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The first of our four Q&A’s is with Aviva Tevah, chief of staff to the Chief Administrative Officer of Philadelphia.

Tevah began her career in New York City, working on reentry programs for individuals being released from jail. In Philadelphia, she was devoted to coordinating the many players involved in the city’s reentry work, and rose rapidly into leadership in that space before taking on the role of program officer for Philadelphia's Innovative Operations Transformation Fund in 2021 – a position that led to her current role as Chief of Staff. The next three honorees will be profiled each Thursday this month.

What are you reading right now? And is there a book that you’ve read in the past that was particularly meaningful to you?

I’m reading “The Fraud” by Zadie Smith. She’s one of my favorite writers. I’m also reading about toddler sleep right now because I have two small children and would like to get a better night’s sleep.

One book that had a big impact on me was “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis. That really helped me understand that the world that we live in is a result of choices that we’ve made.  Part of why I love local government is that it provides the opportunity to make different choices and see the outcomes.

Tell us a little about your community, your role and how you got here.

When I was in college, I got involved in a student group that was organizing around mass incarceration, and I ended up majoring in African-American studies. From there, I had opportunities to work with different organizations in New York – partnering with a lot of nonprofits and government agencies to build the web of support that people need when they come home.

Then I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, and I was able to do similar work here.

I moved to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to launch the Operation Transformation Fund (OTF). It wasn’t something I was really looking for or planning, but it was an amazing experience to launch a project that, by definition, was meant to fund transformative projects across city government. I became chief of staff about a year ago, and now I get to support our broader portfolio.

What are you most proud of professionally?

I’m proud of the way OTF was implemented. We had a strong focus on equity in prioritizing projects and that helped us to decide what to invest in. We were thoughtful about how we solicited ideas from people and how we could make the application process transparent and accessible. And wherever possible, we tried to compensate residents for engaging with the city – paying them if they spent time engaging to inform the work.

I am also proud of the COVID Reentry Payment Program, a cash assistance program which distributed one-time electronic payments of $500 to nearly 1,200 Philadelphians in very low-income households who were released from jail during the pandemic.

The theme of UN International Women’s Day this year is Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress. What do you see as some of the best ways to invest in women in local government?

One of the takeaways that we had for the OTF was the significance of investing in the people doing the work – giving people tools, skills, access to information, and opportunities to be exposed to other people to build relationships.

I’ve seen the importance of women investing informally in other women in the workplace. Women in leadership roles can help other women understand how to be effective and successful in government.

When I think of the supervisors who invested time and energy in me, they were almost exclusively women. Having a lot of empathy and emotional intelligence, traits often associated with women, can make good mentors and leaders. 

I’ve also been lucky to work for women with young kids and I am very grateful for that. I have a nine-month-old and a three-year-old. It would have been immeasurably harder to navigate that transition if I weren’t working for people who clearly understood the challenges of balancing parenting, and who knew better than to think that being a parent (and specifically a mother) would limit what I could contribute in my professional role. They are powerful role models of the opposite.

Can you describe the kinds of personal investments you’re now making in others?

I have not done this formally, although I would like to. But informally, it’s important to me to be authentic and approachable and to be available to build relationships with people – women and otherwise. 

What matters to me personally is when supervisors or managers care about my well-being and my future – not just what email I sent or what I’m doing for a project. It’s that my whole self matters to somebody.

What kinds of other more formal investments do you see as needed for women in local government?

I think it’s common for women to have more challenges with work-life balance, as they often have disproportionate caregiving responsibilities. There is a lot of progress to be made around policies that affect working parents, like paid parental leave or family leave.

It’s not just about having a policy. It’s one thing to have the policy and another for employees to understand how to navigate it or to use the leave or other accommodation that they’re entitled to. For example, legislation increasingly spells out lactation protections at work, but its impact depends on implementation.

Where do you go now when you want support, education, or mentorship?

It’s a combination of social friends, friends who used to be colleagues and then, occasionally, colleagues who I wouldn’t necessarily call friends, but who I have a trusting relationship with. So, it’s a small group and definitely informal. 

One other resource that I do really value is the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Its purpose is to provide government with the tools and resources and skills to advance racial equity. It translates DEI principles into what they mean for government, which is different from what it means for the private sector or other parts of the public sector. 

Are you seeing challenges to women moving ahead in local government? 

I’m sure that there are pockets in which the gender division is much starker and the culture is different. But in the spaces that I’ve been in, there have always been women in leadership positions.

I was looking at some stats about Philadelphia and last year, the mayor’s cabinet was over 70% women. And now the Mayor of Philadelphia is a woman for the first time! 

I know it’s not everywhere. I have been lucky that the places where I’ve worked, I don’t feel singular or alone as a woman. I also know women who have more marginalized identities than I do, often experience gender discrimination in a heightened way.

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