University Park,
08:57 AM

Former activist, South Chicago native, brings insightful Capstone Project back home


Dr. Robert Garcia, former activist, who grew up in South Chicago, charged his  Master of Science Business Analytics students to come up with solutions that cater to residents of his hometown with a groundbreaking capstone project.

South Chicago, a once thriving area that was home to the steel industry turned into a shell of what it once was when the mills left and the jobs went with them. This and other factors sent the neighborhood down a spiral of changes, including issues with poverty and economic disinvestment. It’s a familiar story for many cities and areas throughout Chicagoland. Now this predominantly Black and Brown area is changing again and some activists are concerned it isn’t for the benefit of current residents. They fear that the types of businesses being proposed for the area don’t fit the needs of those who live there and could force them out of the neighborhood. 

To help prevent that, students worked with two community activists to conduct a preliminary analysis of South Chicago and businesses that may cater to the area demographics. The students then developed their own datasets of area businesses around the commercial corridor and a statistical model to predict the types of businesses that may be appropriate for the area. Some of their recommendations included businesses that currently exist in the area including fashion shops, rehab services, digital marketing offices, food trucks, a real estate office, home repair, hair services and more. 

Garcia said the kind of experience students got from the project is “gold.”

“You get the challenge of doing something no one has done before and are playing with real data to address real issues as opposed to what people do in a textbook. Nowadays you can google textbook answers, but they had to go out there to find the data,” he said. “And for them to work in teams and in a setting with real world problems gives them the experience of navigating different personalities and trying to manage their time to be productive.”

As a South Chicago native and researcher, one of the most powerful things the project did was dispel myths and help change the narrative about the area. For him, some of those myths include claims that the area doesn’t have any businesses, which justifies new development from those not familiar with the community.

“There actually are businesses and there are businesses that are trying to cater to existing residents,” he said. “What happens to them when we start bringing in businesses that cater to more affluent people? Unless something is done to help them become more successful, they will be displaced.”

Peggy Salazar, a 70-year-old lifelong resident of South Chicago who sat-in during the capstone presentations at GSU said it was a joy to hear the student’s ideas and to learn stats about her community that she didn’t know. While she feels data doesn’t always tell the whole story for what’s needed in a community, she believes the project was important for the students. 

“I’m glad they worked on the project because the students became aware of communities like ours that they might not know about without it,” she said.

Garcia hopes to continue challenging his students with projects that have an impact on communities in Chicago and throughout the Southland.