As a community development professional and the founder of a social impact consulting firm, Sarah Hope Marshall has dedicated her career to helping organizations make a meaningful impact in people’s lives. While researching her thesis for the Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Chicago, she was eager to discover interdisciplinary insights into the challenges emerging in communities reshaped by digital media.
Sarah went on to share what she learned in a scholarly article based on her thesis. “Reckoning with Digital Inequity in Place-Based Community Revitalization” appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of the peer-reviewed, open-source Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs.
By drawing on the concepts and skills she explored in the MLA, Sarah was able to contribute to her professional field in new ways. In an interview, she shared her perspective on completing the program, writing a thesis, and readying her work for publication.
A Career in Supporting Stronger Communities
Raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, Sarah first became interested in community development and revitalization when she took a gap year from college to work for a faith-based organization. While assigned to a West Philadelphia neighborhood, her worldview and professional goals underwent a major evolution.
“I was exposed to a lot of racial inequity and injustice during that year,” Sarah said. “From that point onward, I knew that this was the path I would go down and ended up making it a career.”
That path included a stint as CEO for a community development financial institution (CDFI) credit union. She led a financial services organization dedicated to serving individuals who were living in poverty or undergoing crises. Later, she launched her own agency, Profound Hope Industries, to consult with organizations on enacting socially responsible business models that drive growth while benefiting their communities.
Like the majority of people who pursue an MLA from UChicago, Sarah not only had many years of professional experience under her belt, but also completed a previous graduate degree. She earned an MBA, designing her own concentration in community development.
While the MBA was a valuable step in her development as a business leader, Sarah had long wanted to enroll in an MLA program. She knew that a UChicago liberal arts program would provide a rigorous learning experience and allow her to apply an interdisciplinary lens to the social issues that she cared about. Sarah appreciated the program’s flexibility and the opportunity to participate in thoughtful, engaging discussions with peers from a variety of professional and academic backgrounds.
A Multidisciplinary Educational Experience
During her MLA coursework, Sarah augmented her knowledge and skills by taking classes that touched on the humanities and the biological and physical sciences as well as social science. Through engaging classroom discussions, she got to know faculty members and peers who shared her passions for analytical problem-solving and lifelong achievement.
“I found all the professors to be really supportive,” Sarah said. “I could bring my professional perspective into whatever topic was at hand.”
Sarah went on to concentrate on the areas of inquiry that were most relevant to her career by completing an independent study with Associate Professor of Sociology Omar M. McRoberts. As she examined the published research into social networks, she spotted gaps in the available information. McRoberts encouraged Sarah to think of these gaps as openings to make her own contributions, helping to find her way to a rewarding thesis project.
Addressing Social Inequity in the Age of Social Networks
Sarah’s thesis topic was directly inspired by her community development work in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. During her independent study, she learned about the history of organizing in the area, interviewing key players in those events. She was particularly fascinated by the story of how one building became the first in the nation to be bought out by tenants under the 1990 Federal Housing Act and reorganized as a co-op.
“As I did that research, it was clear in those conversations that there was a shift in community organizing and the way people were interacting because of technology,” she explained.
In her thesis, Sarah argued that social inequity has been deepened by the digital divide between people who have the access and skills to leverage advanced technology and those who do not. The resulting breakdown of social bonds within local communities may make it harder for economically disadvantaged people to acquire social capital and achieve their full potential.
She offered several recommendations to enhance outcomes for individuals and communities, such as:
- Revise our understanding of “community revitalization” to encompass virtual communities, striving to improve both physical conditions and digital access.
- Respond to the population shifts away from metropolitan centers made possible by the widespread shift toward remote work, incubating community lenders in the smaller cities that have grown over recent years.
- Pursue further research into technology’s effects on the ways people accrue social capital, interact with local communities, and make decisions.
From Thesis to Publication
Sarah wasn’t alone as she tackled these complex topics. She received guidance throughout her research, writing and revisions from McRoberts, as well as from MLA Program Director Tim Murphy and the program’s dedicated writing coach, Millie Rey.
Starting at orientation, Murphy had encouraged MLA students to seek opportunities to publish their thesis research, and Sarah kept that idea in the back of her mind throughout the program. Once she completed the thesis, she approached Rey for recommendations on which journals she should contact. Soon, Sarah received positive feedback on her submission from the editor at The Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs.
After trimming the thesis down to 20 pages and undertaking several additional rounds of revision, Sarah was ready to share her research with a broader audience of professionals and researchers in her field. She hoped that her efforts would encourage organizations like CDFIs to respond proactively to technological advances as they pursue community development and revitalization. Indeed, the article has attracted attention from quarters such as theCRA Podcast, which features discussions of concepts from the Community Reinvestment Act targeted at CDFI professionals.
“The whole process of going through the program prepared me to think deeply about issues,” Sarah said. “It really stretched me professionally, giving me the confidence that I knew what I was talking about, was on par with my professional peers and was able to introduce new ideas. It was a very valuable program.”
About the University of Chicago Master of Liberal Arts
The University of Chicago online Master of Liberal Arts provides a transformative education that strengthens skills in leadership, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. We welcome a diverse community of accomplished professionals to participate in live seminar discussions, guided by eminent faculty members with expertise in multiple disciplines.
Customize the online MLA to fit your goals by choosing from three optional concentrations. You can complete all the requirements online or visit us on campus for UChicago’s week-long, immersive residential seminars, held twice a year.
Contact us to learn more about how our program helps leaders with a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds achieve their goals.