University of Southern California: Price Center for Social Innovation celebrates 10 years of research and community partnership

The Sol Price Center for Social Innovation is marking 10 years of finding breakthrough solutions for low-income urban communities. In just the decade since its founding, the research center has established itself as a true community partner that uses the brightest minds in the academic and nonprofit worlds to drive substantive change for the most vulnerable populations.

In November 2011, Price Philanthropies donated $50 million to name the Sol Price School of Public Policy. The generous gift also established the Price Center for Social Innovation to further honor its namesake’s legacy of supporting ways to improve people’s quality of life. Specifically, Sol Price’s vision can be seen through supporting nonprofits in social services, poverty reduction, and access to quality education and health care.

Professor Gary Painter, director of the Price Center since 2015 and chair of the Department of Public Policy, says the social innovation model is unique. In the same ways a company creates new products through research and development, social innovation allows nonprofits and other organizations to test new approaches to solving the most serious problems in their communities.

“We can test new solutions, we can learn from them, we can really activate the people who have the best skills to actually address issues such as homelessness,” Painter said.

This approach is also what drew Professor Christine Beckman to the Price Center in 2018. She serves as an associate director of the center and is the Price Family Chair in Social Innovation.

“The center provides us with a place to think about new ways of approaching [and] trying to solve any number of complex problems,” she said.

One of the earliest Price Center projects was an evaluation of the “School in the Park” program in San Diego, which Price Philanthropies established alongside the San Diego Unified School District in 1996. The program relieved overcrowding by literally taking children out of classrooms to spend time in museums in the Balboa Park neighborhood.

“There are reasons to believe that having a museum-based education can actually expand the horizons of kids, especially low-income children who may not have the resources to go to museums on a regular basis,” he said.

While work in City Heights continues, the Price Center’s influence has grown far beyond San Diego. Among the center’s most notable achievements is the establishment of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute (HPRI). An combination of researchers, policymakers, service providers and formerly homeless people, HPRI is finding solutions to homelessness in Los Angeles County through advocacy and research.

HPRI conducts, gathers, and translates high-impact research on homelessness, and regularly convenes and engages a wide range of stakeholders working to end homelessness in Los Angeles County. HPRI recently debuted a new research agenda that aims to fill critical gaps in the existing knowledge base and advance research priorities that can shape local policy and funding priorities.

A fundamentally collaborative model

Partnerships are vital to the center’s mission because without them, social innovation would be impossible.

Currently, the Price Center is collaborating with organizations like LeadersUp, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit working to bridge the gap between the untapped potential of young adults and businesses trying to find talent. It also serves as a model for how an antiracist economy provides greater opportunities for all.

“We cannot program our way out of poverty,” said LeadersUp President and CEO Jeffery Wallace. “We have to construct policies that are equitable, that fight racism and that ensure all young people have the resource support to maximize their potential.”

LeadersUp has made remarkable strides in its relatively short 8-year history. It has connected with roughly 60,000 young adults and 200 employers. Wallace said the Price Center is a key part of furthering its goals.

“As an emerging national social enterprise, it’s important to anchor yourselves with academic partners that can provide additional credibility but also additional partnership when it comes to tackling some of the toughest challenges out there,” Wallace said.

He plans to continue working with the Price Center to leverage their social innovation process to co-design inclusive solutions that remove critical barriers that often prevent BIPOC talent from connecting to the labor market, and wants to inspire other nonprofits to seek similar relationships.

“I hope that the partnership with USC will stand as a model for other institutions that are willing and want to go deeper into the community,” Wallace said.

A look at the decade ahead

While the Price Center’s mission will not waver, the methods for carrying it out are always evolving. In 2020, the Price Center announced new core research areas, which include housing stability, criminal justice, education, inequality, and of course, social innovation. Additionally, Beckman and Painter, along with Dr. Jovanna Rosen from Rutgers University, developed a new definition of social innovation: social innovation is an iterative, inclusive process that generates more effective and just solutions to solve complex social problems.

Beckman says getting policymakers more involved in the social innovation process is critical. Without them, even the best ideas cannot move forward.

“If you leave out governments from thinking about solving social problems, you’re never really going to be able to scale into these things. Business can only go so far. So, I think our goal on the academic side is to help the field broaden its view of what social innovation is,” she said.

As the center finds new ways to deliver on its promises, the people it serves will remain top-of-mind.

“It’s going to be a continuing balance between trying to lead the academic conversation and helping shape where that goes without losing sight of the local community,” Beckman said.

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