On September 21, 2023, Change Can’t Wait returned to the road for a regional event in the Windy City. Held at the University Club of Chicago, it marked the ninth stop on the campaign’s nationwide tour.
The regional events foster community across the country, bringing together alumni, faculty, university leadership, and friends of AU for an evening program focused on the academic and civic impact of AU changemakers. Among the attendees in Chicago were President Sylvia M. Burwell, Acting Provost and Chief Academic Officer Vicky Wilkins, seven serving deans, and Board of Trustees and Campaign Committee member Jack Cassell.
The event also featured current AU Student Government President Edwin Santos, SPA/BA ’24, MPA ’25, and Kogod School of Business professor Sonya Grier, as well as Chicago Tribune journalist Kim Quillen, SOC/MA ’93, and Anne Caprara, SPA/BA ’01, Chief of Staff of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
The mood in Chicago was especially celebratory—Grier’s appointment as the Arlene R. and Robert P. Kogod Eminent Scholar Chair appointment was announced earlier that day. The program featured Quillen in conversation with Grier for a discussion of her research on race and equity in the marketplace.
An excerpt of their conversation is included below. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Kim Quillen: I'm Kim Quillen. I'm with the Chicago Tribune and I am an alum of American University. I'm thrilled to get a chance to sit down with you tonight. I wondered what inspired you to begin researching these important topics?
Sonya Grier: Well, interestingly, it came from my first job. I was a food marketer at Kraft. I worked in marketing research and I became really fascinated with the way companies develop strategies to speak to specific audiences. So, the notion of target marketing really stood out to me. Then, I thought about that in conjunction with the fact that I had observed and experienced that people don't always get the same value for their dollar. Putting that together really made me want to understand how target marketing works, how companies develop strategies, the kind of assumptions and business ideas and models that they have, and how that relates to the way consumers respond to them.
KQ: You made the point this evening that consumers of color are often more likely to respond positively towards targeted marketing. I was curious about that. Can you dig in a little bit on that?
SG: Yeah, I know that seems really strange. But, we found that consumers of color tend to see some benefits to target marketing. Consumers who feel that they have been excluded from advertising or marketing or in society in other ways are happy to see themselves represented. From that perspective, targeted marketing actually has a stronger impact on those consumers. When you think about accessibility in food marketing, such as putting certain fast-food restaurants in neighborhoods—where they may be good gathering places and bring jobs to the community—people may be positive towards them. So, strategies have to really think about these types of nuances.
KQ: That’s very interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way. Now, you talk tonight a lot about food marketing. That's obviously a big part of your research. Is it a part of your teaching, as well? Do you get into this with your students?
SG: Most definitely. I also brought a group of 94 students to Chicago to look at food marketing and sustainability back in 2017, and we visited companies in my Race in the Marketplace course. We talked specifically about racialized food marketing and the types of business models that go against the backdrop of racial segregation and discrimination and effects that may have negative impact.
KQ: As you know, Chicago is also a big marketing city, particularly food marketing. Given your expertise, if you could make one suggestion request—one ask of big food and big food marketing—what would it be?
SG: That's a really important question. Food marketers and marketers in general have so much power and influence that there's a responsibility to what they do. There's a need for food marketers to think about the impact of their business models. When we've gone through and talked about health disparities or the role of food marketing, companies will donate money. Companies may get engaged in other ways, but it's really thinking about the business models.
KQ: We're here tonight as part of American University's Change Can't Wait campaign. When I think about your research, this is research that creates change. It informs the public discourse. It informs public policy. Here in Illinois, we have been working on some of the food issues that you've been talking about tonight. Last month, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that will distribute $20 million to independent grocers in the state. And that's an effort to get at this problem of food deserts—areas where people don't have easy access to high quality food. Last week, Chicago's new mayor Brandon Johnson announced that he is going to be exploring the creation of a city-owned grocery store. It is another initiative that aims to get at this issue of food deserts, and, by some measures, more than a quarter of the Illinois population lives in a food desert. Given your expertise and the years that you've spent studying these issues, I'm curious what you think of the policy steps that our state has started to take?
SG: I think what's going on in Illinois is very exciting. It's really important to think about grocery stores that might be owned in ways where the business model does not prioritize profit—where you can think about public health in conjunction with profit and try to identify ways so that you can gain both. Yet, at the same time, our research has shown that just because you bring a supermarket doesn't mean people will come. A supermarket does have much more healthy food, but it also has the same amount of unhealthy food, except you can buy it at a less expensive price. And so, you often need to create both supply and demand at the same time—and that can be pretty challenging. My class actually worked with a financial group that was looking to buy a Save A Lot to put in Baltimore, and they worked to help develop educational campaign ads to drive people into the store when the store opened—this was probably at least 15 years ago when I first got to AU. So, it’s really important to see these types of policy interventions.
KQ: AU is a place where the type of action-oriented research that you do is valued and supported. Can you talk a little bit about the role that higher education plays in these kinds of policy decisions that we've been discussing this evening?
SG: Most definitely. I think it's really important for higher education to be involved in these areas because we are training the next generation of finance gurus, public health practitioners, marketers and other types of practitioners and leaders in society. If they don't understand these issues, then they will never change. And so, really engaging with students and helping them to understand these types of issues is what higher education's job is in order to create the type of society that we all want to live in.
KQ: Final question. If you could give us one thing that we could each be doing on a daily or weekly or monthly basis to address these inequities, what would it be? What's your advice?
SG: I would say one piece is to talk to people about it, and that might sound really basic, but one—we don't often talk about race. And two—a lot of people have no idea about the types of statistics that I shared this evening. Creating that awareness is necessary in order to have support for the type of policies that are happening in Illinois. Chicago has a very active community of food advocates who have been focused on this for years. And so, that opportunity to create and spread that knowledge is really important for all of us. Then, when you're ready for action, there are lots of organizations here that you can donate to, volunteer with, or work with, either locally or on a national basis.
KQ: You've got a beat on Chicago, that's for sure. Lots and lots of activism here. Sonia, this has been this has been wonderful. It's been great to get to know you and learn a little bit more about your research.
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