Shari Smith was not expecting the assignment she received on her first day as a graduate student in the applied sociology master’s program at UMass Boston.
The class was Foundations of Applied Sociology with Professor Stephanie Hartwell. On the syllabus: a year-long project working with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which provides services to the families of homicide victims.
“We came into this class knowing we’d have to do a project,” Smith said, “but I had never heard of the institute. It was a shock because we didn’t know what we were doing.”
What Smith and her fellow students are doing is conducting a year-long program evaluation of one of the city’s best known nonprofits. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, based in Dorchester, counsels and supports families of homicide victims, and educates the community on violence prevention.
“I try to throw [my students] in the deep end with applied sociology,” Hartwell said. “This was a program in need that does interesting work in social justice.”
Earlier in the year, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute had reached out to UMass Boston for help with its organizational needs. Philip Carver of the Office of Government Relations and Public Affairs contacted Hartwell and her colleague Keith Bentele to ask if they could carry out a pro bono program evaluation on the institute’s behalf.
In addition to teaching at UMass Boston, Hartwell teaches at UMass Medical School, directs the graduate program for applied sociology at UMass Boston, and conducts her own research on the re-entry of veterans, psychiatric patients, and former convicts into everyday society. She knew she couldn’t commit the amount of time the institute would require for a thorough, in-depth evaluation.
“As soon as they [the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute] get time to take care of administrative work, [another homicide] happens. It’s an agency responding to crisis that’s also in crisis. It’s underfunded and they’re always running triage on the most immediate needs,” she explained. “So I talked to Keith and we decided to offer our classes’ assistance.”
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was founded by its current president and CEO, Tina Chéry, in response to her own experience with tragedy. Her 15-year-old son Louis D. Brown was fatally shot on December 20, 1993 on his way to a Christmas party for the teen anti-violence group he’d recently joined.
Since 1994, the Peace Institute has been creating and disseminating school curricula that teaches peace, informing communities about anti-violence initiatives, and helping survivors of homicide victims find the legal and emotional support they need after their loved one’s death. Considering its sensitive mission, Hartwell has been amazed by the level of access that the Institute has provided her students, both to their clients and the inner workings of their organization.
“They’ve proven to be great partners,” she said.
The students’ work focuses on one aspect of the institute’s services: the Survivor’s Leadership Academy, a two-module program that concentrates first on victims’ and survivors’ rights, services, and care, and second on law enforcement, courts, and legal processes associated with homicide cases. The students’ evaluation aims to identify the potential, limitations, and needs of the Peace Institute, so it may carry out its mission more effectively, improve its access to funding sources, and even serve as the model for similar programs countrywide.
Hartwell said her students have had mixed reactions to the project. Some students feel overwhelmed by the gravity of the work the institute does, and the magnitude of its need. She said, “[This project] brings up explosive issues in class… like how we feel about race, drugs, poverty, and the underclass that this organization serves. It brings out anxiety in students – but that anxiety helps them learn.”
“For me,” said Taylor Hall, one of Hartwell’s students, “it was nice to actually be able to apply what I've learned in my sociology undergraduate experience to a real life circumstance. Doing this hands-on work confirmed for me that I am on the right academic and career path.”
Shari Smith also has positive feelings about the work.
“The population they help is so underserved and so underrepresented in Boston. It feels good to know our research will lay some light on them,” she said. “They’ll be able to figure out what’s working and not working in their program, and we’ll be a part of that.”
Hartwell has high hopes for this project: “My hope is that they’ll walk out of this class and remember it in ten years.”