Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Economic inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. One example can be seen in the high-paying tech jobs pouring out of world-class universities like Carnegie Mellon University and the generational poverty that’s only a short walk away.

To study and fight this seemingly intractable problem, Carnegie Mellon is leading the new Center for Shared Prosperity, funded by a $30 million grant from The Heinz Endowments. It’s the largest single grant made in the foundation’s history.

“If you look at urban universities across the nation, so many of them are surrounded by unacceptable levels of poverty,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, a CMU robotics professor who’s been tapped to lead the new center, on the foundation’s We Can Be podcast. “What if universities became world experts in how to take innovation, and point it in the direction of greater social good?”

Not only will the new center mobilize some of the top brains in the region (and world) at CMU, it will take a wide-angle lens to view the problems of inequality.

“Around the world, a relative handful of major research institutions, Carnegie Mellon among them, are literally inventing the future, with significant global benefits and impacts,” says Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. “But too rarely are local communities and complex social needs the real beneficiary or even the focus of the knowledge, creativity and wealth-creation flowing from these extraordinary engines of innovation.”

“We wanted to see if Pittsburgh could reinvent that paradigm, and Carnegie Mellon — with its long history of tackling real-world problems — has risen to the challenge.”

Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation.

The grant is designed to provide funding to identify and address the specific structural barriers that limit opportunity in Pittsburgh, including air and water quality, housing, education, transportation, healthcare, technology skills and access to capital. Then, it will develop projects to begin making a difference.

The center “will leverage our unique expertise to help residents benefit from the innovation economy,” says CMU President Farnam Jahanian.

The Center for Shared Prosperity is intentionally designed not to be an ivory tower, academics-only approach. Instead, it’s a large-scale collaboration with grassroots community groups joining experts from CMU and The Heinz Endowments.

The 37-member Center Community Committee include Laura Chu Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Mónica Ruiz-Caraballo of Casa San José, Jasiri X of 1Hood Media, Rochelle Jackson of Black Women’s Policy Agenda and Raqueeb Bey, executive director of Black Urban Gardeners & Farmers of Pittsburgh. The community members’ lived experiences will be utilized by CMU experts in data science, public policy, technology, humanities and the social sciences to create new approaches to old problems.

Multiple working groups will be taking on critical issues within the first year — developing and piloting programs within months of the center’s establishment.

As an example of the types of projects they’ll pursue, the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) that Nourbakhsh leads, and its community partners, used CMU’s EarthTime data visualization tool to demonstrate how high rates of mortgage application denials and sharply increasing rental prices harm vulnerable populations in Pittsburgh.

Now, they’re working with The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to find ways to make mortgage programs more equitable, such as by ensuring that heavy student loan debt doesn’t disqualify people from financing a home.

“The most exciting part of this whole thing is that when we launch an effort like that, it’s forever,” says Nourbakhsh. “And that’s structurally different from anything I’ve seen before. When you do equity work, you can’t stop doing it. … We’re not moving on. And I think that gives us a chance to permanently align the values of the university with that of the community.”

Illah Nourbakhsh. Photo courtesy of CMU.

Another example Nourbakhsh provides on the podcast involves the deleterious impact that poor air quality has on children. He imagines finding a neighborhood like Homewood that has a high number of children with asthma.

“Suppose we just buy 20,000 air filters to put in their homes? We could do that. Then we’ve also done an experiment that’s never been done — which is to see, over the course of a few years, how that impacts those children’s well-being, their ability to sleep, their ability to go to school, their attendance rates,” Nourbakhsh says.

“If you can make a real difference there, you can go to UPMC, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and all the insurance companies and show them that they actually save money by buying air filters for a child who has asthma, because it decreases the emergency room visits so much, that it pays for the filters many times over. And you can scale that locally, and eventually nationally.”

For Bey of Black Urban Gardeners & Farmers of Pittsburgh it’s a chance to not only leverage CMU’s vast capabilities but also a way to make sure the impact is lasting.

Raqueeb Bey
Raqueeb Bey stands inside the Homewood Community Historic Farm’s greenhouse, referred to as “The Green Trap House.”

“I’m happy to work with universities,” says Bey. “At times I would shy away because they’d come in, we’d give them information, and then we wouldn’t hear from them again. Or leave us with promises that aren’t fulfilled. But I see this as different. It’s led by not only residents but students and activists and community leaders. And I definitely love the idea that a project can be picked by us, that will have funding in perpetuity. Because sometimes projects aren’t sustained.”

Students, too, are looking at something more from a university education.

“The university — I’ve seen it transform itself since the ’90s,” says Nourbakhsh. “Students in the ’90s and early 2000s came in and wanted nothing more than to go to Google and become a millionaire, and take the classes that will make it possible to do that.”

“Today’s students come into my office (before Covid) and say, literally, ‘I’m getting this computer science degree Illah, but I don’t want to go work for a company and help them optimize ad revenue and get wealthy. How can I help my community out?’ … There is a hunger for them to look at a world that’s full of injustice and ask the question, ‘How do I make it more just?’”

Ultimately, this partnership is intended to set an example for other universities and their communities.

“Worsening inequality and social inequity are not inevitable by-products of innovation, only failures of intention and imagination,” says Oliphant.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.