Inequality in America

Policy, Community, and the Politics of Empowerment

Examine the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. Gain concrete change-making skills through internships and discussions with effective activists.

Accepting applications for Spring 2022 & 2022-2023 academic year.

Program Structure

Class meets three times a week for seminar style discussion, field visits, or guest speakers. Students begin work at their internship placement sites during the second or third week of class, and can expect to spend 12-15 hours per week at their site.

Topics & Themes

Income and wealth inequality, systemic oppression, affordable housing crisis and homelessness, regional race and class segregation, education gaps, welfare and government policies leading to inequality.


Dreamland Arts Building, St. Paul, MN

Terms & Dates

Fall 2021 (Sept. 8 - Dec. 17), Spring 2022 (Jan. 31 - May 13)


16 credits

Program Overview

In America today, the top 1% earn nearly 25% of the nation’s income. Wealth and income gaps have reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and are amplified by race. The median household wealth for a white family is $144,000; for Latinxs it is $13,700, and for African Americans, $11,200. Inequality in America delves into the complex causes and impacts of the gap between the rich and poor in the United States. Students examine the social systems that feed increases in poverty and inequality and study the roles racism, classism, trans- and homophobia, and sexism play in the creation of short-sighted and damaging public policy.

In a concurrent internship with a local nonprofit, students test and expand their change-making skills. Past internship sites have included Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), HOMELine, East Side Freedom Library, All Parks Alliance, OutFront MN, and Take Action MN. Students meet local organizers, build professional networks, and spend 150 hours on site, working for organizations dedicated to social transformation. Everyone leaves the classroom with increased confidence in their own abilities to effect change, as well as deep understanding of the local nonprofit landscape.

Staff and Faculty

Emily Anderson

Program Director

Dr. Emily Anderson (she/her/hers) is a scholar, writer, educator and civic leader. Her research considers how we use stories to understand the world and shape our sense of personal and political possibility. Currently, she is studying how contemporary writers re-imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder’s iconic Little House on the Prairie novels to talk about immigration today; work from this project has appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture. In addition to her scholarship, Emily is the author of three young adult novels including Fifteen and Change (the story of a teenager who gets involved in the Fight for Fifteen labor movement) which was recognized by the American Library Association and the Junior Library Guild. Emily’s fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications including Harper’s, The Atlantic, the Kenyon Review, and Best American Experimental Writing.

In 2021, Emily was elected to a second term on the City Council of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a community of 68,000 ninety miles east of St. Paul. In this part-time role, she works to promote civic engagement, the arts, and social justice in the city where she grew up.

A graduate of Macalester College, Emily has taught at the American School of Madrid, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where she received her MFA in Writing), the University at Buffalo (where she received her PhD in English) and in the Honors Program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Phil Sandro

Professor Emeritus/Community Faculty

Phil Sandro has taught experiential urban studies programs for over 26 years, first in Chicago and then at HECUA, including the Inequality in America program, which he began directing in 1994 (under its former name Metro Urban Studies Term/MUST). His background includes community organizing in Chicago and the Twin Cities. Sandro has an impressive record of involvement in urban public policy including serving in a policy making position for the City of Chicago under reform mayor Harold Washington. He has served on numerous boards of nonprofit community development corporations and has been active in educational reform issues. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research with emphasis on urban and regional  political economy, global economics and trade, and economic history.  Sandro was selected by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning as a researcher in their “Political Engagement Project,” because  they considered the program to be among the top 25 courses in the country that prepared students for effective political engagement.  He has served as the Vice President of the Board at the East Side Neighborhood Development Company was an active member of the East Side Prosperity Campaign and served on the Beacon Bluff Advisory Board.  He has also taken a lead role in a number of local political campaigns.

Julia Dinsmore

Community Faculty
Julia Dinsmore is an author, poet, singer-songwriter, and poverty abolitionist who is best-known for her poem, “My Name is Not Those People.” Julia uses creative voice and storytelling to talk about the one thing we too often ignore – class and poverty in America.
From church basements to the halls of congress, Julia has presented in her edu-performance style, calling those who listen to join the work of creating a just world for those experiencing poverty and marginalization. She is a teacher for students in high schools and ivy leagues. She has taught students at Stanford University, Brown, Swarthmore, and Amherst College, among others. She is most well known for her classes in neighborhood “porch sitting” which she calls an alternative to service-learning!
Julia is a mother and grandmother who lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and is deeply committed to her communities there. She has been a Community Faculty member with HECUA; Inequality In America (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs) in St Paul for the past 30 years and has been part of shaping the creative community-based pedagogy of the institution.
Though functionally illiterate for most of her life, Julia taught herself how to write while writing her first book, “My Name Is Child of God, Not Those People, A First Person Look at Poverty,” (Augsburg Fortress). This book has become required reading in university classrooms and a favorite book of book clubs and reading groups.
Julia would love to come to your organization and facilitate an authentic conversation surrounding class discrepancies and building relationships across these seemingly impenetrable borders.


