Campus News

UB Social Impact Fellows harness the power of collaboration to make a difference

This summer's Social Impact Fellows. Photo: Onion Studio


Published August 19, 2021

As a social work student, I always had the impression that social work is the heart of social issues in the community, but working on this project, I’ve found that we really need to collaborate and work with people from all disciplines relevant to the problems and issues we face in society.
Ejura Adebayo, MSW/MPH student and participant
Social Impact Fellows program

During an eight-week summer internship, 30 UB graduate students worked alongside 10 community partner organizations to develop social innovation plans and make a “pitch for their purpose” in the hopes of acquiring seed funding to get their projects off the ground.

The fourth iteration of the Social Impact Fellows Pitch for a Cause competition on Aug. 6 was the culminating event for the multidisciplinary program in which student teams work with local mission-driven organizations to address systemic social issues and make an impact on the community.

The hybrid pitch event featured student teams and judges attending in person while a group of invited guests watched virtually. President Satish K. Tripathi provided a virtual welcome and congratulated the teams on their efforts to create innovative change in Western New York. Hadar Borden, director of UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad and the Western New York Prosperity Fellows program, served as emcee of the event.

Collaboration is key

The Social Impact Fellows program brings students together to collaborate, address pressing social issues and develop solutions to help the Western New York community. Presented by the School of Management, School of Social Work, College of Arts and Sciences and Blackstone LaunchPad, students worked in teams of three composed of an MBA student, an MSW student and a graduate student from the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The societal problems we are facing cannot be solved by any one discipline. We must have multiple perspectives come together to create meaningful solutions,” said Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work. “This program is an example of the power of transdisciplinary thought that offers students the opportunity to co-design creative solutions together.”

Throughout the summer, the teams visited their partner organizations to learn about their challenges and develop solutions to address them. Each week, fellows participated in their internships for four days and then gathered as a group on Fridays for sessions with management and social work faculty, who worked with them to identify, define and generate solutions to social challenges.

“It was a great experience to be able to work with people outside of my discipline to really get perspective and different knowledge from my peers in the program,” said Lawrence Mullen, a PhD student who was part of the team working with UB’s Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program (UB EOP).

UB Social Impact Fellows work with local mission-driven organizations to address systemic social issues and make an impact on the community. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Ready, set, pitch

While it is difficult to capture all the comprehensive research and work from the internships in only five minutes, each team rose to the occasion and developed compelling presentations on behalf of their partner organizations. Teams competed for seed funding for their host organization to implement the project plans. The order of each team’s pitch was randomly selected, and pitches were evaluated on the content of the project, presentation and delivery.

(From left) Judges for the 2021 Pitch for a Cause competition: Tom Ulbrich, Esther Annan, Fred Saia and Dina Thompson. Photo: Onion Studio

Community leaders from the for-profit and nonprofit sectors served as judges for the competition. The panel included Esther Annan, program officer, John R. Oishei Foundation; Fred Saia, president, Oneida Sales and Service; Dina Thompson, executive director, Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition; and Tom Ulbrich, president and CEO, Goodwill of Western New York.

The 10 student teams partnered with ACCESS of WNY (Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services); UB EOP; Belmont Housing Resources for WNY; the city of Buffalo’s Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion; Gliding Stars Inc.; M&T Bank; Peaceprints of WNY; PUSH Buffalo; RAHAMA (Resources and Help Against Marital Abuse); and WNY Women’s Foundation.

Teams worked to address challenges in a variety of areas, including the digital divide in Buffalo, restorative justice, affordable housing, workforce development skills, educational outreach programs, and diversity and inclusion efforts in Buffalo, among other projects. This fall, the MBA students will continue their work and intern with their partner organizations for an additional eight weeks.

Social Impact Fellows pitch competition first place winners.

The WNY Women’s Foundation team of Sydney March, Karli Lawson and Jesse Orrange took home the top prize. With the team are Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work, and Paul Tesluk, dean of the School of Management. Photo: Onion Studio

The WNY Women’s Foundation team of Sydney March, MBA; Karli Lawson, MSW/MPH; and Jesse Orrange, MA in humanities interdisciplinary, took home the top prize of $2,000 for its project to create a public awareness campaign to change the misconceptions about child care and highlight its economic impact on the community. The WNY Women’s Foundation’s mission is to create a culture of possibility so each woman can live, grow and lead to her fullest potential.

“What we are hoping is to change perspective on how people view child care and show how much it can bring to a local economy,” Orrange said.

The advertising campaign, targeted at the larger community, will be placed on social media and on bus stop shelters to inform the public of child care’s impact on the local economy and the development of children.

With involvement from stakeholders that includes advocates, politicians and business leaders, and with the support of child care providers engaged in critical thinking to solve the challenge, the campaign serves as a first step in moving toward a shared service alliance with the WNY Women’s Foundation and its coalition of partners.

“Let’s flip the script so that child care, children, families and providers gain visibility and are valued,” Lawson said, adding that the outcome includes “opportunities for all, better jobs, a stronger economy, a better Buffalo to live in, grow up in and raise a family in.” The public awareness campaign, she said, is the first step in that direction.

Social Impact Fellows pitch competition second place winners.

Tesluk and Smyth join Josh Little and Ejura Adebayo of the PUSH Buffalo team, which won second place in the pitch competition. Not pictured: team member Jacquie Cherry. Photo: Onion Studio

Earning the second-place prize of $1,000 was the team of Josh Little, MBA; Ejura Adebayo, MSW/MPH; and Jacquie Cherry, MFA in dance, who partnered with PUSH Buffalo on a pitch to establish a real estate cooperative on Buffalo’s West Side. In what the team called a “cooperative revolution,” the project plan makes the “possibility of opening true real estate cooperatives, by and for the people, a much more tangible reality than it ever was before,” Little said.

The value of collaboration resulting in community impact was echoed by student participants across every team.

“It was an extraordinary experience. As a social work student, I always had the impression that social work is the heart of social issues in the community, but working on this project, I’ve found that we really need to collaborate and work with people from all disciplines relevant to the problems and issues we face in society,” Adebayo said.

The transdisciplinary experience, noted Paul Tesluk, dean of the School of Management, “is where innovation and creativity come together. Bringing different perspectives together in real time to work through complex, difficult problems — that is what the Social Impact Fellows program is about.”

The Social Impact Fellows program is supported by the John R. Oishei Foundation, as well as the Charles D. and Mary A. Bauer Family Foundation, School of Management Alumni Association, UB President’s Circle and several alumni and friends of the university.