SSA, Chicago, and Civic Engagement

SSA & Chicago

The City of Chicago is an irresistible context for the student of social welfare as it has been the center of pioneering movements in social work, community organizing, women's rights, urban planning and architecture, labor organizing, and black politics. Through Chicago's leadership, Illinois was the first state to pass a Mother's Pension Act (forerunner of AFDC) and the first to create a Juvenile Court. A list of its movers and shakers would include not only Cyrus McCormick, Montgomery Ward, and Richard J. Daley, but also Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Julia Lathrop, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertha Palmer, Clarence Darrow, Gail Cincotta, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama. Chicago confronts the major issues facing American cities in such areas as economic development, public education, and the political empowerment of minorities, and its efforts are watched by other cities throughout the country.

After a century of immigration, the city's people are extraordinarily diverse. The city and metropolitan area support a vigorous cultural life whose chief glories are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute, the Lyric Opera, a distinguished literary tradition, a nationally hailed theatrical scene, and the finest urban architecture and blues and jazz music in America.

The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) has both benefited from Chicago's vitality and played its own part in Chicago activism. Julius Rosenwald, an early president of Sears Roebuck and one of the School's founding trustees, established scholarships for two African American students with the specification that they do their fieldwork among the city's early African American community on the West Side. In the years since then, students and faculty have studied and worked in Chicago's ethnic communities, its housing projects, its criminal justice reform movements, and other social experiments. Students who come to study at SSA thus have access to an extraordinary community and civic partnerships. 

Civic Engagement

Partnering for Community Impact logo

At SSA, civic engagement is a fundamental part of our mission and our values. We are committed to developing and supporting thoughtful, strategic, and mutually-beneficial partnerships with community members, community organizations, and other local stakeholders. These partnerships enrich the academic experience for our students and expand opportunities for meaningful research, while including and responding to the voices and needs of our neighbors.

This practice of civic engagement, based on shared values, trust, and respect, helps create stronger communities for residents of our immediate South Side neighborhoods and beyond. It is a goal – expressed by the University’s founders more than one hundred years ago – that drives much of our work today.


Finding Solutions through Collaborative Research

Using a civic engagement approach, SSA scholars explore complex social problems with nuanced and comprehensive thinking. Our best work involves civic partnerships that have informed policy makers, industry leaders, and community partners, and resulted in improved and enduring policies, practices, and outcomes.

For example, researchers at SSA’s Network for College Success collaborated with Chicago Public School principals to a capacity-building model that has yielded historic improvements in CPS high school graduation rates, demonstrating what can happen when researchers, policy makers, and practitioners work together to make systemic changes. SSA’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention has partnered with faith leaders and community organizations in the Bronzeville neighborhood to develop and implement a coordinated and multipronged action plan to drive down violence. Most recently, SSA faculty have partnered with the City of Chicago to evaluate CityKey, a new municipal identification program that can more effectively lift barriers to critical social services for more of the city’s residents.


Civic Engagement and the Student Experience

Fieldwork, a critical element of the SSA student experience, is another example of our commitment to civic engagement. During fieldwork placements, SSA students integrate book learning with practical experience, providing hands-on service at public, private, and nonprofit organizations in Chicago. Through standing relationships with more than 600 social welfare entities throughout the Chicagoland area, our students work directly with professionals and vulnerable populations, putting classroom theories and techniques into action for an estimated 225,000 hours each year. Our students gain pragmatic experience and a practical understanding of real-world situations and systemic problems, while learning from the tremendous strength, resilience, and knowledge held by the individuals and communities they serve.

SSA students love to volunteer and one of the ways that they find volunteering opportunities is through the University of Chicago's Office of Civic Engagment. The UChicago Pathfinder is a tool to help all students find volunteer opportunities on and off campus.

In the fall of 2018, SSA will have an additional opportunity to engage with the community during the annual Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, hosted by the University in partnership with SSA and other University entities. This summit will welcome more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world, university representatives, subject matter experts, and other public figures, who will address urgent social, economic, and environmental issues within the UChicago campus, in local communities, and around the world. At the conclusion of the working sessions and events, attendees will participate in a “day of action” with University faculty, administrators, and staff to support a priority project in an adjacent neighborhood.


Driving Global Impact

SSA’s civic engagement efforts extend far beyond Chicago’s city limits. As rapid urbanization makes our world smaller and more interconnected, we are rescaling our efforts – adding faculty, forging new partnerships, and applying research – on the global stage. Read more.