In USA Lab Class, MIT Students Help Strengthen American Communities

USA Lab students conduct fieldwork to deepen their understanding of America’s economic and social struggles and uncover sustainable solutions that work. Host organizations like the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque see such positive outcomes that they often return to host again.

Credit: Kelly Davidson

Nancy Van Milligen is CEO and president of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, which has hosted USA Lab students every year since the class was launched in 2018.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting immigrants in northeastern Iowa? Can 75 diverse nonprofits collaborate more effectively to address workforce development needs in Northern Kentucky? What’s the best way to track the impact of a tax credit designed to boost community development organizations in South Carolina?

These are the types of economic and societal challenges students tackle in the MIT Sloan Action Learning class “USA Lab: Bridging the American Divides”—challenges that benefit from the thoughtful, data-driven approaches and new perspectives that MIT students can provide.

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 organizations that host them in rural areas and small and mid-sized cities across America. As part of the class, students conduct fieldwork that allows them to deepen their understanding of America’s economic, cultural, and social struggles and uncover sustainable solutions that work. 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 is hosting 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.”

Supporting the immigrant population in Iowa

The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, which strives to increase access to opportunity for all residents of the Dubuque region through lasting, systemic change, has teamed up with USA Lab since the course was launched in 2018. In year one, MIT students studied the issue of access to affordable childcare in the region. Their work was wide-ranging and included developing resources such as a formula that helped policymakers understand how the structure of the state’s childcare subsidy provided a disincentive for parents to increase earnings. The students 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 year two, students helped the Foundation 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.”

This year, a USA Lab team is helping the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque better understand the needs of immigrant populations in the Dubuque region. Over the course of the semester, the project has evolved to focus on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the immigrant population and on local businesses, highlighting opportunities that will benefit both groups. 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.

Strengthening a collaborative workforce initiative in Kentucky

Like the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, GROW NKY (Growing Regional Outcomes through Workforce) is a returning USA Lab host. GROW NKY is a new workforce and talent development initiative that is led by the Northern Kentucky (NKY) Chamber of Commerce and brings together a coalition of area leaders across key industries, educational institutions, and community organizations. GROW NKY’s members are working collaboratively to leverage the region’s assets to grow, attract, and retain a globally competitive workforce.

Over 75 partners, some with competing interests, are part of the budding GROW NKY network. When MIT students interviewed stakeholders, studied reporting mechanisms, and examined structural issues, they identified some system-wide opportunities for improvement. Their insights, recommendations, and metrics gave GROW NKY the tools to create a beta form of a centralized data dashboard, streamline processes, better communicate with their partners, and highlight the success of the impact strategy model.

“In the first year of GROW NKY, I would've said we struggled to get people to the same table around common goals,” said Director of Talent Strategies Amanda Johannemann. “At that point, regional goals weren't established for each of the focus areas. Objectives were not set. The metrics hadn't been identified. All of that has happened since the initial work we did with the MIT students, which put GROW NKY partners on a stronger course.”

This year, a USA Lab team is working with GROW NKY to help systematize access to work-based learning opportunities for high school students and beyond.

In 2019, a team of USA Lab students (above) worked with the South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development (SCACED) to study the feasibility of a museum to commemorate the Orangeburg Massacre, an important event in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.


Yet another returning host is the South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development (SCACED), a coalition supporting innovative and sustainable solutions for low-wealth communities throughout the state of South Carolina. Recognizing that tourism is important to economic growth, SCACED in 2019 asked a USA Lab team to assess the feasibility of a museum to commemorate the Orangeburg Massacre, a pivotal but not well-known episode in the U.S. Civil Rights movement that took place in the small city of Orangeburg, South Carolina.

The Orangeburg Massacre occurred in 1968, when state highway patrolmen opened fire on some 200 unarmed black college students who were protesting “whites-only” policies at a bowling alley in Orangeburg. Three young men were shot and killed, and more than two dozen protesters were wounded. The proposed site of the museum was the former bowling alley.

As part of the project, the students interviewed community leaders, state legislators, college officials, and potential funders. They then helped SCACED carefully shape and assess a study.  “The students came in ready to learn, and they wanted to know about our organization,” said SCACED Program Associate Amber Stewart. “It wasn't them just coming in and saying, ‘I know what's best because of my higher education and here's what you need to do.’”

Exploring America from multiple vantage points is a crucial part of the USA Lab experience, according to Barbara Dyer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan who leads the USA Lab teaching team and helped launch the class in 2018. “In the class, we draw from history and contemporary ideas to reflect upon the American experiment and to enable our students to place in context the challenges that they are addressing in their projects. We emphasize to them that they will be working collaboratively with their host organizations to learn about community culture, to identify opportunities and to build on local strengths,” explained Dyer, who is also Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan. “We seek to teach our students empathetic listening and interviewing skills and the capacity to understand the needs and perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders—a skill that will serve them well as future business leaders in an increasingly complex world.”

This year, SCACED has returned to host a USA Lab team for a second time, with this year’s students tasked with creating a tool that assesses the impact of a South Carolina community development tax credit. “Bottom line, MIT has a great reputation,” Stewart said. “So, if we can have a tool produced by MIT, that gives us credibility in the long term.”

But in addition to the benefits to SCACED, Stewart takes a longer view of her organization’s interactions with MIT Sloan MBA students—and sees hosting a USA Lab team as a way to encourage a sense of community responsibility among the next generation of business leaders.  “I think nonprofits have a duty to teach emerging leaders,” she said. “The MBA students may never work in the nonprofit world themselves, but they may influence a nonprofit down the road; they may be more intentional about joining a nonprofit board, making a contribution, or advocating for community organizations.”

“Our students often tell us that their USA Lab experience changes them,” Dyer said. “Through their fieldwork, the students engage with communities that are very different from what they experience on MIT’s urban campus, and the students develop a textured understanding of their host community’s strengths, goals, and challenges.  That’s important, because the ability to understand different perspectives and communities is an essential aspect of leadership today.”