Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you how much I love Chicago. Many of my friends and family members were shocked when I packed my bags and moved from Chicago to Cambridge, Massachusetts for graduate school, especially since there are such excellent schools in the Chicago area. For me, it was a heart-wrenching decision, but after working in management consulting opened my eyes to how technology was contributing to our society’s growing inequalities, I became set on learning how to drive shared prosperity and create a more equitable digital economy. MIT was the best place in the world for me to learn about how technology is shaping the nature of work (and vice versa) and the resulting impact on communities across middle America.
I chose to attend the MIT Sloan School of Management’s MBA program specifically to get involved with the school’s Good Companies, Good Jobs (GCGJ) Initiative and take USA Lab—an Action Learning course developed by GCGJ in which MIT students work on projects with local community organizations across the U.S. to address challenges of work, community and culture. Prior to MIT Sloan, I had analyzed data showing how good jobs were clustering in relatively few “superstar” cities on the coasts, while many middle American metros and rural areas were being left behind. I had seen charts illustrating how wages in the past several decades grew sharply for Americans with a college degree but stagnated for many people without higher education. And I had read shocking statistics about the persistent racial wealth and income gaps in the United States. But USA Lab would offer a different perspective: a more qualitative experience with opportunities to learn from real people whose communities were grappling with the effects of disparities like these.
I was thrilled when I found out that, for my USA Lab project, I would be part of a team working with the Office of Intervention and Detention Alternatives (IDA) in Leon County, Florida to help assess and identify opportunities to improve the workforce reentry experience for formerly incarcerated people. I had very little background knowledge about criminal justice and reentry challenges, and I was really looking forward to hearing the perspectives of different stakeholders in the reentry ecosystem, including people who had been incarcerated. I was equally excited to spend two weeks in Tallahassee, FL and experience life in the South. Our project sponsors in Leon County government planned a host of interviews and activities for us to get a rich, firsthand understanding of the community and its history and culture.
Then COVID-19 happened. The pandemic worsened dramatically in the weeks leading up to our planned travel date, and all USA Lab project trips were cancelled just days before our teams were set to depart. I was hugely disappointed.
However, there was not much time to dwell on the situation. Our team quickly adapted, and with incredible support from IDA director Teresa Broxton, we held virtual meetings with a wide variety of stakeholders, in place of face-to-face interviews. A silver lining was that virtual meetings were easier to coordinate, and Teresa was able to connect us with more than 50 people over two weeks—many more than we could have reached in person. Although it was more difficult to establish trust with folks through a screen and took longer (many meetings went over time), we were still able to make our interviewees feel comfortable enough to share inspirational personal stories of trauma, frustration, and resilience that informed our recommendations for the county.
A bigger challenge arose toward the end of our project as the COVID-19 pandemic understandably shifted priorities and resources within Leon County government. The reentry success of formerly incarcerated citizens was put on the back burner from both funding and policy reform perspectives, and Teresa acknowledged that some of the actions we worked together to identify would not be feasible until more resources became available. Though this was somewhat disheartening, we were excited that IDA would implement some of our easier-to-implement recommendations and use our other recommendations as goals to pursue in the future. In addition to IDA, we also presented to the leaders of the county’s Office of Economic Vitality (OEV), who were very receptive to our findings. They came away excited to reallocate budget toward promising models we recommended, and they planned to use our data and communications materials to encourage local employers to hire formerly incarcerated workers.
It would be untruthful to say that conducting this work amid the COVID-19 pandemic did not diminish the USA Lab experience. It did. Without traveling to Tallahassee, we were limited in our ability to experience and understand the community culture and attitudes through food, music, architecture, conversation, and social observation. However, with the help of the dedicated and resilient staff at Leon County, we were able to adapt, learn, and improve the local reentry experience. If I could go back in time and re-do the semester, I would still choose to sign up for USA Lab in a heartbeat, despite the pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Looking forward, there are many lessons I will take away from the experience. First and foremost is the critical nature of establishing trust and empathy through listening and curiosity. Without trust, people will not feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and experiences, which makes collaboration impossible. Second is the importance of empowering local stakeholders and building upon existing momentum in the community. There were many good things happening in Leon County before we started this project. By positioning ourselves as resources to accelerate the momentum the community had already generated, we were able to secure buy-in from local leaders and increase the likelihood that they would use our report to inform their actions. Lastly, I saw firsthand the value of multi-stakeholder coalition building and collective action to help solve a wide-reaching, complex, systemic issue in workforce reentry. Collaborative efforts between IDA, the Sheriff’s Office, local housing providers, training programs, and other nonprofits had already shown promise. Our recommendations aimed at including local employers in this collaboration were regarded by IDA and OEV as an important next step.
I plan to carry these lessons with me throughout my career, beginning this summer with my internship in the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, where I will be supporting the design and evaluation of innovative civic program and policy experiments. Longer term, I am exploring career options at the intersection of business and policy that focus on equity in the digital economy. Wherever I end up, I am confident that I will draw on my USA Lab experience to promote collaborative efforts to drive shared prosperity.
Nick Brenner is a graduate student in both the MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Master of Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.