Tackling the Poverty Issue

Students strategize how to use mock money and bus passes during a 2013 poverty simulation led by Browne and Roll.

Introducing the Impact Lab on Economic Inequality

By Laurie Browne and Susan Roll

Our work on issues of poverty and income inequality began in late 2012, when, with funding secured from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, we launched the Poverty Project. Our first purchase, “Welcome to the State of Poverty,” is an experiential learning exercise, or simulation, which enriches participants’ understanding of the lived experience of those in poverty (see “A Day in the Life,” Inside Chico State, April 25, 2013). The three-hour exercise takes students through one month in the life of families struggling to make ends meet. On limited resources and relentless deadlines, participants are asked to accomplish basic tasks while navigating unexpected challenges like the loss of a job and medical expenses.

Professors Laurie Browne, Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management, left, and Susan Roll, Social Work

Professors Laurie Browne, Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management, left, and Susan Roll, Social Work

Nearly 1,000 students have participated in the poverty simulation to date. Additionally, we used our funding to recruit and train two student research teams to investigate exactly how students learn about poverty when they participate in the simulation. 

Our data show that the poverty simulation positively impacts students’ social justice attitudes, level of empathy, political awareness, and intentions to be civically active. Themes from student journals reveal that students became more aware of issues related to poverty and are able to reflect on their own experiences and roles as community members. One student said, “It was a true eye-opener. It made me more aware of the world around me, locally and nationally.” Another reflected: “This experience definitely changed my opinion of less fortunate people, from viewing them as leeches off a failing political system to a less fortunate, growing, class of people who deserve the same opportunities to succeed that I have been given. My upbringing allowed me to bathe in ignorance, never having to experience any true monetary problems, and I’m glad this simulation gave me a new experience.”

In February, we presented our work at the Academy of Leisure Sciences Teaching Institute in Monterey, where it was suggested we propose to CSU, Chico leadership that Chico State take on poverty in Butte County as a campuswide issue. The idea aligned with the very core of the Poverty Project by suggesting that the poverty simulation could be one of many campuswide efforts that explicitly target an issue so relevant to the North State. With the help of one of our mentors, communications arts and sciences professor Stephanie Hamel, we developed the idea into a one-page concept paper, which has been gaining momentum with potential stakeholders around campus.

Our vision is to initiate a three-year process to develop, implement, and evaluate a laboratory of teaching, research, and service that would align existing campus programs to target a single broad topic of critical importance with local relevance: poverty. The theme would be infused across campus into existing programs such as General Education Pathways and the Chico Great Debate and Town Hall Meeting. It would also be incorporated into our work in the community through such programs as CAVE, the Book in Common, Regional and Continuing Education, This Way to Sustainability, and Community Legal Information Center, and through the many students who intern in the public service sector. The laboratory would also include opportunities for trans-disciplinary faculty research and incentives to engage students through their coursework. For example, the lab could connect first-generation students through a program such as REACH (Raising Educational Achievement in Collaborative Hubs), challenging them to create innovative solutions to solve problems related to poverty. In short, the laboratory would align and energize existing campus resources in order to impact poverty in the North State.

In short, the laboratory would align and energize existing campus resources in order to impact poverty in the North State.

Evidence of the lab’s promise came at the start of this academic year. Civic Engagement Director Ellie Ertle received a request for proposals from the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment inviting a small cohort of two- and four-year colleges to join in a three-year initiative to understand the impact of economic inequality on our democracy with a specific focus on helping students think about and take action to confront the complex causes of growing economic inequality.

We applied, and are pleased to announce that our project, the Chico State-Butte College Impact Lab on Economic Inequality, will be one of a cohort of partnerships across the country studying this topic in depth.

We have a core team that will facilitate and guide the process with us, including Ertle, First-Year Experience (FYE) Director Thia Wolf, FYE Coordinator Zach Justus, and several Butte College faculty members. Early and ongoing conversations among campus and community leaders show widespread support of this idea, with potential interest in subsequent “study local” capstone opportunities for students to continue work in this area.

Some of the ways the Impact Lab could support students, the community, and scholarship include:

  • A participatory research model in which community members, students, staff, and faculty would serve as the “primary investigators.” This team would identify the key research questions and strategize how to use the lab to explore outcomes.  
  • REACH students in their sophomore year along with their faculty mentors would tackle the lab’s target issue as a part of a “think tank” project.
  • The lab could provide mini-grants for faculty to create learning communities and teaching modules related to poverty that could be plugged in to a variety of courses beyond the lab’s time frame.

We know that there are more ways to infuse this work throughout the campuses. We invite faculty, staff, and students who have an interest to connect with us. We are hoping for broad and diverse participation across departments, majors, and programs and are working to engage community partners, business owners, and public agencies to ensure our impact is measurable and significant.

Reach Susan Roll at sroll@csuchico.edu and Laurie Browne at lpbrowne@csuchico.edu.