students gathered in large room with an orange rug and a white board; teacher talking in the front of the room
February 07, 2022

Beyond the Dollar Bill: Social Justice and Economics

A student-led MLK Day workshop explores structural inequalities using the Opportunity Atlas
by Erin ’23, Emma ’22 & Valentina ’22

On January, 18, 2022, Tang fellows Liz Monroe (instructor of history and social science) and Ellen Greenberg (instructor of math, statistics, and computer science) facilitated a workshop with students as part of Andover’s 31st annual MLK Day program. “Beyond the Dollar Bill: Social Justice and Economics” engaged 20 Andover students in learning about structural inequalities that lead to poverty, poor health outcomes, and more, using an interactive digital tool (Opportunity Atlas) developed by a group of researchers at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights (OI) project. Monroe and Greenberg are using the Opportunity Atlas to implement new approaches to teaching economics that are oriented towards social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and anti-poverty. In this piece, three workshop facilitators, Erin ’23, Emma ’22, and Valentina ’22, discuss their experience.

Erin ’23: Emma and Valentina, how did you get involved in this workshop?

Emma ’22: Just before Thanksgiving break, Ms. Monroe emailed our economics class and asked, “Who wants to collaborate on a workshop for MLK Day 2022 using the Opportunity Insights data to teach students about the intersections of social and economic inequality across the U.S.?” Valentina and I responded immediately.

Valentina ’22: Right, and I’m so glad we did! It was such a cool experience working with both Ms. Monroe, our econ teacher, and Ms. Greenberg, our stats teacher. We got to see their out-of-classroom dynamic, their approaches to teaching, and how they make sure information is engaging and accessible. How about you, Erin?

Erin ’23: I’m part of SATI—Student Advisors of the Tang Institute—a student cohort contributing to and facilitating campus conversations about teaching and learning. We chat with faculty fellows to identify new areas for research and program development and host schoolwide discussions on central questions in education. This MLK Day workshop, “Beyond the Dollar Bill: Social Justice and Economics,” was inspired by our November Tang Institute Lunch and Discussion. M. Martin (instructor in English and senior Tang Fellow in engaged pedagogy), who initially assembled our cohort of SATI, had this really cool idea that SATI could partner with Tang faculty fellows like Ms. Monroe and Ms. Greenberg to facilitate a workshop for MLK day.

Valentina ’22: It seems especially important to have a workshop about social and economic inequality for the Andover community on MLK Day.

Emma ’22: I agree. Economics can be the segue into a larger discussion about social justice. I was worried that some students might choose our workshop thinking our topic and approach would be “safer” in the sense that they could talk abstractly about numbers and data rather than the hard stuff about interpersonal racial injustice. But the Opportunity Insights project allows you to see the stories and people behind the numbers. Once that happens, social justice issues become unavoidable.

Valentina ’22: Yes! Economics is so interdisciplinary and has so many levels that when you go into your other classes, you start seeing it everywhere. Recently, I read Becoming Abolitionists for my religion/philosophy class that focuses on crime and punishment. The book argues for total police abolition. Because we're led to believe that society would tear itself apart without police, the proposal seems daunting at first. The author’s point is that over-policing actually does more harm than good. You look at the areas that are over-policed—the red areas in Opportunity Insights—and you see that they’re the only areas that are affordable for low-income people. We correlate lower income with being a threat to society in some way. Then you start seeing this pattern: if society thinks you’re bad, and the police perceive and treat you as bad, how are you supposed to make it out?

Erin ’23: What did you talk about in your groups? What was one compelling question asked by an audience member?

Valentina ’22: Someone in my group asked why the data showed that social mobility is comparatively higher in predominantly rural states like Minnesota or North Dakota compared to urban areas. Someone else said, “I feel like if it's your dream to go to New York, then you have to chase after that dream.” And I said, “Yes, I totally get that—that's kind of part of the merit-like narrative of the American Dream.” But I added, “If you can't pay for rent, if you can't pay for food, if you can't pay for basic necessities, then what is the point of chasing that dream?” That opened their eyes to the fact that not everyone has the opportunity to chase their dreams.

Erin ’23: Speaking of the American Dream, my grandparents are very deep believers in the American Dream. As the generation that directly experienced the Korean War, they grew up idolizing the United States. The Opportunity Insights data would be shocking to them because it breaks their stereotypes of the U.S. and the American Dream. You can see this right near our campus by looking at the differences between Andover and Lawrence—towns that are literally right next to each other. When you look at the overall data, Andover is entirely blue [color code for $53k], but as soon as you get to the town line with Lawrence, the map is generally red [color code for $30k]. By comparing the racial makeup of the two towns, the Opportunity Atlas shows that there is “insufficient data” for the atlas’s categories of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian people in Andover. That data point itself personally impacted me and really hit home.

Emma ’22: What do you hope students took away from the workshop?

Valentina ’22: If this workshop made people want to take micro and macro economics or go to economics clubs, and if it made economics a little bit less scary and more useful as a tool for social justice, then we did our job.

Emma ’22: Something great about the Opportunity Atlas is that you can choose to look at a neighborhood in terms of household income, but you can also overlay a variety of factors, such as the rates of policing in certain areas. Obviously, certain neighborhoods are more over-policed than others. Then you can overlay to see what the incarceration rates are for those areas. You can use data to accentuate the points we already know, like how mass incarceration affects some neighborhoods more than others. It isn’t limited to income, and you can toggle the tools to figure out the story you want to tell or discover.

Erin ’23: Right! I wanted to facilitate this workshop because I am interested in stories that the Opportunity Atlas tells about the state of our society and what they reveal about struggles for social justice. It helped that we had a diverse range of participants, not only in terms of background knowledge of economics but also in terms of their global geographic diversity. Because the Opportunity Atlas is very accessible and doesn’t require a lot of economics knowledge to be able to navigate and analyze its data, it opened up the discussion to everyone.

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Emma ’22 is a senior from Chevy Chase, Maryland, who is planning to study the intersection of political science and sociology after Andover.

Erin ’23 is an upper from Kirkland, Washington. She represented Phillips Academy at the 2020–2021 Wharton Global High School Investment Competition as part of Team Big Blue and was honored as a regional finalist. She is an aspiring medical journalist.

Valentina ’22 is a senior who grew up in Bogota, Colombia, and now lives in McLean, Virginia. After graduating from Andover, she would love to study a combination of legal studies and economics.

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