Inequality in America: Policy, Community, and the Politics of Empowerment

Program Structure

Class meets twice a week for seminar style discussion, field visits, or guest speakers. Students begin work at their internship placement sites during the second week of class, and can expect to spend 20 hours per week at their site.

Topics and Themes

Income and wealth inequality, systemic oppression, affordable housing crisis and homelessness, regional race and class segregation, education gaps, welfare and government policies leading to inequality.


Dreamland Arts Building, St. Paul, MN

Terms & Dates
Fall 2020: September 8 - December 18; Spring 2021: February 1 - May 14

16 credits


Program Overview

In America today, the top 1% earn nearly 25% of the nation’s income. Wealth and income gaps have reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and are amplified by race. The median household wealth for a white family is $144,000; for Latinxs it is $13,700, and for African Americans, $11,200. Inequality in America delves into the complex causes and impacts of the gap between the rich and poor in the United States. Students examine the social systems that feed increases in poverty and inequality and study the roles racism, classism, trans- and homophobia, and sexism play in the creation of short-sighted and damaging public policy. In a concurrent internship with a local nonprofit, students test and expand their change-making skills. Past internship sites have included African Career Education Resource Inc. (ACER), Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), and Take Action MN, among many others. Students meet local organizers, build professional networks, and spend 150 hours on site, working for organizations dedicated to social transformation. Everyone leaves the classroom with increased confidence in their own abilities to effect change, as well as deep understanding of the local nonprofit landscape.

Staff and Faculty

Program Director Phil Sandro has taught experiential urban studies programs for over 26 years, first in Chicago and then at HECUA, including the Inequality in America program, which he began directing in 1994 (under its former name Metro Urban Studies Term/MUST). His background includes community organizing in Chicago and the Twin Cities. Sandro has an impressive record of involvement in urban public policy including serving in a policy making position for the City of Chicago under reform mayor Harold Washington. He has served on numerous boards of nonprofit community development corporations and has been active in educational reform issues. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research with emphasis on urban and regional  political economy, global economics and trade, and economic history.  Sandro was selected by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning as a researcher in their “Political Engagement Project,” because they considered the program to be among the top 25 courses in the country that prepared students for effective political engagement.  He has served as the Vice President of the Board at the East Side Neighborhood Development Company was an active member of the East Side Prosperity Campaign and served on the Beacon Bluff Advisory Board.  He has also taken a lead role in a number of local political campaigns.


This seminar provides the theoretical foundations necessary for understanding the roots, dynamics, and persistence of economic, political, and social inequality and poverty in cities and in regions. Students master the key theoretical tools for evaluating alternative policies, and strategies for addressing various forms of poverty and inequality. Theory is integrated with students’ field and internship work and draws from numerous disciplines, with a particular focus on the field of political economy. Students examine interrelated social systems relevant to the study of poverty and inequality such as the economy, the politics of economic policy, labor markets, geographic systems and housing, and education and welfare systems. Theories of oppression help students understand how institutionalized racism, classism, and gender discrimination factor in and among all of these systems.

This seminar illuminates, grounds, and “tests” theoretical perspectives and insights gained in the “Inequality in America: A Political Economy Approach” seminar. Students examine a variety of policy alternatives and strategies for social change used to address poverty and inequality by conversing with policy makers, community activists, and public and private organizations, and by participating in a number of structured field exercises and legislative lobbying.

Internship The internship is concentrated practice, and facilitates student learning on many levels. Students integrate and refine their theoretical understanding, build and develop skills, gain a greater understanding of methods of social change, and grow in their understanding of vocation. The program deliberately integrates these experiences with themes and experiences from the other courses in the program. Students work a minimum of 200 hours at their placement, approximately 20 hours each week for the duration of the program. Integration Seminar This seminar integrates theoretical and experiential work in the other seminars of the program with internship work, and provides further theoretical frameworks for making meaning from the internship experiences. Students analyze the operation of organizations that are dedicated to changing systemic inequalities, learn how, when, and why organizations collaborate, and explore the perspectives that internship organizations and staff bring to individual and societal change. Assignments ask students to articulate and assess worldviews on social change and movement-building, including their own, those in texts discussed in the classroom, those expressed by field speakers who visit the program, and staff at their internship sites. Through guided examination of the assumptions they bring to interactions with practitioners and communities, students see how those varying worldviews play out within organizations and in processes of social change. Finally, students reflect on the impacts their classroom training and lived experiences have in real-world work and community environments, and articulate plans for their future engagement.


The following provides detailed information on a few of the internships and projects that have been recently completed. Sites often change in response to the needs of local organizations and the specific interests of students participating in the program where possible. The internships listed below are not an exhaustive list of internship possibilities.

HOME Line is a tenant advocacy organization that seeks to provide renters with the tools they need to advocate for themselves. HOME Line provides free and low-cost legal, organizing, education, and advocacy services so that tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems. They work to improve public and private policies relating to rental housing by involving affected tenants in the process. HECUA interns have worked on issue campaigns, communications, and other advocacy strategies.

IX works with renter communities most oppressed by high rents, bad conditions, and intimidation by landlords in Minneapolis. The HECUA student intern interviewed tenants and translated their stories of mistreatment by landlords, to share their experiences with the public from their point of view. She also attended tenant meetings and translated and took notes for the group and accompanied tenants to their eviction court dates to show they have community support.

The mission of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless is to generate policies, community support and local resources for housing and services while working toward ending homelessness in Minnesota. HECUA students placed here assist with policy research. They help craft language and messaging related to MCH work for the broader public and for social media sources, and take part in the planning and coordination of MN Homeless Day on the Hill.

RECLAIM works to increase access to mental health support so that queer and trans youth may reclaim their lives from oppression in all its forms. One of their programs, “Healing is Resistance” honors the stories and identities of queer and trans youth and their healing journeys. The HECUA student intern wrote interview questions, conducted interviews, and wrote up the stories for the social marketing campaign for “Healing is Resistance.” They also worked with the development director to track and acknowledge contributions to the organization and other office administrative tasks in the development department.