Martha MacLaren
Martha MacLaren (second from right), with Harris Community Action members and members of the Music Box Foundation at their headquarters in Woodlawn

Martha MacLaren, MPP Class of 2025, shares her experience joining the Harris Student Organization, Harris Community Action, in which students can use their  skills to support local nonprofits on Chicago’s South Side. 

A highlight of the Harris Orientation experience is the Engagement Fair at the beginning of fall quarter, in which first years are presented an abundance of information (and freebies) from myriad student organizations and University centers. With more than thirty student organizations representing various policy interests and affinity groups, there’s something for everyone at Harris! 

While I optimistically signed up for several newsletters and tried to attend events on all kinds of policy topics, I was particularly keen to get involved in the Chicago community and start making an impact. Harris Community Action (HCA) provided the perfect opportunity. 

Through HCA, Harris students use their skills and experience to support the work of local nonprofits on Chicago’s South Side, with the goal of improving long-term community outcomes. Partnering with an organization also provides Harris students with real-world experience addressing substantive policy issues and applying the data and strategy skills we’re learning.

I was excited about the range of nonprofits to work with, which focused on everything from food insecurity to refugee support. My group and I are partnering with a nonprofit called The Music Box Foundation that works to expand access to music education, and it's been gratifying to see the immediate impact: one of my classmates with a background in fundraising is making grant application recommendations, while another is using her graphic design skills to create a style guide and roadmap for the organization. Another group member is interviewing stakeholders using his knowledge of music and the arts, which will inform the strategic plan that I’m working on, drawing on my public sector experience.

I’m hopeful that our deliverables will really help the leaders of our organization continue expanding their nonprofit’s provision. In turn, we have gained valuable experience working in tight time constraints and with imperfect data to evaluate real-world programs.