The innovative Wealth Building Practicum involves students in community development initiatives. Leaders at the University of Maryland share insights.
Is it possible to use the classroom to create real change in lower-income and marginalized communities?
Income inequality is gaining widespread attention, with calls for new approaches to employment. And, most educators would agree that sustainability education aims to develop executives, academics, and entrepreneurs who are able to manage environmental and social challenges, including community concerns.
To investigate the possibility of social change through education, three schools from the University of Maryland System have piloted an innovative experiential learning practicum that places students at the heart of community development initiatives. The initiative, a partnership between the Center for Social Value Creation at the Robert H. School of Business, the School of Social Work, and the Francis King Carey School of Law, embeds students in the process of developing community-based worker-owned cooperatives.
Worker-Owned Co-operatives: Building Capacity and Capital
As envisioned by the Evergreen Cooperatives model in Cleveland, worker-owned cooperatives work by identifying ‘anchor’ institutions in the community: churches, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and other organizations who have community roots and are unlikely to leave. Cooperatives then provide some of the goods and services required by these institutions. Employees are owners in the business, building individual capital as the business grows.
As such, worker-owned cooperatives “promote a broader ownership of capital,” explains Sara Herald, CSVC assistant director. “They leverage anchor institutions for community benefit, contribute to local economic stability, build skills and opportunities, and contribute to community pride and stewardship.”
Replicating the Model in Baltimore: Building a Course
In the West Baltimore Community Wealth Building Practicum (CWB), students help develop critical pieces of potential worker-owned cooperatives. Offered in 2014 and 2015, the practicum course has been iterative and multidisciplinary, and the learning outcomes — business, legal, policy, social, economic and more — have shifted as the course evolves.
In 2014, student teams focused on identifying the most promising business ideas for the cooperative model. Students assessed:
Which businesses could employ community employees with limited education and limited skills;
Which businesses could employ at least 50 individuals; and
Which businesses could reach profitability in 2 to 3 years.
In the 2015 course, students are researching two of the most promising business opportunities: a greenhouse and a furniture restoration company. The students are conducting in-depth interviews and community research. They are also assessing current available curricula on training worker/owner groups, since the majority of community employees would have no experience being both employees and owners.
The research is complemented with an in-class examination of:
the worker-cooperative model
the local community, including racial and other demographic characteristics
the history of local development efforts
In addition to learning business skills, “we want students to understand the issues and complexities of the community,” says Sara.
Building a Course: Considerations for Educators & Students
In an evolving course, achieving clarity and consistency where possible is essential.
Sara encourages course administrators to:
Set concrete goals together. “Clarify learning outcomes,” she says, and “have conversations with other professors and educators so that you learn each other’s professional perspectives.”
Develop a rubric and consistent grading criteria so that multidisciplinary teams are graded consistently and equitably, with expectations made clear from the outset.
Develop clear projects and assignments. In the CWB, students received grades for in-depth interviews, reports, and a final deliverable of a business launch plan.
Guide students through the process and make it clear what they’re researching.“We encourage students to think about how a cooperative business could support an anchor institution’s sustainability goals — like reducing emissions in the supply chain. Students are trying to uncover those incentives and figure out if there is really an opportunity there.”
Students also need to be flexible and adaptable, says Sara, since the course in many ways unfolds as it goes along. “We encourage students to shape the initiative to be as effective as they feel it can be.”
In a course for which change is the only constant, what’s next?
“This project has had numerous dimensions,” observes Sara. “It’s part real-world project, part hands-on and experiential learning, and part traditional practicum. We had some successes and we’ve had some failures. A flexible approach is key — we are adapting as we go along.”
Ideas for next year’s class include community cultivation and training, capital fundraising, and understanding local government.