What are the sources of resilience and renewal in American communities?
USA Lab, a course offered jointly by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, aims to answer this question while deepening students’ understanding of America’s diverse economic, cultural, and social characteristics. In the Spring 2020 class, for example, student teams tackled six projects located in Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, South Carolina, and Florida.
USA Lab, which will enter its fourth year in Spring 2021, was developed by the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan as part of MIT Sloan's Action Learning program and in partnership with the MIT Mens et Manus America Initiative. USA Lab is available to graduate students from across MIT.
“This class is designed to benefit both MIT students and the community organizations that host them,” said Barbara Dyer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan and Executive Director of the School’s Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. “The host organizations gain fresh insights on pressing issues facing their communities, and students hone critical skills such as market analysis, strategy development, and impact investing along with empathetic listening, all of which make them better business leaders. Students report that working with these remarkable community leaders is eye-opening and gives them a deeper appreciation for the strengths and challenges that define the American experience.”
In the semester-long course, students explore the historical and modern-day complexities of this country’s economic and social challenges through readings, interviews, and discussion. For two weeks in late March, students conduct fieldwork for local community groups—including economic development organizations, community finance institutions, and community foundations—on projects relevant to particular regions. This fieldwork is usually conducted in person but was conducted remotely during the 2020 spring semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, the USA Lab “Bridging the American Divides” class won an “Ideas Worth Teaching” award from the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society Program and was recognized as part of a Financial Times report on socially responsible business education.
The ideal USA Lab project leaves a lasting impression on everyone involved, according to MIT Sloan Director of Action Learning Urmi Samadar—both the students who take the course and the nonprofit and local government organizations that host them in rural areas and small and mid-sized cities across America. Host organizations like the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque see such positive outcomes for their communities that they often return to host again.
“The ROI is incredible,” said Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque President and CEO Nancy Van Milligen, whose organization in 2020 hosted a USA Lab team for the third year in a row. “My staff enjoys hosting a USA Lab team and learns from it; we all learn, we all grow. And each year the report the students produce has been an effective tool to drive the work we're trying to do.”
For example, in 2018, “working with the students from MIT added both depth and breadth to our understanding of a thorny regional problem: that of increasing access to affordable, quality childcare,” Van Milligen explained. "Being on the ground in our communities, in both rural and urban areas, allowed them to conduct interviews with dozens of stakeholders, including business owners, educators, childcare providers, parents, elected officials, and community agencies. They combined this qualitative research with substantial data analysis to provide us with solutions that were relevant and tailored to our specific needs, including case studies from around the country that reinforced the potential outcomes we could see with successful implementation. The students not only compiled research and data on Iowa’s system, they provided a formula that would positively impact families, with little impact on government revenue."
The 2018 USA Lab team also developed materials that helped area businesses understand the benefits of offering flexible spending accounts that their employees could use for childcare costs. “That was really important work that changed how our businesses looked at childcare,” said Van Milligen.
In 2019, another team of USA Lab students helped the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque examine how it could connect unemployed and underemployed minority workers with training that leads to career-ladder jobs. The students completed the steps to finding a job as if they were themselves unemployed. The process, they discovered, was difficult to navigate. The MIT team was able to identify obstacles and barriers and make recommendations about how to remove them.
“The students truly understood that just because someone is poor or unemployed does not mean they don't have value,” said Van Milligen. “Our students really stressed ‘How do we structure a path with people instead of for them?’—a ‘don't do anything for me without me’ kind of idea. That was important.”
In 2020, a USA Lab team helped the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque better understand the needs of immigrants in the Dubuque region. Over the course of the semester, the project evolved to focus on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the immigrant population. This is a key issue, according to Alex Baum, knowledge management director for the Foundation, since immigrants are especially vulnerable during this crisis and often face barriers to accessing both healthcare and public health information.
In the video below, Dyer discusses USA Lab: