29 Jan 2021

Getting to Know GenUnity


by Ashley Wheeler

Over the past few years, it has become clear that while civic leadership is an essential part of building strong local communities, many young adults don’t know where to start. Jerren Chang (MBA/MPP 2022), Florian Schalliol (MBA 2021), Nimisha Ganesh (MBA 2021), and Casey McGinley (MBA/MPP 2021) teamed up to create GenUnity—a “civic gym” that provides structured, immersive, and part-time civic experiences that support adults in accelerating change on the issues they care about. We asked them about their company, the importance of civic leadership, and what it takes to be a good civic leader.

How does GenUnity work?
Members sign up for a four-month program on an issue they care about. If someone is concerned about eviction and housing insecurity in Boston we would set them up for two to three hours per week to participate in a series of civic experiences including: speaking to community members who faced eviction, attending housing court, going on a ride-along with the housing inspector, meeting with local elected officials and advocates—designed to cultivate their civic leadership.

Those interested in a local issue get proximate to, and learn directly from, our local community partners experiencing and addressing the issue. Each program cohort of 30-50 people promotes equity by reflecting the diversity of the local community as well as accessibility via flexible scheduling and stipends for low-income individuals.

How many aspiring leaders have been through the program?
Thirty-two members participated in this fall’s Boston-based pilot program, which focused on eviction and housing insecurity. These aspiring leaders were selected from a pool of 170 applicants to be reflective of the diversity of the Boston community. Over the next three months they engaged with 40+ local community partners to understand the issue, created action plans for how they will affect change, and allocated $5,000 in grants to local efforts. They are a testament to how cultivating civic leadership promotes grassroots impact.

Why is civic leadership so important?

Every day we all make decisions that impact the lives of people in our communities. Many HBS alumni, for example, may be weighing an investment decision in a local business or a management decision to change hiring policies. These choices matter. And we have a responsibility as citizens to understand how our actions can democratize opportunity and promote justice in our communities.

Moreover, exercising civic leadership also has personal benefits. Research shows better mental and physical health as well as improved job performance for those who are civically engaged.

We believe that civic leadership is essential for our own well-being and that of our communities.

What makes a good civic leader?
Anyone can be a civic leader. We believe that three specific skills are especially important: empathy for the lived experiences of others, understanding how systems and power structures shape local outcomes, and having the skills and relationships to influence decision-makers and affect change.

Civic leadership is also a muscle. With the right, consistent exercises—proximate, authentic conversations across diverse lived experiences; engagement with local leaders and organizations; and reflection on one’s capacity and responsibility to affect change—we can all become more effective civic leaders.

How important is diversity in civic leadership?
It is essential. Our society today is still reckoning with failed civic leadership that actively disadvantaged others, especially people of color or those who are low-income. Today, we still see the harms caused by practices such as school segregation, redlining, and gerrymandering. Anyone who aspires to become a civic leader needs to proactively and intentionally center diversity, inclusion, and equity, and elevate those who have been ignored or oppressed to advance a more just society.

How has HBS helped during your entrepreneurial journey?

The i-Lab, Rock Center, and several HBS and Harvard faculty members have provided invaluable support to GenUnity. Whether it’s been content expertise, early-stage funding, or connections to partners, this community catalyzed our efforts, allowed us to pilot our program during a pandemic, and established a case study for how we can reimagine civic leadership together.

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