Campus & Community

Giving back to the Greater Boston community

Boston skyline.

Willem van Bergen/Creative Commons

long read

Students contribute time, effort, expertise to solving local challenges, helping residents

Students from Schools, centers, and programs across the University volunteer their time, effort, and expertise to advance work being done by local government and community organizations across Greater Boston. As does Harvard itself, these students feel a responsibility to leverage their skills and resources to enhance the communities in the region the University calls home. Their volunteer contributions, particularly in addressing under-resourced needs, have made real, lasting differences in the lives of residents throughout the area. Here are some of the experiences of Kyle Miller, M.U.P., M.P.H. ’21, Wenzheng Wang, M.U.P. ’21, and Daniel Polonsky, J.D. ’21.

Kyle Miller

I was a joint-degree student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. When I saw the Rappaport Greater Boston Applied Field Lab led by [Harvard Kennedy School] Professor Linda Bilmes I thought it would be the most accessible way for me to make a difference in Greater Boston as a student. It would allow me to gain those practical skills, especially as someone who wants to stay in Boston after graduation.

Every year the field lab reaches out to a number of cities across the country, including many here in Greater Boston, to ask about their specific needs. What are the most seemingly intractable issues that are present, and how can we as a group of academics, practitioners, and individuals who care about these spaces — who care about the public good — how can we contribute and help solve those needs?

“It’s very exciting to have such a class where people from such different backgrounds can come together and leverage our skills for the public good.”

Kyle Miller

The city of Boston has a longtime commitment to ensuring commercial equity, economic equity, and all forms of justice that will make the city a welcoming and inclusive place. But of course, as all cities do, it has limited capacity and funding. So, for the city, having the ability to tap Harvard students is instrumental. In my group, for example, we all come from such disparate backgrounds. Besides me, we have Kennedy School of Government students, and people who’ve done public sector work before, people who specialize in working with immigrant and refugee populations. You have people who are CPAs. You have people who have worked for Goldman Sachs. It’s very exciting to have such a class where people from such different backgrounds can come together and leverage our skills for the public good. And I think that’s what the city of Boston sees and that’s why they continue to work with the field lab year after year.

So, the city of Boston came to the field lab and said, “We’d like to reimagine how we fund and implement stormwater management,” and our group volunteered to help in any way that we could.

We started by thinking about what implications does the built environment have on stormwater management, and how does stormwater management affect health? When Boston floods, and we know it’s going to in the future, how can we better disperse that water? How can urban planning restructure the built environment in a way that actually removes that water safely and puts it back into the ocean, or absorbs it? How are we making these spaces — particularly environmental-justice communities, places that are predominantly people of color, places where there’s limited English proficiency, or places where the income of the surrounding community is very low — how do we create an environment that ensures that these communities have access to the resources they’ll need, in this case, safe, efficient means of dispersing water from high-intensity storms so that it doesn’t flood homes?

We also looked at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s database for areas that will experience intense flooding. Many neighborhoods will be affected. But for the purposes of this project, we chose to focus specifically on East Boston, because when we combined all of these different factors, we discovered that East Boston is particularly vulnerable. But our hope is that eventually our findings can be scaled up and used in any [neighborhood] citywide. And we hope our final recommendations will be something that they can adapt as necessary and flexible enough for them to change to meet the city’s changing needs.

We did a quantitative analysis of what was needed. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we haven’t had the opportunity to interact with people on the ground. We handed over our findings and recommendations, and now the city will decide how to move forward, perhaps with a deeper, qualitative analysis. They’ll go talk with the people in the various neighborhoods and say, “This is what we’d like to do, and this is why. This is what we think would have the greatest impact and would reduce stormwater in your communities. This would allow you to see the future we all want to see for our communities.”

Throughout the project we worked closely with Sanjay Seth from the city of Boston, who interestingly enough is also a graduate of the field lab class. One of the things that really stood out to me is how this class shows how Harvard is trying to create enduring commitment to public service among students. Sure, yes, we’re providing a benefit to the city of Boston. But I also view it as a responsibility. Because of Harvard’s presence in the community, and the responsibility we have to it — the very least we can do is give the time and energy of our students and faculty.

Editor’s note: The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston was founded and funded by the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Charitable Foundation, which promotes emerging leaders in Greater Boston. A recent gift from Phyllis and Jerry Rappaport ’47, L.L.B. ’49, M.P.A. ’63, made it possible for the field lab program to continue its critically important support of student work at the local level.

Daniel Polonsky

Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center is staffed by Harvard Law clinical instructors and clinical faculty who team with law students to meet community needs, train the next generation of lawyers, and foster legal, economic, and social change. For example, the clinic I participated in works in part to help people get cash and other public benefits that they are rightly entitled to. I was in a project of the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic, the Safety Net Project.

I wanted to work in the clinic to get practical skills, and I figured that I would rather be developing those skills while helping people in need. The clients who come to this clinic are attempting to understand and navigate a sometimes incredibly complex system, all in an attempt to get their legal benefits — benefits including the basic human needs of food, income, and health care.

