From the classroom into the community: Harris Community Action fellows partner with South Side nonprofits to increase impact


Sonia Mi-Sun Wang, AB’06, AM’07, says that New Community Outreach (NCO), the Bronzeville nonprofit of which she’s executive director, is in its “adolescent phase,” in need of a little support and direction as it grows. A partnership with graduate students from the Harris School of Public Policy has given NCO and its small team a clear road map to maximizing community impact during its next phase.

Founded in 2017, NCO focuses on violence prevention and trauma informed care on Chicago’s South Side through restorative justice practice, mentoring, and leadership skills training for young people.

Its year-round programming includes two Knowledge Empowers Youth (KEY) programs —  a weekly school-based program and a summer leadership intensive — plus a community garden/produce distribution initiative and community events.

NCO provides a crucial safe space where teens can process trauma, build healthy coping skills, and discover their strengths. “We don’t get many chances to express how we feel,” said participant Jonathan Norman, an alumnus of Dyett High School. “Or when we do, it’s not very heard. [NCO] makes us feel like we’re wanted.” On April 30, NCO participants will present their capstone project featuring a compilation of personal stories that reflect on what it means to be a change agent in the community.

New Community Outreach offers year-round programming for participants.

Wang is NCO’s only full-time staff member, so ensuring that the organization’s efforts focus on maximum effectiveness is crucial. “We’re really intentional about doing things well and consistently, versus doing too much,” she said.

NCO has longstanding relationships with many partners within the University, including the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention and UChicago Charter School’s ACHIEVE program. Last year, Wang worked with the UChicago Community Programs Accelerator on a special project to develop NCO’s theory of change — its roadmap of the steps and approaches that lead to desired outcomes.

“That gave us a foundational grounding to ensure that everything we do is aligned to our mission and vision,” Wang said. She and the NCO board found the collaboration so helpful that NCO successfully applied for continued support from the Accelerator in 2022.

“This is now my community, and I can make a change for the better”

The Accelerator helps South Side nonprofits like NCO grow by providing them with training, coaching, and technical assistance from University staff, faculty, students, and consultants.

NCO’s centerpiece project with the Accelerator emerged from its work with a team of three Harris School of Public Policy graduate students who are members of Harris Community Action (HCA), a student-run program created to connect students with South Side nonprofits seeking assistance with data management, program evaluation, policy analysis, and other organizational needs.

Each year, small teams of HCA fellows spend 10 weeks working with nonprofits on projects that advance the organizations’ mission. The most recent cohort of more than 50 fellows managed 16 projects for six nonprofits, translating knowledge and skills from the classroom into solutions for real-world challenges.

For Cynthia Corrales, MPP’24, the lead fellow working with NCO, HCA was one of the reasons she elected to come to Harris from her home in Lima, Peru. “It was one of the programs that excited me most, because it’s for organizations on the South Side,” she said.

“For people like me who are international students, helping an organization in our neighborhood makes me feel like this is now my community, and I can make a change for the better with my skills.”

Corrales and her team members chose to work with NCO because of its focus on restorative justice, which seeks to break cycles of violence and repair harms by engaging victims, offenders, and community members in dialogue around accountability and reparation.

“I’m a criminal lawyer and am interested in public policy,” she explained, “and I think one of the most important reforms that my country and the whole world needs is the idea of justice in a holistic way, not only in a punishment way.”sonia new community outreachNew Community Outreach executive director Sonia Mi-Sun Wang (left), AB’06, AM’07, meets with Harris Policy student Cynthia Corrales (right), MPP’24.

A planning framework that tracks

Translating theory into meaningful action aimed at improving long-term outcomes in the community is an important way to round out the Harris experience, said Corrales.  “A lot of students see problems from the academic side,” she said, “but to actually see the impact of the academic stuff that we are learning — that’s very eye-opening and inspiring.”

While the HCA team members were eager to apply their new skills, they were also conscious that listening was their most important task.

“We may have ideas and are excited to help you, but it doesn’t really matter what we want,” Corrales said. “The most important thing is, what kind of help do you need?”

Wang told the fellows that NCO needed to revamp the strategic plan developed three years ago, making it more comprehensive.

The team worked closely with Wang and the NCO board, meeting weekly to benchmark the nonprofit’s strategic plan against those of other community-based organizations and refine its own plan to be more action-oriented.

The result is a new logical framework matrix, or logframe, for NCO — a visual tool that clearly outlines initiatives and their anticipated results, and includes a tracker that shows how each effort contributes to progress toward the organization’s goals.

“The team supported me in thinking through multiple iterations,” Wang said. “We fine-tuned it and landed on a template that gives us not only a framework for strategic planning, but allows me to think about unpacking each goal for the year — almost like project management for the strategic plan each year. It’s much more comprehensive and detailed than what we had.”

Ongoing partnerships support growth and execution

“One of the things I’ve greatly appreciated is that the HCA team was so intentional about understanding who we are and what we do,” Wang said. “I felt very seen — they made sure the plan was useful and fit our needs, but also reflected who we are as an organization.”

As part of NCO’s engagement with the Accelerator, Wang continues to work with a University undergraduate student and a consultant for advice on keeping the organization on a thoughtful path toward growth.

“All the different aspects of the Accelerator are really meaningful,” she said. “It’s allowing us to be that much more effective and impactful in the community — and it’s a relationship that I hope can continue on.”


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