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Seeking Solutions to Wicked Problems

Tuesday, Mar 7, 2017

Students from four USC schools investigate and help tackle the risk of homelessness

By Christina Schweighofer

Zach Genduso ’17 went to law school to become an effective advocate for social and economic justice. Working toward that goal, he has interned for organizations that serve people living in poverty and taken the pertinent law classes. This year, a Wicked Problems Practicum (WPP) allowed him to significantly broaden his experience; the course has taken him out of the law silo into a bigger world of interdisciplinary collaborations.

(from left) Provost Michael Quick, Associate Provost and Gould Prof. Camille Gear Rich, Prof. Clare Pastore, and other participants.
The yearlong practicum tackles one specific aspect of poverty, the connection between prior convictions and the risk of homelessness. It brings together 19 students from four different USC schools and community stakeholders like A New Way of Life, the Anti-Recidivist Coalition and the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and the city attorney. (The participating schools are the USC Gould School of Law, which has taken the lead on the practicum, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.)
Students presented their work recently at a half-day conference at the law school. They have researched how a history of incarceration impacts the risk of homelessness upon re-entry, analyzed the relevant legal issues and examined the feasibility of possible solutions; these include social bond initiatives, programs providing employment with CalTrans and “Ban the Box” ordinances to prevent landlords from screening out housing applicants based solely on prior convictions.
Genduso sees the practicum as an invaluable experience. In his previous anti-poverty work, he had dealt only with lawyers and law students. Now, a policy expert from the Mayor’s office and students from other schools are his partners. “The work of tackling poverty can never be confined to one discipline,” he said.
The proposition that clusters of schools at USC should combine their efforts to tackle the most intractable problems of our time originated with the Office of the Provost. USC Gould Professor Camille Gear Rich, who also serves as Associate Provost for faculty and student initiatives, developed and conceptualized the WPP, coming up with the theme of the course.
Professors Clare Pastore (USC Gould), Roberto Suro (USC Annenberg and USC Price) and Seth Kurzban (USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck) led students through the practicum, which is focused on homelessness and incarceration.


Students presented on homelessness and incarceration.
The course helps law students hone a wide range of skills including the translation of research findings into language that will persuade policymakers and other stakeholders. Jackie Bowers ’18 said that the course has taught her how to work with community activists, politicians and non-profit organizations to draft an ordinance. Phil Horlacher ’17 said about the cross-campus collaboration with other USC students: “By integrating our many skills and listening to one another, we have come a little closer toward addressing one of Los Angeles’s most wicked problems.”
Pastore, who has worked extensively on public policy problems in the areas of poverty and civil rights, likes the interdisciplinary approach because “in the real world there is no ‘wicked problem’ or public policy issue that is solved by lawyers alone, nor by social workers, policy experts or other disciplines working alone.”
Speaking at the conference, L.A. Deputy Mayor Brenda Shockley lauded USC for the practicum. “We all need one another,” she said.



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