#BUandBoston: Chinatown Main Street x BU Student Government

This post is part of our #BUandBoston series, highlighting the work and research of BU students, faculty, and staff throughout the City of Boston and the Greater Boston region. Interested in having your Boston-related work featured? Tag us on Instagram or Twitter (@BUonCities) using the #BUandBoston or send us an email at ioc@bu.edu.

By Dhruv Kapadia

Over the course of the last few months, Boston University’s Student Government City Affairs department partnered with local non-profit Chinatown Main Street to help support Boston’s East Asian community. 

Chinatown Main Street (CMS) is a local nonprofit organization committed to making Boston a thriving cultural and commercial center for all businesses and people. Founded in 1995, CMS elevates the Chinatown experience for residents and visitors alike by beautifying, promoting, and strengthening the community. From food programs to cultural programming, CMS is one of the twenty Main Street Organizations in the City of Boston, serving as an epicenter of service and volunteering for the greater Chinatown community.

All photos courtesy Chinatown Main Street, Jenifer Bello Santana (Boston Latin School ’23), and Rashida Saherwala (COM ‘26)

However, in recent years, Boston’s vibrant Chinatown has become a community fighting for its very existence. CMS Board of Directors member, former Student Government Director of Communications, and IOC Communications Manager Ting Wei Li (CAS ‘22) describes the problems facing Chinatown as “dual pressures” of gentrification and residents’ innate desire to own quality homes outside of Chinatown: “Housing has become increasingly unsustainable for a lot of families for economic reasons,” said Li, “residents and businesses can’t afford rent and developers want to take over [the community’s] hot real estate area.” 

When Vijay Fisch (CDS ‘26), a first-year majoring in Data Science and minoring in Economics, learned about Chinatown’s ongoing struggle with gentrification through a CMS volunteer opportunity in November started by Li, he knew he had to act. As the Boston University Student Government City Affairs Community Liaison, Fisch aims to connect students to the wider Boston community and local government leaders. After volunteering with CMS, he proposed a long-term partnership between Student Government and the non-profit. As soon as his project was greenlit by City Affairs Director Gabriela Ramirez (CAS ‘23) and the Student Government Executive Board, Fisch began outreach to prominent Asian and community service student groups on campus, including the Chinese Student Association, Asian Student Union, and various volunteer-based organizations. Through this outreach, Fisch assembled a large team of volunteers and coordinated with Li, contributing to the non-profit’s two large-scale volunteer opportunities in Chinatown: the Monthly Food Distribution Program and the Chinese New Year Cultural Village.

CMS’s monthly Food Distribution Program feeds over 60 families, with volunteers packaging and handing out food to families in need on the third Saturday morning of every month. This service program began as a result of a partnership between CMS and Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), a non-profit seeking to “provide resources and tools to transition communities from poverty to stability.” ABCD provides funding to CMS, who then partnered with Lun Fat Produce, a local Asian-owned food distributor, to provide food for the distribution program. Families must be in the bottom 20th percentile of income in the Boston Metro Area to qualify for the program. According to Fisch, volunteers weigh, package, and distribute food, starting at 9:30 AM and ending at around 12:00 PM. Li discussed the impact City Affairs volunteers had on the food distribution event. “Having BU students who are willing to wake up early to come help us is very much appreciated,” said Li, “and the fact that there is such an interest in helping the community out for [both] food distribution and cultural events have been very welcoming news for our organization, especially since our nonprofit is [relatively] small.”

On a more celebratory front, CMS hosted its Chinese New Year Cultural Village in the Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library on Sunday, January 29th. The celebration was filled with cultural performances, traditional snacks, and arts and crafts. Turnout, according to Li, was unprecedented. “Within the first hour, we were over capacity,” Li said, “It was sad that we had to ask people to wait, but I was emboldened by the fact that so many people showed up for the event.” BU volunteers came in even greater numbers, taking on various tasks, including ushering guests in and out, helping with arts and crafts stations, and pro-bono photography. Again, Li expressed gratitude to student volunteers, highlighting their lively and multifaceted service as a reason for the event going smoothly together with volunteers from a variety of groups ranging from high school students to those working full-time.

More broadly, Li hopes BU will be more proactive in its collaboration and community service work with Chinatown. “I think Chinatown is a microcosm of a bigger picture of inequality in Boston,” he said, “there are a lot of underserved neighborhoods in Boston [due to] the legacy of urban renewal and redlining.” Li continued, “BU should encourage more community service and introduce [local non-profit centers] directly to students because there are so many ways that [BU] students could assist through volunteering.” 

Fisch took a more critical approach, asserting that Boston University “contributes to gentrification” experienced by Chinatown and other marginalized communities across the city. “People [associated] with Boston University who [work at] bio and pharmaceutical companies around the Boston area are driving up housing prices and rent prices, making Chinatown a really hard community to live in.”  He also highlighted the importance of research conducted by organizations like the Initiative on Cities, arguing that the university should “invest in understanding the different ways that [both] universities and city policies are shaping the affordable housing crisis.” Fisch also echoed Li’s recommendation for greater proactiveness and direct service from the BU administration. 

“Chinatown is a beautiful, vibrant neighborhood with amazing restaurants, stores, and coffee,” said Fisch, “and if [Boston University] can encourage students to go to Chinatown, invest in those businesses, and explore the city, the community could really benefit.”

Chinatown Main Street has a number of exciting volunteer opportunities open to all residents in Greater Boston planned in the coming months. If interested, visit their website and follow their Instagram to stay up to date on the latest opportunities to get involved. The Student Government City Affairs Department is also hard at work on different civic and volunteer-based initiatives. Stay up to date on their work on the Student Government Instagram here.