Ben Bartschi ’22, Conservation Law Foundation (Summer ’19)

Published October 28, 2019 by Ben Bartschi

A Summer in Boston — From the Ground up Conservation Law Foundation’s office, located on Summer St. off Downtown Crossing Part 1: Getting connected Back in April of this year, the hunt for last-minute summer internships was in full swing. I had already been accepted to participate in ONE-MA^3, Course 1’s summer field work in […]

A Summer in Boston — From the Ground up

Conservation Law Foundation

Conservation Law Foundation’s office, located on Summer St. off Downtown Crossing

Part 1: Getting connected

Back in April of this year, the hunt for last-minute summer internships was in full swing. I had already been accepted to participate in ONE-MA^3, Course 1’s summer field work in Italy from mid-June to mid-July, and I was struggling to figure out how to spend the rest of my summer. As a teenager, I spent a significant amount of time volunteering and doing community service through Boy Scouts, National Honor Society, and my local religious congregation. When I stumbled across an announcement for a PKG info session about summer work opportunities in public service, I was excited to go and see what was out there. 

Through the info session, I was able to get connected with Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based in Boston. I did a bit of personal research about the organization and the work that they’re doing, and I was thoroughly impressed. From there, I was able to have a phone meeting with a member of Ventures, one of their teams that I was interested in working with. 

Ventures partners with community organizations to understand environmental and urban challenges, then invests in well-researched solutions for the benefit of their residents and public health. Partnering with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ventures has been spearheading a five-year research study known as the Healthy Neighborhoods Research Study, HNRS for short (more details to come in part 2!). I learned about the current status of the work, and the prospect of being able to mix technical analysis with community interaction was exactly what I was looking for. They offered me an internship position, and I gladly accepted!

Part 2: Getting to work 

Shortly after spring semester wrapped up, I joined a great group of summer interns at CLF’s Boston office and got to work! I was the only intern on the HNRS team, which included a handful of CLF employees and some MIT graduate students. A more in-depth explanation of how the study is set up goes as follows: 

HNRS is a five-year study (2019 is year number four) seeking to understand how living conditions and neighborhood quality affect the health of community members. This is especially relevant in areas being heavily impacted by gentrification in the form of displacement. As such, nine communities across eastern Massachusetts were chosen for the study. They are (more or less from north to south): Lynn, Chelsea, Everett, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Brockton, Fall River, and New Bedford. 

HNRS uses a method known as PAR, Participatory Action Research, meaning that we collaborate with members of each community as they help to study problems that are affecting their own personal lives. This allows the study to aid in generating change and growth within the community itself. In each of the nine neighborhoods, we partner with a local organization and have several “resident researchers” who conduct a significant portion of the work. Our work over the summer was divided up into several steps (although some of these overlapped a bit):

Step 1: Completing a training on ethics in research with human subjects. Over the last century, many laws have been enacted in order to prevent violations of privacy and harm caused by negligent researchers, and as a researcher for the summer, part of my job was to make sure all of our efforts met these standards. I was required to complete a training that included understanding current laws and analyzing case studies such as the Willowbrook Hepatitis Studies and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where human subjects were mistreated in a number of ways. 

Step 2: Understanding and finishing the State of Place Assessment. The HNRS involves collecting data about various communities throughout Massachusetts, and part of this includes understanding the conditions of their built environment. State of Place (SoP) is a form of about 100 questions, developed by Mariela Alfonzo, that we use to assess and compare elements such as walkability and livability of an area. It includes questions such as “Is there a complete sidewalk on both sides of the street?” and “how much litter is present?” for context. Other parts of the assessment help define land use, cleanliness, safety, and traffic. We spent many days out on the streets in order to complete these assessments,with each neighborhood having between 70 to 100 segments in total. 

Step 3: Community action projects: Each community was tasked with organizing an action project, where they involved locals and helped publicize current problems through the use of data collected over the past four years of the study, including SoP statistics and community surveying. 

