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Students Get Hands-On Experience with Economic Development

In the Inclusive Economic Development Lab, students interact with a variety of stakeholders as they search for ways to use new federal Opportunity Zones to spur investment in low-income neighborhoods in New Haven.

By John Zebrowski

In many ways, the Inclusive Economic Development Lab is like other courses at Yale SOM. Each week, students read articles, pore over spreadsheets and statistics, and prepare presentations. But the course is also unique, designed to adapt cutting-edge ideas to a local setting by helping communities bring in new businesses and create jobs. And its laboratory is the school’s hometown, New Haven.

Each year, the new course will explore a new topic related to economic development. Over the course of the semester, students talk to top practitioners in the field across the country, learning which models work under different conditions. They combine this information with what they glean from deep dives into census data and case studies. But they can’t come up with recommendations until they engage with the community itself.

Professor Kate Cooney, who leads the course, says that to a great degree, students can’t succeed without this engagement. “We’re always teaching students the importance of being available, listening, engaging with all the different kinds of communities and stakeholders that your firm or your endeavor touches upon,” said Cooney, senior lecturer in social enterprise and management. “This class gave the students the opportunity to actually do some of that engagement work.”

For the inaugural year, Cooney chose to focus on Opportunity Zones, a new federal tool created to spur investment in lower-income communities. Students formed groups and chose from four of New Haven’s zones: Newhallville, Fair Haven, Dixwell, and the Hill. Each team then went out into its selected community, where students surveyed existing businesses and resources, attended neighborhood meetings, and spoke with community leaders.

Drawing on everything they learned, the student teams created proposals recommending one type of development model for each neighborhood, with the intention of stimulating the imagination of city stakeholders about what might be possible under the program. Teams had to choose between four models: maker spaces and fab labs, food halls, community land trust and affordable housing, and what Cooney describes as “a really innovative model for investing in businesses that is community led and combines a community organizing ethos with an impact investing lens.” For their final deliverable, the teams presented their recommendations to New Haven planning and development officials.

Students also created a podcast, Cityscope, for which they interviewed national experts on Opportunity Zones and community development. Over eight episodes, the podcast covers subjects including a deep dive into Opportunity Zones, how they influence affordable housing policy, explorations of the various models New Haven could employ, and a final reflection on how the city might harness the new initiative.

For the students, the course offered a different approach to learning about economic development, built not just on assembling key data, but interacting with community stakeholders, including many that otherwise might be overlooked. Paul Bashir ’19, a student in the Master’s Degree in Global Business and Society program, says the Inclusive Economic Development Lab offers a unique experience that embodies the Yale SOM mission. “I think it is going to be tough to find a similar course somewhere else,” he says. “It really allowed us to engage with the society and community here. I loved it.”