Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Life Lessons: University of Illinois MBA Students Work to Remedy Social Ills on a South Dakota Reservation

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Life Lessons: University of Illinois MBA Students Work to Remedy Social Ills on a South Dakota Reservation

Article excerpt


Long before the Occupy Wall Street protest grew from a motley group of demonstrators into a global phenomenon, students and faculty at business schools were debating the topics of corporate morality and social responsibility.

In early 2010, Stig Lanesskog, associate dean for the MBA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, challenged a group of his students to venture beyond classroom polemics and into the lives of people in need.

Lanesskog took them to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, a culturally rich and economically devastated area with limited educational resources. Nearly 80 percent of the population is unemployed and 70 percent of high school students drop out.

Lanesskog had become familiar with the reservation during a previous visit with a church group. "It really sensitized me to certain economic and social issues. It was a viable place where issues of corporate and social responsibility could play out," he recalls.

Working with a nonprofit organization called Re-Member, which had established various programs at Pine Ridge, Lanesskog's volunteers began working on home improvement projects during their one-week stay. Initially, they had intended to just pitch in and help repair houses and trailers and learn a bit about the Lakota culture.

By the end of that week, however, the students had decided to continue their efforts in a more organized way by developing the Kola Foundation. Kola means "friend" in Lakota.

One of the first students to participate was Adam Ratner, who was entering his first year of the MBA program. "It was a really compelling opportunity to think strategically, fundraise and create a brand that would resonate not just today but long term," says Ratner. He and the other students later returned with a larger group, and others have followed.

"It's now the largest student organization within the MBA program," Lanesskog says. Approximately 50 students have participated in Kola since it began.

Lanesskog is quick to point out that, despite his initial role, "it is now completely student-run and student-driven." They have set up a 501(c)(3) and raised $11,000 in less than 12 months." The foundation also has donated large amounts of winter clothing, blankets and other supplies.

The group, however, is trying to hone in on a specific area. "Our focus is the young people on the reservation ... trying to reduce the dropout rate, helping them develop a passion for learning and long-term career objectives," says Ratner, president of the Kola Foundation.

These are tough goals in a community of 30,000 residents covering approximately 3,000 square miles. Pine Ridge for years has attracted media coverage because of its dismal socioeconomic statistics. But the challenges of poverty, alcoholism, heart disease and diabetes continue to afflict the population.

Kola Foundation is not the first well-intentioned group to set up shop at Pine Ridge. So some community leaders are skeptical. "I've seen different organizations come and go," says Will Peters, an activist who teaches Lakota culture, art and oratory at Pine Ridge High School. He says after a history of "broken treaties and broken promises," sustainable, well-planned programs that address specific problems are needed, not quick fixes.

As part of their research in October 2010, the students interviewed Peters, who is a former tribal councilmember. He explained the history of the Lakota people and how they were pushed out of the Black Hills after settlers discovered gold there in the 1800s. …

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