20 Questions with Simon Marshall-Shah ’12, Health Care Public Policy Analyst

Now a Policy Analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy focusing on immigration, state budget analysis, and related Medicaid topics, Simon Marshall-Shah has worked at the intersection of public health data and advocacy practically since he graduated from Commonwealth in 2012. His answers below shed a little light on that path and offer insights for anyone with similar ambitions.

1. What three words best describe Commonwealth? 

Community, discussion, and growth.

2. What is your favorite Commonwealth memory? 

Recess definitely comes to mind. I loved having that morning break where the entire school came together to check in with one another and collectively take a quick beat and hear updates from both students and teachers. Recess also sticks out in my mind because it was a space where all announcements were welcome and students’ various interests and personalities could be heard and recognized. 

3. What was your favorite Commonwealth class? 

I will have to go with two history-focused classes that stick out in particular. I really enjoyed U.S. History with Ms. Haber. I think my interest in that course connects to my current work doing policy analysis, given that our country’s history and politics has shaped contemporary policy. I also want to highlight Ms. Siporin’s Art History class, which was a course that not only taught me about many artists themselves but also showed me how critical thinking can be applied across disciplines—and how to use the same writing and analysis skills we’d built over the years at Commonwealth to analyze art in context. 

4. What’s your #1 piece of advice for Commonwealth students?

Take teachers up on the support they’re able to provide. This includes meeting to go over school work or seek other advice as an advisee. Commonwealth helped teach me how to navigate not knowing the answer or how to do something, and then seeking support to get that answer or do my best. This helped me immensely in college and beyond when it came to using the resources available to me and knowing how to go about accessing them. 

5. When and how did you first become interested in public policy work? 

Although cognitive science was my first major, by my sophomore year [at Johns Hopkins University] I realized I enjoyed learning about research methods and the brain but was (more) interested in working outside of a lab. I also felt drawn to public health as an interdisciplinary field that takes a broad approach to health and wellbeing, often with a community focus and an eye toward tackling the root causes of disparities in outcomes. By my junior year, I had also spent time in and outside of class learning more about Baltimore City and its history, and better understood the legacy of racist public-policy decisions and how they impact investment (or lack thereof) as well as the overall health of the city and residents. Public-policy work interested me because it analyzes trends and can focus on impacting broad populations, in addition to making “upstream” changes that could improve drivers of health for everyone while reducing or reversing harm done to marginalized and impacted communities; this is especially true if done with an equity lens. Also, in some of my early experiences with public policy work in and out of the classroom, I saw how much relationship building, collaboration, and problem solving as well as good writing were key to successful policy making, which also interested me.

6. What do you wish people better understood about the intersection of data, legislation, and racial equity?

Data that can be broken down at a more granular level, or disaggregated, by categories like race, gender, income level, sexual orientation, disability, and more are really beneficial in public-policy work. This helps us identify where there are disparate outcomes happening and can give insight into how to root out the causes of those disparities related to health and wellbeing with policy change. So, disaggregated data collection can certainly be built into policies and legislation—and should be! Without such information being collected at the outset and throughout implementation, there can be gaps down the line, making it more difficult to conduct any sort of equity analysis or look at how a policy may have affected groups differently. Unfortunately, that data gap can lead to the (possibly mistaken) conclusion that there aren’t any differing impacts from a given policy or program, simply because the data to identify and understand those differing impacts doesn’t easily exist.  

I also like to underscore that there are health inequities we see when broken down across various categories, but these are often driven by policy and legislative decisions. It can be simple to reach for what seems like an easy conclusion: people have made individual choices that have led to worse outcomes for themselves, and if enough people do that in a particular group, we’ll see the trend or data show it. But the choices people make are also influenced by the choices people have—and the latter are influenced by policy decisions, particularly those with exclusionary elements that impede access, or have otherwise led to systemic marginalization. Using a racial equity lens, or any sort of equity lens, is key to understanding both the root causes of disparities as well as other systems that may factor into someone’s ability or difficulty to thrive. Policy and legislative change can be a tool to tackle those root causes. 

7. What is your advice for young people hoping to get involved in grassroots advocacy work?

Talk to each other, build connections with individuals and established organizations that care about the same issues, and educate others about the causes. What resonates with you or what need do you know exists? I think young people are very good at envisioning how things could be different, which is a powerful tool when figuring out new solutions to the issues you see. Also, take time to understand why other folks may not initially agree with what you’re advocating for, and use what you hear to find information and develop persuasive arguments that speak directly to their questions. Lastly, think about how you can harness different advocacy interests and skills to help achieve your goals.

8. What does your ideal afternoon entail? 

Going on a walk and catching up with a friend on a sunny day (in person is best but by phone is also nice). This has been especially true in Michigan, where winters can be quite cloudy! 

9. If you could study any field aside from your own, what would it be? 

Radio journalism. I really enjoy the medium and find storytelling in an audio format very compelling (and my stint as a radio DJ in college could have helped). Or maybe I just want to be a podcaster like everyone else?

10. Which word or phrase do you most overuse?

“Sounds good!”

11. What is your favorite aspect of your career?

There is always something new to learn and dig into, and learning from those who have more expertise (from my field or from lived experience, too) is always interesting. Plus, I get to write for various audiences and work with different kinds of data to connect the dots for the public, advocates, and other stakeholders.

12. What are people surprised to learn about you?

Given the uncertainty about where things stand at the time of writing, I’ll share that I’ve never been a Twitter user (aside from enjoying memes or funny tweets when they are sent my way…via text 🙂). 

13. What book do you wish you had read sooner?

There There by Tommy Orange. I am a fan of novels with interconnected characters and stories told from different perspectives, and this one is a very compelling read. 

14. Coffee or tea? 


15. Pen or pencil?


16. Scripted or improvised?

Scripted to feel confident in what I’m doing, but improvised to make others feel at ease and interested in listening. 

17. What is your favorite museum? 

The Baltimore Museum of Art is an evergreen favorite: they curate interesting exhibits, often showcase LGBTQ+ artists, and the museum is also free. Another reason is their huge Matisse collection, which includes Blue Nude and others we discussed and wrote about in Ms. Siporin’s Art History class. Since that class, I have really liked Matisse’s work and because the BMA is right next to Hopkins’ undergraduate campus, I visited that collection fairly often.

18. What is your favorite mode of transportation?

I know the MBTA can be a pain sometimes but definitely the subway. I miss the T (or any subway system) so much these days! 

19. What do you bring to a potluck?

As of late (well, in the summer especially): a black bean salad with pineapple, avocado, and feta, plus a bag of tortilla chips for dipping.

20. What was your go-to Boston eatery?

Finagle a Bagel on Boylston. Honorable mentions for the (former) food court at the Pru, which definitely served as a hangout spot, and Clover, where I also worked on a food truck for a few summers.

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