Two NU undergrads combat educational inequality using leftover foreign currency

Community Currency co-founders Evan Taylor and Robbie Markus.

As Weinberg junior Evan Taylor was getting ready to fly back to his home state of Washington after a vacation in Mexico, he realized his pockets still held leftover pesos that he no longer had use for. His mother asked him, “How many people do you think have this same exact problem?” and with that, a nonprofit was born.

Taylor and  Communication junior Robbie Markus became the co-founders of Community Currency, a 501(c) nonprofit that seeks to erase educational inequality in major cities by collecting a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted foreign currency that passes through international airports in the United States.

The idea is to set up collection boxes in international airports where returning travelers can deposit their leftover foreign currency. That currency will be gathered, exchanged into U.S. currency, and donated to education nonprofits in the local communities of participating airports.

“There’s about $90 to $91 million in foreign currency passing through O’Hare,” Markus said. “If we can set up just three bins and capture one percent of that money, you’re looking at $90,000 — and that would be so much for an education nonprofit in the Chicagoland area.”

In order to ensure that Community Currency makes its intended impact of reducing education inequality, Markus spends his time working to better understand the issue in the context of different communities.

“It’s so easy in the nonprofit space to spend money and think you’re making a difference, but in reality it’s not chipping away at the root of the problem,” Markus said.

Markus spent last summer meeting with experts and participants of the education system in the Chicagoland area including CPS teachers and principals, academics at NU, and nonprofit leaders in order to pinpoint what would be the most impactful target area in order to make a difference in kids’ educational experience.

The answer he found was the afterschool space.

“In the city of Chicago right now, there is an income and race-based gap in access to afterschool support and programs, and that is a huge problem,” Markus said.

With that knowledge, Community Currency decided to partner with the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago to send kids to summer camps and programs using the foreign currency collected from Chicago international airports.

Markus said that socio-economically disadvantaged kids traditionally don’t get the same access to programs and safe spaces in the summer, which ensures that they’re not starting school on the right foot compared to their potentially wealthier peers.

“By honing in on summer camps, we feel that we’re doing something to move closer to a just education system,” he said.

Community Currency is operating out of The Garage at Northwestern, a space that Markus said tremendously fosters the “growth mindset.”

When asked where he envisions the nonprofit will be in two years, Markus said he expects to be operational in five to 10 international airports in the United States and for the current team to no longer be fully staffed or taking a salary, but rather, providing advice as a board of directors or through a more informal role. He also expects Community Currency to be under one to three full-time executive positions and a slim staff.

While Community Currency is a Chicago-based nonprofit, Markus said they are also in conversations with Detroit, Los Angeles and Cancún about implementing this model in their respective airports.

“We see Chicago as our ideal partner because it’s local and a great starting point,” Markus said. “But once we get inside one airport, we can prove this model and we can prove that it’s a very easy way to help a community…and we’d love to run this inside any American city that would be interested in making some change.”

You can check out Community Currency’s Facebook page here.