A recent client came to us through LSC’s partnership with the Boston Public Library. Every week since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff from the Legal Services Center host virtual drop-in hours in collaboration with the Boston Public Library to provide advice and referral information to people about legal issues ranging from housing law, disability rights, Social Security and public benefits, such as SNAP and unemployment assistance, veterans benefits and military record corrections, family law, tax issues, predatory student loan, consumer loan, and Small Claims Court problems, to criminal record-sealing or expungement. This client was someone who is disabled — is unable to work — and was rightfully entitled to benefits. Yet she was denied Social Security benefits not once, but twice, and had been without regular income for over two years.

“It was really important to me to give back to this community that I’ve called home for the past three years,” said Daniel Polonsky

Courtesy photo

Daniel Polonsky.

Throughout the semester we worked to prepare her case for a hearing before an administrative law judge. I compiled medical records, worked with her doctors, and got an affidavit from her daughter. We pulled together all the facts we needed to prove that she is disabled, and then I wrote a brief for the hearing and submitted it.

Based on the evidence and the brief, the administrative law judge rightly found that she is disabled without her having to go through the scheduled video-conferenced administrative hearing. Fortunately, at long last, she was able to get the benefits that she deserved and desperately needed. This win was rooted in understanding the law and how to reference the regulations and explain why she so clearly met the standards. Additionally, she was applying for SSI, or Supplemental Security Income, which is specifically intended for people without resources. She would not have been able to afford to hire a lawyer and, given that over 70 percent of unrepresented applicants are denied, she may not have won her case without our help. Having access to Harvard-supported programs like the clinical programs is critical for so many people.

And the program is beneficial for law students. There are some practical skills you are not going to get in a traditional Law School class. And so, if students want to develop those skills before they graduate, as opposed to during their first job, I don’t see any reason not to do so while helping people and contributing to closing the unmet need for legal assistance. I would so much rather be working with and helping someone from a marginalized community or someone who can’t afford legal services than working on mock cases. So really, it’s a win-win. Everyone benefits. It was really important to me to give back to this community that I’ve called home for the past three years. I’m incredibly proud of this work — and proud to be part of a program that means so much to so many.

Wenzheng Wang

My interest in urban planning started from a course that I took at Boston University where we worked on historic preservation around buildings in and near Franklin Park in Boston. That started my passion for looking at the built environment and thinking about the cities we live in — how we can change and shape the future of our cities, eventually even the culture of our cities. My interest in the field led me to the Harvard Graduate School of Design and various opportunities, including the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies Community Service Fellowship program.

The Community Service Fellowship supports students obtaining internships or other volunteer opportunities with organizations whose work focuses on housing, the built environment, and/or community development. Through the fellowship program, last summer I worked at the Asian Community Development Corp. in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Asian CDC works in underserved and immigrant Asian American communities in Greater Boston and has a mission to build affordable homes, empower families with asset-building tools, and strengthen communities through resident and youth leadership.

“An important lesson I learned at GSD is that every neighborhood is different and as planners we first must understand the context for community needs.”

Wenzheng Wang

As part of the organization, my work touched on two different projects: the “We Love Boston Chinatown” initiative, which helps local eateries attract customers during the pandemic and formulate a better understanding of food security for local residents.

At a time when the restaurant industry was hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinatown Main Street, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, and Asian CDC came together to give a boost to local businesses. An important lesson I learned at GSD is that every neighborhood is different and as planners we first must understand the context for community needs. While outdoor dining has really taken off in some parts of Boston, in Chinatown that hasn’t been the case for the simple reason that parking is so scarce. A lot of people want to drive to Chinatown and naturally local businesses have been cautious in striking the right balance so as to not exacerbate the problem. That’s something that we did not know when we began the work. The first thing we did is we surveyed business owners and local residents to understand their needs and limitations. We listened in to various meetings, learned what organizations were already doing, and then determined how we could supplement. Eventually we came up with the “We Love Boston Chinatown” campaign, aimed at attracting patrons to the neighborhood eateries.

While at the Asian CDC, I also worked on the Food Access Project, a collaboration with the Harvard Kennedy School. I interviewed families about food security issues — asked whether they had enough money for food and whether they had enough to eat. I was the only person on the team who could speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, and while the sample was small, I was struck by their stories. That was the first time I got to connect with individuals in the community and really learn about what is going on the ground. It was an eye-opening experience, and one I will undoubtedly take with me.

It is incredibly important for students and institutions like Harvard to be involved in local, on-the-ground programs that address pressing issues. Nonprofit organizations like the Asian CDC aren’t well-resourced, so having Harvard students is useful because nonprofit organizations can use the manpower and brainpower to try to bring programs online. On the other hand, students can really learn from the community organizations and look at how you can really make a difference in a place where you don’t have a lot of resources. That’s incredibly valuable for students, and I hope for the organizations we serve.

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.