The Social Impact Lab is a project-based course that deeply examines a social or environmental issue, and in which students work in small groups to develop a proposal for a company, nonprofit, or other organization to address the issue. Throughout the quarter, students learn about strategy development with a client objective in mind. Alongside the project, students delve into the domain area to enhance their understanding and inform their recommendations.
For Winter 2023:
The course is currently full with a waitlist. Please check back for future Social Impact Lab opportunities.
Overview of the Course:
Research by the Urban Institute and others have documented the significant wealth inequality, often referred to as the “wealth gap”, which exists in the United States. This gap is particularly acute for Black and Latinx households. Specifically, white households in the U.S. on average have 10 times more wealth than Black households and eight times more wealth than Latinx households. Data also tells us that this gap is even more pronounced in the Chicago region, as Black and Latinx households earn less than the national average, and white households earn more. Homeownership rates, housing cost burden (defined as the percent of income spent on housing), and unemployment rates follow similar patterns. Certainly, policies and practices built on systemic racism have played a significant role in shaping this outcome. In Chicago, as in many major cities, the evolution of the economy – particularly the disappearance of manufacturing jobs – has also contributed substantially. Therefore, closing the wealth gap will require both changes to the policies and practices that disadvantage people of color, as well as spurring economic development in the communities in which they live and work.
On this second piece, a key tool for the revitalization of neighborhoods and economic development lies in the work of community development. At its core, community development is a strategy to build wealth for individuals and families within a defined geographic place, thereby building wealth for the whole community. In turn, the doing of community development is about creating thriving businesses, viable real estate development, and ultimately jobs and homes. Community development works to shift the wealth gap directly by building wealth for people and places. It also impacts the wealth gap indirectly as strong communities, in turn, are better positioned to demand changes in the policies and practices that have held them back for so long.
This class will explore community development as a practice, including better understanding both the inputs and outputs of the work. Professor Foreman is fond of saying: “Wealth is the byproduct of solving problems and creating value. If you do these efficiently, you create a high rate of return.” The challenge is that the typical approaches to generating high rates of return – whether it’s starting a business or a real estate development project – often do not translate directly in communities that have faced a history of disinvestment, population loss, and poor infrastructure development. Further, to achieve success in community development you have to deliver higher rates of return not just to investors, but to the community and individuals as well.
Alongside the classroom learning, students will work on a project that seeks to bring the realities of community development to life. Detailed project descriptions provided below.
This quarter’s clients represent a number of organizations using community development as a tool for economic growth on the South Sides of Chicago. Clients this term include Emerald South, The Obama Foundation and Presidential Center, The Office of Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago, and The Academy Group.
Each of these clients are developing programs, business models, and investment fund structures that will ensure that future economic growth in Chicago is enjoyed equally by all, especially accruing to those living on the South Sides. In particular, these projects are looking at the role of “new” economic growth, such as that spurred by the new Presidential Library or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. All of the projects share the common goal of using community development as a tool to advance the South Sides of the city, including improving the perception of and wealth in the community.
Project 1: Develop a Marketing Plan to a Community Land Trust Vehicle
As property values rise (and are positioned to rise faster) as a result of the Obama Presidential Center breaking ground, risks of gentrification also rise. Emerald South has developed (with help from last year’s student team) a plan for developing a “Community Land Trust”, which is a financial instrument that allows local residents to benefit from the rise in property values even if they don’t currently own property. At this juncture, the team at Emerald South would like support developing a marketing plan based on community insights. Students will seek to understand local resident spending and saving patterns, as well as interest and potential avenues for involvement, and recommend to the team a set of strategies to engage the local community in the investment opportunity.
Project 2: Develop a Local Sourcing Plan for Goods and Services for the Obama Presidential Center
The Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in about 3 years. As it builds toward this milestone, the Foundation and Center are thinking hard about how to ensure the community surrounding the Center benefits from its existence. One sure way to make this happen is for the Center to act as an “anchor” institution through its purchasing of goods and services. As such, the Foundation team is looking for students to develop a strategy for local sourcing. In particular, to develop an inventory of goods and services (including scope and size) that will be needed, and then to identify the potential local businesses that could fill those needs. Importantly, where there are a lack of options for local sourcing, the team would also like to understand potential pathways (incubation, partnerships, etc.) to build the supply side over the next 3 years prior to the opening of the Center. (Depending on student interest, this project might be two groups, one focused on goods and another on services.
Project 3: Develop a Go-to-Market Plan for a Tours Business on the South Side
As the Obama Presidential Center draws visitors to the community, they have the opportunity work act as a hub for engaging visitors in exploring the Southside. Last year’s SIL team showed that there was demand for such services, and framed out a few ideas for possible tour approaches. This year, students are being asked to expand on this work to consider what the implantation pathway might be for such tours, including identifying key partners, assessing resource gaps, and developing a go-to-market hypothesis.
Project 4: Recommend an Approach for the Supporting Small Business Development
Micro and small business entrepreneurship provide individuals pathways to extra earnings and economic activity in their communities. Emerald South and The University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement are interested in understand what gaps exist in the support structure for small business development on the South Side, and are looking for recommendations for filling those gaps. A good analysis will look at the size of the small business population, a map of the current ecosystem, and possible needs, as well as draw in innovations and benchmark from other markets.
Project 5: Develop an Approach to Green Infrastructure Project Financing
As significant federal dollars come down the pike for green infrastructure projects, such as solar energy developments, disinvested communities should be part of this equation. This is especially true given that low-resource communities often bear a greater burden from climate change. In the Chicago market, there is already work on the role individual installers can play in equipping households with solar technology already. Larger development, however, are more scarce. The Academy Group is looking to better understand the landscape of larger project developments, including understanding the current actors interested in and places for larger scale green technology projects, as well as the current capital available (tax credits, loans, etc.), and what gaps remain. A recommendation for how the Academy Group and other plays can support larger scale green project is the end goal.