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Learning How Cities Work

Initiative on Cities summer fellows find out how local governments grapple with pressing issues


Emily Rackleff spent her summer helping to make four Boston Public School bus stops more inviting.

Rackleff (Questrom’19), one of five students selected as summer fellows by BU’s Initiative on Cities (IoC), worked in the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics on a project that aims to make the city more playful by transforming and invigorating public spaces like playgrounds, parks, and bus stops so that people of all ages are encouraged to connect with one another.

Among her tasks, Rackleff was charged with soliciting ideas from artists and navigating the permit, insurance, and funding logistics for new public art installations. As a result, painted swirls and circles loop around an old concrete patio at the front of the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. Boxes of chalk are left out to entice passersby to create their own illustrations—the space has become a life-size coloring book. At another Dorchester site, PVC pipes and recycled materials hang from a lamppost at a bus stop, inviting people to bang away and create their own music. At times, Rackleff painted alongside the artists and their helpers, while keeping an eye out for impending rain and dealing with other hiccups.

“Play creates opportunities, opens communication, deepens engagement, and is a safe, creative, and fun way for people to relax and connect,” says Rackleff. “I’m really interested in how cities can bring together voices from multiple sectors to tackle big problems. Play itself was new to me as a civic opportunity, but provided a fantastic lens through which to explore Boston.”

With its goal of advancing local governance, the IoC has been sending BU students on fellowships across the United States and overseas each summer since it launched in 2014. This year’s fellows, chosen from a pool of student applicants from 15 different BU schools and departments, worked with municipal governments in Boston, Providence, R.I., and Manchester, England, helping to tackle issues such as racism and homelessness. The fellowships come with a $3,200 stipend for undergrads and a $6,400 stipend for grad students.

“The fellowships are designed to immerse BU students in local government and help them appreciate how cities are tackling a tremendous range of social, economic, and environmental challenges,” says IOC executive director Katharine Lusk, who was a policy advisor to the late Boston mayor and IoC cofounder Thomas Menino (Hon.’01). “Our own work with cities has demonstrated that they need all skills and perspectives. Students need not have the word ‘urban’ or ‘policy’ in their degree to provide value to—or consider a career in—local government.”

Jessica Bajada-Silva (CAS’19) worked as the undergraduate student fellow for Boston’s Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, which combats racial and economic inequality. Bajada-Silva’s responsibilities included formatting, drafting, and editing documents related to the office’s various programs, among them Boston’s Racial Equity Toolkit, which is being designed to help policy makers as they make decisions that could inadvertently hurt or discriminate against a Boston community.

Originally from Long Island, Bajada-Silva says her fellowship has helped her begin to grasp Boston’s complicated racial history “and really understand what our office is doing to help mediate talks about racism across neighborhoods in Boston. The goal is to eventually heal these decades-old wounds in order to make progress on racial equity.”

As a graduate student fellow working for the Providence Department of Innovation, Johnathan Williams (GRS’23) developed a new diversity and equity plan for city employees. One of his main tasks involved digitizing and revising the city’s equal employment opportunity survey.

“The revised form expanded selections beyond binary gender, added a veteran question, expanded the race and ethnicity categories to better reflect the diverse population of Providence, and also added an education question,” he says. “By expanding and adding these categories, the form demonstrated the city’s commitment to creating a more inclusive environment, and also the ability to obtain more information to deter discrimination and access improvements.”

Williams, a PhD candidate in history, moved to Providence at the beginning of the year and says that working with his local government has helped him form a sense of community and better understand his new home. “The biggest lesson from the fellowship, I believe, is that even when facing a large, complex, and difficult issue, the small things still matter,” he says.

Juliahna Green (CAS’18) and Elizabeth Champion (CAS’20) both served as undergraduate student fellows for the city of Manchester, England.

Green interned with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, where she focused on homelessness. She analyzed survey data, wrote reports on best practices, and mapped out some of the various pathways into homelessness and corresponding intervention points.

Green is from Tampa, Fla., a city she says has the highest rate of homelessness of any metropolitan area in the United States. She found the work to be extremely meaningful. “I’m humbled that I was able to share my ideas on interventions for Greater Manchester’s homeless population with the people who actually have the agency to implement those changes,” she says. “To have the ear of decision makers, as only a recent graduate, was a really empowering experience.”

Champion focused on social housing policy in Manchester, which, like Boston, is experiencing a housing crisis. She compiled data on residential planning permissions, with the purpose of analyzing trends and understanding the drawn-out process of home building in England.

“I found the internship incredibly worthwhile,” Champion says. “I think it’s important to mention that through experiences like these you gain not only hard skills like Excel and PowerPoint, but also critical soft skills, such as office behavior, when to ask questions, and when to seek out the answer for yourself.”

Lusk says that cities welcome working with BU students because of the variety of perspectives and skills they bring to their positions and they are enthusiastic about working with a new cohort next year. Applications will open in January for next summer’s fellowships.

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Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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