Inequality in America: A Political Economy Approach (4 credits)

This seminar provides the theoretical foundations necessary for understanding the roots, dynamics, and persistence of economic, political, and social inequality and poverty in cities and in regions. Students master the key theoretical tools for evaluating alternative policies, and strategies for addressing various forms of poverty and inequality. Theory is integrated with students’ field and internship work and draws from numerous disciplines, with a particular focus on the field of political economy. Students examine interrelated social systems relevant to the study of poverty and inequality such as the economy, the politics of economic policy, labor markets, geographic systems and housing, and education and welfare systems. Theories of oppression help students understand how institutionalized racism, classism, and gender discrimination factor in and among all of these systems.

Political Sociology of Building Power, Change, and Equity (4 credits)

This seminar illuminates, grounds, and “tests” theoretical perspectives and insights gained in the “Inequality in America: A Political Economy Approach” seminar. Students examine a variety of policy alternatives and strategies for social change used to address poverty and inequality by conversing with policy makers, community activists, and public and private organizations, and by participating in a number of structured field exercises and legislative lobbying.

Internship and Integration Seminar (8 credits, equivalent of 2 courses)

Internship The internship is concentrated practice, and facilitates student learning on many levels. Students integrate and refine their theoretical understanding, build and develop skills, gain a greater understanding of methods of social change, and grow in their understanding of vocation. The program deliberately integrates these experiences with themes and experiences from the other courses in the program. Students work a minimum of 200 hours at their placement, approximately 20 hours each week for the duration of the program.

Integration Seminar This seminar integrates theoretical and experiential work in the other seminars of the program with internship work, and provides further theoretical frameworks for making meaning from the internship experiences. Students analyze the operation of organizations that are dedicated to changing systemic inequalities, learn how, when, and why organizations collaborate, and explore the perspectives that internship organizations and staff bring to individual and societal change. Assignments ask students to articulate and assess worldviews on social change and movement-building, including their own, those in texts discussed in the classroom, those expressed by field speakers who visit the program, and staff at their internship sites. Through guided examination of the assumptions they bring to interactions with practitioners and communities, students see how those varying worldviews play out within organizations and in processes of social change. Finally, students reflect on the impacts their classroom training and lived experiences have in real-world work and community environments, and articulate plans for their future engagement.

Complete Syllabus


The following provides detailed information on a few of the internships and projects  that have been recently completed. Sites  often change in response to the needs of local organizations and the specific interests of students participating in the program where possible. The internships listed below are not an exhaustive list of internship possibilities.

Inquilinxs Unidxs (IX)

IX works with renter communities most oppressed by high rents, bad conditions, and intimidation by landlords in Minneapolis. In the past, interns have interviewed tenants and translated their stories of mistreatment by landlords, to share their experiences with the public from their point of view. She also attended tenant meetings and translated and took notes for the group and accompanied tenants to their eviction court dates to show they have community support.


RECLAIM works to increase access to mental health support so that queer and trans youth may reclaim their lives from oppression in all its forms. One of their programs, “Healing is Resistance” honors the stories and identities of queer and trans youth and their healing journeys.

One recent HECUA student intern wrote interview questions, conducted interviews, and wrote up the stories for the social marketing campaign for “Healing is Resistance.” They also worked with the development director to track and acknowledge contributions to the organization and other office administrative tasks in the development department.


HOME Line is a tenant advocacy organization that seeks to provide renters with the tools they need to advocate for themselves. HOME Line provides free and low-cost legal, organizing, education, and advocacy services so that tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems. They work to improve public and private policies relating to rental housing by involving affected tenants in the process. HECUA interns have worked on issue campaigns, communications, and other advocacy strategies.

Program Costs

Fee Breakdown:

All USA semester-long programs are based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. USA semester program fees include tuition, nearly all reading materials, some field visits (including meals while traveling), and tickets to events and opportunities associated with the program. Click here for more information regarding 2020-2021 program costs.

Group A schools

Students from the University of Minnesota pay $9,200.

Group B schools

Students from all member* and affiliate member schools except Denison University and the University of Minnesota pay $14,600.

*unDACAmented students from Augsburg College receive a $3,000 scholarship from Augsburg.

Standard Cost

Students from nonmember schools and Denison University pay $15,500.

Although a HECUA member, Denison has opted to apply its member discount to a grant program dedicated to assisting low-income Denison students who wish to participate in a HECUA program.


HECUA distributes three scholarships to students from consortium member schools: Scholarship for Racial Justice (up to $4,000); the Scholarship for Social Justice (up to $1,500); and the Scholarship for Community Engagement (up to $750 for semester-long programs, and $500 for short-term programs). Click here to view all scholarships. 

Good to know

This program attracts students who are active, engaged, and passionate about poverty and inequality and want to learn how to make a difference. Because this program is interdisciplinary we integrate elements of philosophy, economics, sociology, urban planning, organizing theory, geography, history, political science and many other fields. We welcome students from all levels, backgrounds, degrees and political visions.

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