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The Institute for Public Service at Suffolk University: Creating Social Change through the Lens of Undergraduate Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sonia Alleyne
January 26, 2020

Originally published in PA Times Magazine

Stop and think for a moment: Do you recall walking in your downtown area and witnessing a young person standing on the corner with their life’s possessions at their feet? I am sure you can nod your head in the affirmative, as this silhouette is displayed throughout many major United States cities. The issue of affordable housing has permeated the Boston skyline, creating the tale of two cities—the first where the wealthy can afford to pay escalating home prices and rents; the second where the majority of Boston’s low and middle income residents, able bodied and the disabled, cannot afford the price of the existing housing stock or rents. They are finding it difficult to remain housed and are forced to the streets, live with family and friends, or leave the state. 

The Institute for Public Service (IPS) at Suffolk University is tied to government, health care and nonprofit organizations. This past fall, we are proud to have launched a newly created social change “think tank,” a course where undergraduate students collaborate with area nonprofits to address real issues that their respective constituents confront. It is our objective to expose student leaders, many of them honor students, to social inequities, making them empathetic to the world around them but also, and more important, involved in seeking solutions. (At Suffolk, undergraduate students in the Sawyer Business School are required to have at least 20 hours of “local engagement” service to graduate.)

Given the increased attention to the social problem of affordable housing, student leaders will work on the following projects:

Boston Center for Independent Living

Student leaders are collaborating with the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL), whose mission is to serve people with disabilities. Founded in 1974, BCIL was created by people with disabilities seeking full integration into society. The project focuses on accessibility for disabled individuals who primarily are tenants, not homeowners. With the growth and gentrification of many areas, the availability of affordable and accessible housing has reached a critical shortage.  The student leaders will examine New York’s recent legislation for rent protections and examine how Massachusetts might similarly respond, providing recommendations at the end of the project.

Bridge over Troubled Waters

The second project involves collaborating with Bridge over Troubled Waters, which provides effective and innovative services to runaway, homeless and high risk youth; helps them avoid a lifetime of dependency on social services; guides them toward self sufficiency; and enables them to transform their lives and build fulfilling, meaningful futures. This project identifies inequities for youth seeking affordable housing, especially those who have aged out of the foster care system.  The student leaders will dissect myriad housing programs and resources and identify barriers that homeless youth face by recommending ways to alleviate the burden.

Preservation of Affordable Housing

Student leaders are collaborating with Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), which preserves, creates and sustains affordable, healthy homes that support economic security and access to opportunity for all. The students will perform research, analyze tenant demographics, interview residents in three mixed use redevelopments and explore the housing market and affordable housing availability. They will make recommendations for how POAH can address issues that surface during the interviews.

The cumulative results of our student leaders’ research and analysis will shine a spotlight on affordable housing through the lens of how they view social inequities in this space. The desired result is that this IPS program will remove the veil clouding our exposure to the invaluable investment nonprofit organizations contribute toward eradicating social inequities plaguing our society. In Massachusetts, a vast network of 34,000 nonprofit organizations offer many employment opportunities for our students.

The Social Change Think Tank represents a willingness to lend the human capital of undergraduate students to addressing issues that affect the quality of life of vulnerable populations among us. By incorporating the involvement of local leaders in positions of authority, these new partnerships will enable them to hear results firsthand through the prism of our student leaders.

As we look to planning for the 2020 spring semester, IPS will reflect on the recommendations to alleviate barriers and create access, opportunity and awareness by shifting the paradigm in affordable housing processes and procedures, especially for those marginalized. Incoming undergraduates will be well positioned to add their intellectual capital to address another social problem: the opioid epidemic.


Author: Sonia Alleyne is visiting instructor in the Institute for Public Service, Suffolk University. She previously served as nonprofit advisor and adjunct professor in the Institute for Public Service and the Moakley Center for Public Service. She researches nonprofit management, having previous experience as vice president and New England regional manager of community reinvestment for the Santander Bank Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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