Mayor Marty Walsh has enlisted eight Honors College students at the University of Massachusetts Boston to help him create a plan to revitalize Dorchester’s iconic Strand Theatre.
The students have spent four months interviewing community members and hearing from top policymakers as they develop ideas to restore The Strand to its former status as one of Boston’s premier arts and culture destinations. The two student teams will present their proposals to Walsh on Friday at a symposium on the UMass Boston campus.
Professor Erin O’Brien, chair of the political science department, teaches the course. She says before the students could get to work re-envisioning The Strand, they first needed a crash course in Boston politics.
“The first month was really understanding that and bringing in speakers to understand the neighborhood. Because you can’t go into a neighborhood unless you know a neighborhood. It’s disrespectful to them,” O’Brien said. To sharpen the students’ knowledge, O’Brien brought in some of the top policymakers in Massachusetts history — former Governor Michael Dukakis, former Senate president William Bulger, and economic development chief John Barros, to name a few.
The students also needed to realize this project wasn’t just “a field trip,” as O’Brien put it. The Strand is a neighborhood linchpin, and its future affects the future of many Dorchester residents. So each student was assigned to spend time outside class getting to know Upham’s Corner.
“You have to go get lunch, you have to go get a haircut, you have to just do normal things, and that to me signals respect to those you’re working with,” she said.
Anant Verma, a senior studying applied sociology, said his group prepared its vision for The Strand with the community in mind.
“We‘d like The Strand to be a creative and democratic space that always has the community’s best interest in mind,” he said. “I think one of the best ways we can do that is create an environment that’s able to mold to the characteristics of the community.”
Verma’s group plans to propose increased cultural programming tailored to residents of Upham’s Corner, as well as new partnerships between The Strand and UMass Boston. The group wants to bring the popular UMass Boston Film Series for showings at the Strand, and they also would like to see a new hip-hop initiative led by local artist and UMass Boston instructor Akrobatik.
“We want to create a space where everyone feels welcome and everyone has an opportunity to engage in the artistic process,” Verma said.
The course was developed last summer through conversations between Honors College Dean Rajini Srikanth and Walsh's team.
"We approached the mayor’s office to see if there was a common synergy around using our students to explore and support pressing issues that the mayor’s administration will face," Srikanth said. "A course like this, at a public university, further mobilizes our institutional commitment to serve our local community, while providing excellent civically engaged training for our students." The Honors College hopes to continue the partnership with the mayor's office and the political science department in the future, Srikanth added.
Students signed up for the class last summer before they even knew what topic would be addressed. Martin Mulkerrin, a sophomore political science major with family roots in Dorchester, said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“All we knew is the class would be about making a city function better and trying to make it easier for people to live in the city and trying to improve something in people’s lives,” he said. “It was something where you were working toward an end, you were working toward a goal, you were not just working toward a grade.”
And, as their meeting with Mayor Walsh approaches, the students are optimistic that their proposals will be enacted.
“We believe that we’ve done the research and the hard work to show that what we are envisioning is possible,” Verma said. “All it needs is the political will and the capital in order for it to happen.”