In Everett, the Everett Community Health Partnership (ECHP) partnered with the local YMCA’s Free Food Kick-off Event. There were games and food, and ECHP had a table engaging the community in our work. Samara Ford, a member of our team from MIT described it as follows:

“Participants were expected to spin a wheel and land on a color. Each color corresponds to one of four categories (‘who we are’ aka demographics, housing stability, community changes, or health and happiness). The participants were then invited to select a random question in the category of the color that the wheel landed on. For example, a question in the housing stability category could be ‘what percent of Everett survey respondents expect to move in the next five years?’ If the participant answered the question correctly they got a prize. If not, the facilitator told them the right answer. In both cases, the facilitator provided additional context, and asked a follow-up question, such as ‘does the answer surprise you, why or why not?’, or ‘what questions or thoughts does this answer raise for you?’ ”

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HNRS team and resident researchers in Everett (from ECHP) at their table showcasing the study and engaging locals in current work.

Afterwards, the resident researchers were able to discuss the issues their neighborhood is facing and hand out more flyers explaining the current state of the study and how local citizens can help out.

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Resident researchers with Lynn United for Change speak about gentrification and displacement in Lynn.

In Lynn, Lynn United for Change hosted a community meeting regarding their current housing crisis. They invited several residents to share personal experiences of being affected by rising rents and poor treatment from landlords. Each highlighted their strong connection to the community and neighbors and their desire to find a moderate living space, then contrasted that with the lack of affordable housing and local community benefits. The resident researchers presented data on how the current housing crisis has had a negative impact on public health due to extra stress, work, and insufficient care. 

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Citizens of Lynn discuss housing problems before the meeting.

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 After the presentation of the data, the meeting switched its focus to policy and advocacy in implementing solutions. Matt McLaughlin, a city councilor in Somerville, spoke about the work they’ve done in his community to fight for more affordable housing units in new developments. Their goal now is to work towards getting a minimum of 20% affordable units in every new building that goes up.

At Roxbury’s National Night Out, Reann Gibson, a member of the HNRS team, talk about issues in the community with Massachusetts Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz.

The final community action project that I’ll touch on was in Roxbury. Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) in Roxbury, partnered with other local organizations for their National Night Out. The event had food, games for the kids, face painting, and more. ACE and CLF set up a booth handing out free water bottles for children and also talking with adults to share issues relating to gentrification that Roxbury is facing right now. They then helped publicize more upcoming events related to the study and invited residents to participate.

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National Night Out included lots of fun activities for children and their families. Work done through HNRS aims to provide families with good opportunities to work and live while giving their children a healthy environment to prepare for their own futures.

Step 4: Resident Researcher Training and Surveying: For the rest of the summer and fall, CLF will be working with each community partner to complete 900 surveys. The survey inquires about occupational and educational status, in addition to financial situation and health conditions in order to further our knowledge of public health over time. It is administered one-on-one in person, and it takes about 30 minutes to complete. 

Similarly to how we had to complete training to perform human subjects research, we were tasked with providing trainings on ethics and research methodology to all of our resident researchers. These took place in four sessions between two to three hours a piece. I was able to help prepare training materials, including putting together PowerPoint outlines and notes of the different topics and case studies. During the training, I helped with exercises and survey practicing. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stick around to help finish out this year’s work, so my last task was putting the surveys together and preparing them to be handed off to our resident researchers. Then just like that, my internship was over.

Part 3: Looking back and looking forward

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Me at the entrance to CLF’s office. There are maps of New England all over the office, which I consider a reminder that the objective of our work is to protect our planet and our people.

Interning at CLF turned out to be an amazing experience. I had originally set out to help make a difference in local communities and learn more about public service-oriented jobs. Because I was surrounded by lawyers and legal interns at the office, I was able to learn a lot about the current state of environmental policies and bills here in New England, and I’ve become better informed about the crises we face and what can be done to avoid them. 

While collaborating with community partners across Massachusetts, I was inspired by so many locals, all with different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, coming together and dedicating their time to help their neighbors and loved ones have better places to live and work. Looking forward, I want to continue developing my technical skills in engineering and design, and seek out future opportunities to work on implementing even better solutions to modern problems that we face in keeping our communities and environment healthy. Whether that be improving water and air quality, food availability, or helping design long-term affordable housing developments, our neighborhoods will always be in need of careful protection.

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Reann, Maria, Vedette, Me, and Andrew at CLF on my last day. If any of you four are reading this, thank you so much and it was a privilege to work with you! 

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