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.
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?
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.
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.