of government agencies and workforces, philanthropies, and nonprofit organizations both throughout the state of Michigan and nationally. Generally, it studies social programs, education, criminal and juvenile justice, healthy communities and food access, and workforce development.
“We’re trying to inform policymaking and decisions in a sound way, through research and data,” Graber explained.
She has been with Public Policy Associates for almost 16 years and is the first female president of the organization. Graber currently manages projects, handles leadership design and implementation, conducts general research and strategic work, and supervises staff. Before taking on her role of president, Graber worked largely on research projects and helped to identify and manage projects. She has filled roles within the organization from editor to working on research. Graber is able to use that experience and knowledge to help fulfill needs both within the organization and the organizations that Public Policy Associates assists.
“We have been working on doing more issue briefs lately – which is a newer thing we’ve been doing and providing on different policy topic areas that we work in – and just trying to continue to Michigan’s success, broadly speaking, while also working nationally,” Graber said. “We’re delivering good work so we can empower organizations to do their best for the residents or population in their area.”
Graber did her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, where she received a bachelor’s degree in history before relocating east for her master’s degree in history at the University at Albany-State University of New York. Even more impressive, she completed her studies as a single mom by age 23. Graber originally wanted to work in a museum; however, along the way, her skill set and passion for helping others led her to a role in education. “Be open to new opportunities even if that’s not necessarily what you planned to do,” she said. “It’s what happened to me, and it worked out great. On one hand, it’s all the planning and preparation you know you should do, but also be open-minded about where your career path might take you because it’s a long journey and things are changing rapidly. Be willing to work along the way and recognize your skill sets and develop those to the fullest capacity.”
After college, Graber made her way back to the mid-Michigan area and became a post-secondary teacher.
The Grand Ledge native is now a mom of two and has been married for almost 20 years. She enjoys gardening, reading, sewing, and her two cats and two dogs. Although Graber does plenty of reading and writing on a daily basis in her career, she still enjoys relaxing with a good fiction book in her downtime.
Graber’s favorite poem – “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by English poet and cleric John Donne – is one that directly speaks to her and the impact she makes.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friends were.
Each manʼs death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Graber said that in her dealings with policy issues – even if the work is not for her personal benefit – she understands the endeavor affects the entire society and everyone has a role to play.