By Karen Guzman
First-year MBA students in the Yale School of Management’s Power and Politics course reached out to the city of New Haven in a new way last semester, thanks to a course redesign aimed at engaging students with the community.
The Power Project: Using Power for Positive Change debuted in the fall of 2019 as a group exercise in the course, part of the first-year MBA core curriculum, taught by Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior; Julia DiBenigno, assistant professor of organizational behavior; and Heidi Brooks, senior lecturer in organizational behavior.
The project asked students to examine a particular facet of the power dynamic between Yale and New Haven; analyze the harms and benefits inherent in the relationship by approaching it from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders; and develop a plan to improve the relationship.
“One of our goals, as faculty, is to have students think about how to be responsible citizens of this place that they’re a part of while they’re at Yale,” Kraus says. “This is the kind of learning, and mindset, that will be useful to them throughout their careers.”
DiBenigno calls the project an important curricular update: “It embodies the Yale SOM mission by encouraging students to think critically about the impact of their actions on society right from the start.”
One of the primary goals of Power and Politics is to make students aware of power dynamics. Past students had requested that the course include more opportunities for hands-on learning. “They wanted to examine more structural components of power,” Kraus says. “They’re asking, ‘How can we relate more directly what we’re learning to what’s happening now?’”
During the course’s first two weeks, student teams chose a specific problem to address, involving some facet of the complex relationship that New Haven residents have with Yale. The diverse list of topics chosen by students included issues in community relations, employment, and labor relations.
“The Power Project capitalized on the openness and enthusiasm that students have at the start of the core curriculum,” says teaching assistant Kathy Julik-Heine ’20. “I saw students brainstorming projects as early as the first week of September, when the project wasn’t due until the end of the term. They seemed to love the opportunity to think about how to better engage with New Haven residents head-on.”
For some students, the project was eye-opening. “It helped me realize that we didn’t know New Haven at all,” says Charlie Feng ’21. “When you learn about the structural problems—for example, 25% of the population is below the poverty level—you see that there are a lot of issues to work on.”
Feng and his teammates decided to address the “isolation and misperceptions that exist between Yale and the greater New Haven community,” says teammate Ben Haydock ’21.
“After understanding the problem, we all agreed that we should do something about it,” adds Lukas Bosch ’21. To get a handle on the misperceptions, the students surveyed samples of New Haven residents and Yale students.
“We identified that, while Yale students and New Haven residents do have certain misperceptions about each other, strong relationships between the city and the university are good for everyone,” says Salva Tormo Prunonosa ’21.
The team focused first on quick wins to close this perception gap, says Balaji Kumar ’21. Proposals included displaying New Haven news on the electronic screens in Yale SOM’s Edward P. Evans Hall, adding local newspapers to student gathering areas, and creating a newsletter for the Yale SOM community about goings-on in New Haven.
Next, the team proposed developing a joint social media channel to inform students and residents about shared events, human interest stories, and other news of shared interest. “It’s a way to start the change in the greater community,” says Monique Haynes ’21.
Students agree that the project was a good fit with SOM’s approach to leadership. “People in SOM truly embody the mission of the school—to educate leaders for business and society—and they are always thinking of ways to make this world a better place,” says Julie Chang ’21.
Classmate Sam Jiang ’21 wants to see the students’ work continue. “We really enjoyed working together in this project, and defining a way to improve the community, and we really want to see our proposals implemented,” he says.
On the final day of the course, teams gave presentations about their problems and proposed solutions. “The presentations were great,” Kraus says. “I was blown away by the thoughtful work and by how invested students were in their projects.”
The challenge going forward, Kraus says, will be finding ways to bring the students’ problem solutions to fruition and to make them sustainable. “The course project was a pilot program, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’d like to find ways to keep students involved in the community throughout their time at SOM.”
“Our key takeaway from the project is that when you’re thinking about social impact, it’s great to think big, but don’t forget about the communities that surround you,” says Eloise Owens ’21. “People sometimes forget to make a difference in the lives of the people closest to them.”