February 23, 2018

Sara Levin (MPA ’99)

Vice President, Community Services – United Way of King County

“It was a crash course in governing,” Sara Levin (’99) said of the 1999 World Trade Organization riots that shut down talks as well as downtown Seattle, caused millions of dollars in damage, and provided hands-on education for the newcomer to city governance.

Despite the chaos, Sara remained calm and considered what she had learned as a student at the Evans School.

“The school’s fundamental teachings are how to think strategically and analyze situations rationally from different perspectives,” Sara said. “So, I just relied on the process: try something; see how well it worked; adjust if needed; and try it again. I developed a reputation for transparency.”

A Rhode Island native, Sara moved to the Pacific Northwest for college. She graduated from Reed College in Portland with a degree in Russian History and Literature in 1991, the same year the Soviet Union collapsed. Many Russian refugees arrived in Seattle, so Sara headed north and worked for Jewish Family Service as a resettlement case worker. She then joined the senior services department before moving into a management role. Still, Sara wanted to be more influential within the organization, and she heard great reviews about the Evans School.

“When I was accepted into the MPA program, I was convinced I’d be going into administration when I graduated,” Sara said. “The school was known as a nonprofit leadership gateway.”

But, as often happens, Sara’s career changed course and instead of leading her to a nonprofit, she found herself at City Hall. On the recommendation of David Harrison, a professor of policy analysis at the time, she secured an internship on the staff of City Council member Sue Donaldson. The internship led to a job offer, which she accepted after graduation, and a few months later, the WTO riots happened.  

“Our office went into minute-by-minute response mode,” she recounted. “As a legislative aide, I was dealing with constituents who couldn’t access services because the city was shut down.”

The experience must have hooked her, because Sara stayed at City Hall for more than decade, spending much of the time in the Budget Office.

“Budget is so important. It’s policy,” she explained. “It’s a window into how a city works.”

Sara’s education on public finance and budgeting didn’t end when she graduated from the Evans School.

“At the city, I had a great mentor, Dwight Dively, who was the City of Seattle’s Director of Finance at the time. Now, he’s the budget director for King County and an Affiliate Associate Professor at the Evans School. He was an incredible leader and boss.”

Sara stayed in the Budget Office as an analyst for seven years before being promoted to Assistant Director. Still, her heart remained in the nonprofit community. Since Sara wanted to stay in city government, she transitioned to the Human Services Department. (“The hardest conversation I’ve ever had was when I told Dwight I was leaving.”)

There, Sara helped plan strategy, deal with homelessness, and assist indigent communities. She served through the Great Recession and then her dream job opened: Vice President of Community Services at the United Way of King County.

“My degree project focused on philanthropy, so the move made sense,” she explained.

In this role, Sara leads the grant-making side of the organization. The United Way has made some bold proposals, including making sure all kids receive early childhood education and graduate from high school, halving homelessness, and getting families financially stable.

The United Way’s strategic plan relies upon smart investments plus good policy plus leveraging available resources; everyone at the organization must collaborate.  

“I know how to make that happen because of the Evans School MPA program,” said Sara, who continues to connect with Evans School alumni as a member of the Denny Alumni Council. “It’s incredible to network with people who deeply care about making a difference.”