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His own Backyard

Alex Khoury has come to realize the power of acting locally.

Alex Khoury’s experience as a Rappaport Public Finance Fellow has nudged him closer to home.

The grandson of a plot farmer in the Middle East whose father was born in a home without electricity in the Chouf Mountains region of Lebanon, Khoury has long-standing empathy for underdeveloped parts of the globe. And as of his 2020 graduation from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Master in Public Administration in International Development, he has the education to accompany that appreciation.

So from early on in his adult life, the Natick, Mass. native latched on to an interest in helping areas around the world, and the people in those areas, for whom small dollars can often translate to large results.

It’s a notion that still tugs at him, to be sure, but following a summer spent acting locally – serving as a critical member of a team that developed a COVID-19 support plan for small businesses in Salem, Mass. – Khoury has developed a parallel appreciation for activism in his own backyard.

“The Fellowship has certainly put local options on the map for me that weren’t there before,” he said. “It’s shown me what it’s like to work locally in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and in doing that help me understand the unique ways I can contribute to my own community.”

Working on what Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll called her “Dream Team,” a small business-specific division of the pandemic-inspired Salem Economic Development Recovery and Revitalization Task Force, Khoury played a pivotal role.

In addition to helping develop a questionnaire that would serve as the basis for interviews of more than 50 Salem businesses early in the pandemic, he aggregated data, investigated trends, and provided the group with presentations of those results, which would ultimately inform a three-stage intervention plan for the city’s business community.

The team divided up the early work, with each member conducting a handful of in-person interviews centered on the broad theme of “What do you need?” It was in those conversations that the 28-year-old Khoury began to clearly feel the heartbeat of neighborhood activism.

“It was really encouraging to see how responsive local government can be to what people are saying they need,” he said. “I don’t think I would have believed it worked that way if I hadn’t been inside it.”

The way he got inside it in the first place derived from a connection made through his own personal interest in small business. Khoury’s father George is the owner of Bell’s Market, a grocery store in South Boston, and early in the pandemic George asked his son if he might use a little of that Kennedy School influence to advocate for mandatory face coverings in Boston, just as there were in other parts of the Commonwealth.

The younger Khoury did what he could. He brought it up with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone during a speaking engagement at the school. He wrote an op-ed for the student-run Kennedy School Review. He asked one of his professors, Linda Bilmes, if she could put him in touch with Congressman Seth Moulton, whom Khoury knew to be a co-sponsor of legislation seeking to protect grocery store workers.

Congressman Moulton’s office, which was aware of the initiative soon to begin in Salem, connected the dots, and thus Khoury’s affiliation with the revitalization project – and the accompanying Rappaport Fellowship – all came together.

“It was really encouraging to see how responsive local government can be to what people are saying they need. I don’t think I would have believed it worked that way if I hadn’t been inside it.”

Alex Khoury

“I had seen how hard people have to work to run a small business, how many years it takes to become successful, and it was just a shame to think that all these people working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for years and years and years, could have it all dashed because of the pandemic,” he said. “If I could do something to help out someone in a tangible way by plugging into a project like Salem, that’s what I wanted to do.”

It was exactly that tangible nature of the project – the ability to look a struggling small business owner in the eye, talk about his or her needs, then quantifiably provide results – that struck Khoury as unique to local government work and particularly appealing.

“It was really cool to see the survey results in aggregate, but also to have those conversations to draw on,” he said.

He helped define the system that would be used and was primarily responsible for diagnostic assessment of the findings.

There were trends (providing space for outdoor dining was critical), there was low-hanging fruit (securing PPE was simpler and far more cost-effective for the city than the businesses) and there were surprises (city-sponsored restaurant delivery was not a priority). Through it all, there was an ability for the Dream Team to pivot quickly and tailor the plan to changing needs.

“If we were looking at some of the data in one way, and then heard from someone else that made us think if it a little differently, we would change strategy, or we would go a little deeper to see if it was the way other businesses felt,” he said. “Those conversations mattered in a way that I might not have believed.”

It especially mattered to those who were counting on the help. The plan rolled out and included things such as hundreds of pandemic kits, provisions for outdoor dining space, access to funding resources, and a marketing which emphasized shopping locally and highlighted safety. It had three stages: preparation, opening, and long-term viability.

The gratitude among the business owners at large, Khoury said, was very evident.

“It was really heartening to see how many people were in tough situations and were still very appreciative that they had input, and that somebody was trying to look out for them,” he said.

Khoury’s Rappaport Fellowship ended in June, at just about the time Salem businesses were re-opening, and he returned to Cambridge as an Economics teaching fellow at Harvard while he considered longer-term career options.

And that’s where it gets interesting. With the Rappaport Fellowship still fresh in his mind, his attention had shifted, at least to a small degree, from other parts of the world to this part of it. What had once seemed an unlikely path was growing more likely by the day.

The Fellowship’s namesake, Jerry Rappaport, has made a career of intensely focusing on the places where he resides – most specifically Greater Boston – and doing work there that later has the chance to echo and emanate. Following Khoury’s work in Salem, it’s a phenomenon that was beginning to ring familiar.

And it’s a phenomenon with enough appeal that, not long after leaving the Dream Team, Khoury earned a position with the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab, an agency which embeds its employees in state and local governments to improve systems and responses to various social issues.

It’s a job he likely wouldn’t have considered six months earlier.

“I didn’t think of myself as someone who was going to work in local government,” he said. “This was not my career track, and I do believe that if we cared about more about people in far-off places, we could do a ton of good.

“But I have a whole new appreciation for the fact that we’re all uniquely equipped to address the problems in our own backyards, which is a good way to get a foundation if we want to do something far away later.”

And if other options don’t work out, Khoury has a big fan in the city where he spent part of his summer.

“I wish I could hire Alex,” Mayor Driscoll said. “I’d hire Alex in a second.”