Business School

Bridging the American Divides—Remotely

July 8, 2020  • Ideas Worth Teaching

It might be easy to reduce 2020 to a story of widening divides in the United States: first in terms of physical distance due to COVID-19-related physical distancing, then divides of health and wealth as the pandemic spread, and more recently, divisions of belief over how the country should respond to deep racial iniquities. Yet, even in 2020, there are also stories of bridging divides. MIT Professors Barbara Dyer, Thomas Kochan, Christine Kelly and Leigh Hafrey know.

In 2019, Dyer, Kochan, Kelly and Hafrey were recognized with an Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award for their course: “Bridging the American Divides: Work, Community and Culture.” Focused on establishing balance between communities, individuals and the common good, the course places a strong emphasis on fieldwork in communities students seek to better understand. So what happened when the course was taught in the difficult Spring of 2020? This team of professors weighs in.

One of your course objectives is to “Explore the resilience of individuals, communities and the American experiment.” Can you expand on what you mean by this objective and if your definition has shifted given the health, economic and racial justice crises we are facing in this moment?

In our USA Lab class, we emphasize that America is an experiment that continues to test our society’s capacity for conflict and reconciliation as we push toward “a more perfect union.” What is it about this nation that it could simultaneously countenance the abject wrongs of slavery while adopting the language of freedom? How is it possible to be among the wealthiest of nations and among the most inequitable? Resilience may offer part of the answer.

In this course, we look at the dimensions of resilience through multiple lenses: history, race, culture, and place. The organizations that host our students in their semester-long projects are at once examples of resilient organizations and, as they address community challenges, sources of resilience in their regions.

As part of our class, students work in teams with nonprofits and local government organizations in U.S. communities to tackle pressing regional issues. This year we lived a natural experiment as our course began in one era and, with the spread of COVID-19 within the U.S., ended in another. This experience was a test of resilience at every level. In most years, the students spend their spring break and an additional week in their host communities. But this year, the students were unable to travel and had to conduct their fieldwork virtually. They were resourceful and creative, ultimately conducting many more interviews and hearing a much wider span of voices than would have been possible in person.

As they worked on their projects, the students were observing the frontlines of the evolving COVID-19 crisis. These communities were responding to a fast-moving pandemic and the sudden economic downturn that accompanied it. Hardship was in full focus and the capacity for resilience was once again under pressure. Using Zoom, we brought community leaders from the host organizations into the classroom to help us see, through their eyes, the dimensions of the challenges in that moment. The context for the problems that the students started to address had changed and the issues of inequality and vulnerability were ever more apparent.

From readings that give historical background to on-the-ground community projects which require students to engage in difficult conversations, your course uses multiple types of pedagogy and contextual lenses that are not typical in an MBA program. What gap do you think this course is filling and why is it important to be in the business school?

We offer USA Lab as part of the Action Learning program at MIT Sloan. MIT’s motto is “Mens et manus,” which means “mind and hand,” and the combination of theory and practice that motto implies sits at the core of MIT’s educational approach and has evolved into many field-oriented “labs” at MIT Sloan. We offer USA Lab in collaboration with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, so our lab has the additional advantage of cross-sectoral relevance. The business of business has never been just business: we build on MIT and MIT Sloan traditions and our internal partnership to ensure that project teams see the need for broad-based, long-range solutions.

The historical, philosophical, and current ethnographic and anthropological readings we assign complement that institutional mix: in response to it, students articulate the personal and professional commitments that brought them to the course in the first place and combine those aims with the organizational missions that drive our project sponsors. In the interviews they conduct in their fieldwork, the students represent themselves, MIT, and their host organizations. In these conversations, the students are managing multiple roles and agendas as well as learning about a region of the country they may never have explored before. The multiple lenses help our students fully recognize the cultural imperatives that engender both the strengths and the weaknesses of so many local communities in America as well as of the national entity that in principle unites them. The urgency that drives the many and poignant current calls for social change has, from our class’s launch three years ago, also factored into the design of USA Lab.

The penultimate session of your 2019 syllabus asks: ‘Can what divides us also unites us?’ and examines former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2017 address on the removal of four Confederate statues. This trend has accelerated in recent weeks, against the backdrop of so many other divides in US society laid bare by the pandemic. Are there any examples from student projects and community engagement that show how we can move closer together instead of further apart?

Don’t underestimate the role that the kind of grassroots organizations that host many USA Lab projects play in bringing communities together. The best of these can lend clarity to the issues, elevate constructive debates and build consensus on ways forward. Because they have earned respect and trust within their communities, these nonprofits can facilitate difficult conversations and surface solutions. The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque is a good example. The Foundation has been a USA Lab host for three years and each time our students have worked with their team on a pressing and timely community issue. This year the students focused on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the region’s immigrant population. Last year, the Foundation’s USA Lab project focused on ways to reduce the unemployment rate among people of color in greater Dubuque and to create more equitable and inclusive environments in the region. The Foundation is poised to raise awareness and shape a conversation that enables people in the area to see issues of bias and injustice and move forward on interventions with a goal of narrowing these divides.

We have similar examples in other communities that host USA Lab teams. For example, last year, a USA Lab team working with the South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development (SCACED) explored the feasibility of creating a museum to commemorate the Orangeburg Massacre, an important but not well-known event in the U.S. Civil Rights movement that took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This year, a team of students worked with the government of Leon County, Florida on the issue of integrating ex-offenders into the community and the workforce. Here is a piece written by one of the students on that team. This is a very tough problem, made tougher by the economic downturn. It is highly relevant to the current raised awareness of racial inequities in our criminal justice system, since Black men in the U.S. are disproportionately likely to spend time in prison. While there are no easy solutions, it is encouraging that this issue is a priority for the county.

As alumni from your course go into leadership positions across industries and sectors, what is the one lesson that you hope will stick with them throughout their careers?

In this course, we grapple with two principles in tension – the idea of the common good and the idea of individual liberty. As an institution in our society, business has a critical role to play in influencing the balance between those ideas and reconciling that tension, and our students will be leaders in business. Will they have gained a deeper understanding of the people and culture of the regions they studied? Will the insights they’ve gained and the empathy they’ve developed enable them to advance this American experiment as participants in forging a new social contract? Can they as business leaders help to realize the aspirational vision of America in the day-to-day and longer-term choices that they make? Our hope is that this is what they gain from our course and from an MIT Sloan education.

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