UMass Boston and Community Leaders Discuss How University Can Best ‘Stand with the City’
Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco pledged to expand the role UMass Boston plays in the city during a conversation last week with Boston City Council President Kim Janey, who is poised to become the city’s next mayor.
“ 'Communiversity’ implies our shared work and responsibility toward the social good. ”
“We need to be the go-to place for madam president when she becomes our mayor, for city government, for NGOs, for communities,” he said. “To, with us, think through and build the vehicles that will be needed, vehicles that need to be democratic, that need to be organic, that need to be authentic, to take on the grave, grave challenges we face today and moving forward.”
Janey said UMass Boston has been the place where Boston residents and folks from surrounding communities, and working families, can get an education.
“I see UMass as such an important part of the fabric of Boston in making sure that residents, whatever their background, whatever their zip code, whatever language they may speak or country they may come from, or if they grew up in our great city… UMass provides the pathway to a brighter future,” she said.
The conversation between the two leaders was part of “Communiversity: Standing with the City, Standing Up to the Times,” which was hosted by UMass Boston’s Office of Community Partnerships, and facilitated by Kenneth Cooper, senior editor for GBH News.
More than 100 people gathered virtually on Thursday, February 18 to hear UMass Boston faculty and organizational leaders across Boston deepen the dialogue around how the university can best live up to its founders’ charge to "stand with the city" and contribute toward solutions important to the city of Boston and urban communities more broadly.
“‘Communiversity’ implies our shared work and responsibility toward the social good, where the lines between the community and university stop existing as we look to come together for common causes,” said Cynthia Orellana, director of the Office of Community Partnerships. “One of these is to actionably stand with our city, with urban communities that are core to our institutional mission in good times and in times that require us to grow and stretch beyond our comfort.”
Suárez-Orozco pointed to myriad ways in which UMass Boston is standing with the city, from nursing and health sciences students vaccinating the city’s first responders to researchers tackling climate change to the university-wide effort to become a leading antiracist and health-promoting public research university.
“If we didn’t have UMass Boston, we would need to invent it,” Suárez-Orozco said. “In world history there is a powerful history to be learned: Without a vibrant public higher education system, the cities do not have a happy future.”
Cooper also facilitated a conversation with Andrew Leong, an associate professor of philosophy, legal studies, Latino and Asian studies; Rebecca Herst, director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab; Betty Francisco, general counsel at Compass Working Capital and co-founder of Amplify Latinx; Eric Esteves, executive director of The Lenny Zakim Fund; and Maicharia Weir Lytle, president and CEO of United South End Settlements.
The community partners spoke of how UMass Boston has played an active role in both educating and uplifting the city’s children and being a catalyst for policy change through its research.
Francisco said institutes like the Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy and the Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture have channeled and activated advocacy and community so that both city leaders and activists can drive forward new policies that bring forth equitable change.
“I would love to see more investment in them, and really elevate the work that they’re doing,” she said.
Francisco also spoke about shifting the power dynamic between institutions and the communities they serve.
“We’ve got to rethink how we look at our community, and rather than having this perception that they need help, let’s bring them into the fold and have them be part of shaping our solutions, and shaping programming,” she said.
Weir Lytle said she is concerned about what’s going to happen to the city’s children and families affected by the pandemic — with the disparities that already existed now much higher — but was encouraged to partner with the university in addressing these types of issues.
“The words ‘public urban antiracist research institution’ gave me chills,” she said. “Given the twin pandemics, given where we are to be able to have a research university really think about their work in our community through an antiracist lens and how we promote racial justice and equality and everything that it does is absolutely central.”
Esteves pointed to UMass Boston’s diversity as a way it continues to stand with the city.
“UMass Boston has always been a place that was more diverse than all of the other UMass campuses,” he said. “Continuing that legacy, continuing that solidarity, continuing to be a destination for immigrant communities and populations across the commonwealth I think is critically important.”
Herst said the university can help the community and its partners when looking at how these different crises are interconnected and the ways that we can have a holistic approach in our responses, “untangling some of these knots” with research and in training the next generation of leaders.
“What is needed from the university is really a rich question that has evolved and will continue to evolve, but particularly given the crises that we are facing right now, there’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of need,” she said.
Leong cautioned that this work is, in many ways, not about creating new things.
“It’s about adequate resources for those things, those programs, those institutes, those colleges that were destroyed through budget cuts. … These are the kinds of institutional challenges we have,” he said.
Orellana said standing with the city and up to the times in ways that are truly communiversity-like in practice means moving beyond just rhetoric.
“I’ve heard a call today about building on human relationships and pushing ourselves to span across our institutional, identity-based, social, intellectual, and political boundaries because it is the only way that we should be aiming to show up for this work if we are seeking to make considerable progress,” she said.
The event also featured moving student performances, with labor studies major Celine Voyard ‘22 and political science major Layanie Oscar ‘22 sharing their original poem, “Hello, my name is.” Nursing student Isabel Raymond ’24 sang "My Grand Plan" from The Lightning Thief musical.
This is the Office of Community Partnerships’ fourth annual fireside chat with faculty and community leaders. Orellana says the fireside chats are about strengthening the relationship between the university and the community as we look to better our communities and address the most pressing issues of our time.
The Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement, Community Relations, Mass Media, the Office of Alumni Relations, GBH, and URBAN.Boston cosponsored the event.