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Student Profile of Lawrence Karongo

Lawrence Karongo

Lawrence Karongo

Date: 
September 2, 2016
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Learn more about applying for the Kris Nelson Community-Based Research Program

From big banks to big business, capitalism to socialism, supply and demand, economics can seem big and impersonal. Lawrence Karongo, a master of public policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has dedicated his studies to how large-scale economic policies and trends play out in local communities and individuals’ lives. In 2015 he got the opportunity to work on two community-based research projects through CURA that let him utilize his knowledge to explore new ideas and gain new insights on communities in North Minneapolis.

His first project began even before he started at the Humphrey School. The Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) asked him to study local incubators and co-working spaces, which have exploded in popularity all over the country. NEON, a nonprofit aimed at addressing imbalances in racial and economic equity, was interested in developing a space for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses in North Minneapolis. Lawrence’s job was to take best practices from around the country, desires and needs from the business community in North Minneapolis, and fuse them together to make recommendations for a model NEON could make into an incubator and co-working space.

For any other 22-year-old fresh out of undergrad, this may have been a challenge. But Lawrence dove into the research analyzing economic trends, gathering information from local business registries, visiting local storefronts, and even walking up to hard-working strangers at coffee shops. He wanted to find out what people’s needs were, and what would cause them to be interested in an incubator or co-working space.

Initially, he encountered some apprehension. Many small business owners in North Minneapolis had been told by well-meaning business-centered nonprofits from outside the community to change their way of doing business and were therefore apprehensive about more advice from outsiders. Lawrence knew his intentions were different: “I was more there to listen and to hear them. So I told them, ‘talk about whatever you want to talk about.’” Through that humble approach he gained priceless, honest insight from the local business owners and entrepreneurs, compared them to best local and national practices, and made actionable recommendations for NEON.

In January 2016 NEON opened its doors to its very own Business Incubator, where entrepreneurs can use incubator services and a variety of co-working space membership options. Marcus Owens, the director of NEON, expressed his gratitude for Lawrence’s impact on the product. “Lawrence was a fantastic partner in the development of our strategic plan for the NEON Business Incubator. His ability to connect authentically with our community and conduct valid and insightful research aided in our ability to create and execute our plan.” Lawrence’s hard work will now live on in the businesses NEON supports in North Minneapolis and you can read his report “West Broadway Business Incubator & Co-working Space Project” at the CURA website.

Lawrence’s second project broke new ground in research on wealth disparities in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) asked him to help investigate causes of race-based, wealth disparities in the metro and give recommendations on how to counteract them.

Lawrence discovered early on that wealth is complex, widely misunderstood, and under-addressed in policy. Income, by contrast, is a much simpler concept that is often included in public policy. The MUL believes that the long-term, intergenerational impacts of wealth accumulation beg much more investigation and attention than short-term indicators like income. But much of the information they needed didn’t exist yet.

Lawrence began by leveraging the expertise of the Urban League’s Nick Jaeger and University of Minnesota Professor Dr. Samuel Myers. They teased out the complexities of the concept to make it understandable to the general public: What is wealth, exactly? How is it created? How is it preserved or lost? Using the answers to those questions as a foundation, Lawrence created a plan to gather information about people of color’s experiences with wealth.

If you’re not familiar with racially based wealth disparities, here are a few quick facts about the national disparities from a 2012 study by William Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, "Bold policies for economic justice."

  • In 2011, the national median net worth of a white household was $111,740. The median net worth of an African American household was $7,113.
  • Liquid asset poverty is high across the board. According to one study, whites have a median liquid asset value of $23,000, compared to African Americans who have $200.
  • Education is important to build wealth, but it is not a factor in closing the wealth disparity. Whites who have a college degree have roughly $180,000 in wealth, compared to African Americans at just $23,400.
  • Lawrence’s 2015 survey found that 63% of African Americans who have lived in Minneapolis for more than 20 years have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But only 26% of those who have been in the city for less than 20 years have a bachelor’s degree or higher, making it harder for them to accumulate wealth and thereby increasing the wealth disparity.

Over the course of a few months, Lawrence orally surveyed nearly 100 people about their experiences with wealth. He combined the survey results with economic analyses and presented that report to MUL in mid-May. His report “Defining Personal Financial Assets in the African American Community” was recently published and can be viewed on the CURA website. As the first research of its kind in the Twin Cities, they will be working to leverage it to inspire powerful players to demand policy changes and address the stunning wealth inequalities in the state.

Lawrence’s experience with both projects gave him the foundation to confidently pursue his public policy degree. He gained knowledge and direction, but also trusting and honest relationships with community members and two impactful organizations. “Both projects confirmed what I want to do and what I want from my work…[I want to learn] how policies affect people, for better or for worse. And if it’s for worse, I want to learn what changes can we make to turn it into a positive effect.”