From the Suburbs of Maryland to the Mountains of Colorado

August 29, 2016

Zunara's ULF Program

This past summer, I was an Affordable Housing Policy Fellow with Senator Mike Johnston’s office in Denver, Colorado, via the Urban Leaders Fellowship (ULF). Senator Johnston launched the program in an effort to prepare “young people to fight for social justice through courageous public leadership.” The program recruits individuals from around the country to participate in a seven-week fellowship to inform elected policy officials’ policymaking with implementable policy solutions, and to also make meaningful impact in their placement communities. This past summer was the program’s fifth iteration, having had 172 fellows conceiving and designing over 40 pieces of policy in seven cities, that range from creating charter school reform to improving transportation services.

Because it is a policy-oriented fellowship, we occasionally met and spoke with individuals who work on policy. Pictured above is my cohort with Governor John Hickenlooper.

I was placed in Denver, Colorado and worked out of Senator Johnston’s community office in Northeast Parkhill. My three-person-strong policy team (myself included), after weeks of both high-level and granular research, constructed several policy solutions to increase housing affordability in Colorado. My team and I learned a great deal as we navigated a fairly time intensive process (eight hours a day, seven days a week) to manifest ideas as on-the-ground policy. My team was operating in a work environment that required people to jump from strangers to individuals.

My background as a Pakistani immigrant and long-time DC-Maryland-Virginia resident allowed me to shuffle between and around multiple groups. Sometimes a sense of community and connection is almost immediate; at other times, it is a feeling one has to build through perspective, sharing, and trust.

crowd protesting

My team, and the larger ULF cohort whom I also spent virtually seven days a week with during the course of the fellowship, remain some of the brightest and most compassionate people I’ve known to date. Interestingly, then, was the process by which we built our own community, because it did not come readily. It took us time to find the threads in each individual we each could tie ourselves together, as a group.

group of people playing board games

It was certainly a culture of “work hard, play hard.”

group people of smiling people

At the community office, we’d frequently have members of the community drop-in to say hello, provide feedback to the Senator, or check-in about their questions. We worked to beautify the office space itself so that it exhibited the warmth its staff provides on the inside and to the Park Hill community.


As a person coming from the suburbs of Maryland, experiencing the mountains of Colorado was also indelibly tied to my professional experience this summer. It is impossible not to maintain a certain level of perspective with scenery such as the background pictured above.