Wrestling with difficult questions at difficult times, Harris Policy Labs continues to make a difference for students and partners.

In April, amid an escalating COVID-19 crisis and just a month before George Floyd’s death sparked a social justice reckoning, two student teams began work on Harris Policy Labs projects for two long-standing Chicago nonprofits: the Chicago Urban League (CUL) and The Chicago Community Trust (the Trust).

Putting theory into practice, Harris Policy Labs are elective courses designed to move students from the classroom to the center of public policy arenas. These particular spring quarter 2020 projects involved developing new revenue strategies for CUL and crafting ways for the Trust to benchmark progress in closing the region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap.

Paula Worthington
Senior Lecturer Paula R. Worthington

"We view the Policy Labs program as one that provides meaningful and real opportunities for students to touch real-world problems for real clients who have urgent, challenging problems,” said Paula R. Worthington, the academic director of the Policy Labs program and a senior lecturer at Harris.

Like others before them, both spring labs focused on issues affecting “the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable members of our communities,” Worthington said.

But unlike others, COVID-19 forced all work to be done remotely. It also delayed the quarter’s start, cutting the usual 10-week classes to about eight weeks.

Students were completing their projects and making client presentations just as protests following Floyd’s death rocked cities including Chicago. The Trust team gave its final presentation, via Zoom, on June 1; the CUL presentation was June 2. That timing meant the groundswell of unrest didn’t have an immediate impact on students’ research to that point. But still, it had an impact.

 “It’s an interesting time,” said CUL team member Becky Harles, MA Class of 2020. “We ended our presentation and I put on my mask and I went straight to a protest.”

Students in these structured experiential learning labs are guided by a faculty adviser — for both spring projects it was Harris lecturer Karen Gahl-Mills  — and a professional adviser. David Fuentes, a Harris alum (MPP’17) who works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, held that role for the CUL and the Trust labs.

"We were so fortunate this past term,” Gahl-Mills said, “to work with clients who really embrace what Harris students can do. CUL and the Trust brought us real-world issues that they were wrestling with inside their institutions  and asked students to crunch data but also to extract some meaning and help them begin to think about how they move forward.”

The CUL wanted to rethink revenue strategies as part of its larger vision. 

Working with the Harris Policy Lab team, “you’ve got a fresh set of eyes with students who really just want to help you be better as opposed to having any other agenda,” said Erskine “Chuck” Faush, CUL’s senior vice president and chief development and innovation officer. “And let me tell you how refreshing that is.”

"They didn’t hold back,” Faush added.  “It was, ‘Hey look. Here’s what we saw in you. Here’s what we saw in others. Here’s what we believe the current landscape is. Here’s what you should do.’”

“It was really comforting,” he said, “that they made very specific recommendations and it was all based on data.”

 In the Trust’s  case, it late last year launched a new strategy to close the region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap and was seeking a set of policy indicators and a dashboard-type tool to help determine if it is moving the needle. The students’ role was to help jump-start that work and provide a landscape analysis, said Shawn Kendrick, manager of learning and impact for the Trust.

The Harris team, said Jennifer Axelrod, the Trust’s senior director of learning and impact, “had to wrestle with really hard things. This is not easy. They were given a fairly diffuse task and told to go out and find the most rigorous science and struggle with ‘What does it mean to be inclusive? What does it mean to close the racial wealth gap?’”

Karen Gahl-Mills
Lecturer Karen Gahl-Mills

Elliot Karl, MPP’20, worked on the Trust project. Amid the current moment of social unrest, he said, “indicator projects like this are one useful tool in a really, really diverse set of strategies that should be led by communities.

“The leadership of the Trust,” he added, “is really tackling these issues head-on and it was … notable and unique to work with an organization that authorized really critical questioning.”

The Trust is, Axelrod said, “open to frank and honest conversations and we value them and want them. [Students] came prepared for those conversations.”

Crucial conversations are among the experiences that Policy Labs offer students before they enter, or re-enter, the working world. The labs also provide lessons in such soft skills as teamwork and in more difficult tasks, such as overcoming imperfect data sets.

"Harris is very strong analytically,” Worthington said. “But this is working with real people on real problems.  You’re working with teammates who you may not have selected. … You have to work with imperfect and incomplete information. There are unfriendly deadlines. … That’s all real world.”

Policy Labs teams typically handle projects for which clients lack staff, time or resources to tackle — especially tasks that involve complex data analysis.  The labs, which are mainly comprised of Harris students but draw from across the university, have teams of about six members who work on projects that may be local, national  or international; cover policy areas ranging from environmental to philanthropic to global conflict; and attract clients from the public and nonprofit sectors and from other parts of the university. Meetings with clients are generally held weekly.

About 25 projects are done each academic year and clients typically approach the Harris Policy Labs team, helmed by Worthington in collaboration with Executive Director Carol Brown, or vice versa. A project’s scope is shaped by Brown, Worthington and faculty advisers who set out, Gahl-Mills said, to help define the problem clients want to solve and offer students the opportunity to work on those issues.

 While the final presentation to each client provides a tangible result, Worthington noted that “it’s the overall experience that’s rich. It’s not just the work product that [students] end up producing.”

"Students,” she said, “can grow their skill set and see how what they’ve learned can be applied even in messy situations.

“Students also gain personal contacts and career and networking opportunities in a policy area of interest to them.” Plus, Worthington added, students who have not been in the workforce or have not previously held policy positions leave a lab with experience to share when interviewing for full-time employment.

Karl, who had substantial work experience before going to graduate school, said the lab taught him how to apply his new Harris skill set — such as specific ways of talking about data — to a project in a professional environment.

“It was a sandbox but a very intensive, productive and useful sandbox,” he said.

For Harles, who also was in the work world before enrolling at the University of Chicago, the lab offered a way to hone her leadership skills (she served as her team’s informal project manager) and a way to learn more about Chicago’s nonprofits and the problems that they face.

The team’s recommendations for CUL, she added, are “something we can be proud of. And I hope they are something that the Urban League can use.”

The students’ work, said CUL’s Faush, will not be “something that sits on the shelf.”

“Their report and our strategic plan are very closely aligned,” he added. “The work that they did is not only resonating, it’s activating.” 

The Trust, meanwhile, is digesting the information and will use it to “educate and inform as we continue to work and refine shared metrics,” Kendrick said. 

As students finish their graduate school program, Gahl-Mills said, “this is about as close to what their work is going to look like in the field as we can get. And if we can give them the experience of doing that before graduation, this is all in the service of helping the students succeed.”