Myra Kraft Open Classroom speakers advise investment in local communities to combat economic injustice


At the March 30 Open Classroom event, panelists discussed ways the Northeastern and other urban institutions can support the communities around them. Photo courtesy of Hoai Quach.

Isabella Ratto, news correspondent

The sixth installment of the Spring 2022 Myra Kraft Open Classroom speaker series, put on by Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Social Impact Lab, was held on Wednesday, March 30.

The program began in 2015 and covers a new topic each semester. Past discussions have covered a range of topics, including the U.S. food system and climate change. This semester’s programming is focused on the impact that large organizations in urban areas, such as universities, have on the communities around them. 

In the most recent discussion, “Economic Justice: Investing in Local Communities for Transformation,” three panelists from local, economic organizations focused on community building took a constructive approach, outlining conscious steps that individuals at all levels within these institutions can take to help break cyclical gentrification. 

“The Open Classroom is designed to bring together the Northeastern community and external communities to collectively explore critical issues of society,” said Jennie Stephens, the director of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs who introduced Wednesday’s discussion. “Our focus this week, on economic justice, encouraged us all to consider how we can get involved in disrupting the policies, processes and priorities that continue to worsen economic injustice.” 

The entrance of large firms or well-endowed universities into metropolitan areas further advances the strong economic divisions that exist within their populations. The pursuit of these establishments, especially the purchase of land or investment in new infrastructure, has historically expelled certain, largely lower-income, groups from their neighborhoods. 

“There’s many ways in which large institutions like universities create harm in their communities and exacerbate economic problems in those communities. Take an honest look at Northeastern’s flawed history in Roxbury specifically,” said Alex Papali, one of the featured panelists and the director of regional economies at the Center for Economic Democracy, a Boston organization that works to prevent economic injustice by educating the public on its historical origins and connecting with partners in the federal government to prevent future inequities. 

The negative effects of the entrance and expansion of universities on the businesses, neighborhoods and people located around them are widely recognized. However, there’s very little conversation within these academic establishments regarding what can be done going forward to prevent future detriments to their surrounding communities.

“It’s important that Northeastern is reaching out through the Open Classrooms format. I’d like to see more institutions approaching us. Often we’re the ones doing the outreach, approaching institutions to have these types of conversations,” said Nia Evans on Wednesday. Evans is the executive director of the Boston Ujima Project, a group focused on the working-class, minority population that collaborates with businesses within these communities through support initiatives and direct investment. 

A lot of the concrete suggestions offered by the three panelists in the discussion on March 30 were centered on university leadership and the number of ways these figures can consciously contribute to preventing wealth disparities created by the institutions that they represent. 

“[University] endowments are massive. There’s so much that can be done with the endowments of universities to become direct investors in communities,” said Jock Payten, a managing director with the Ujima Fund, part of the Boston Ujima Project. 

While almost all private, well-funded institutions pursue investment at a high level with their available funds, according to the speakers, very little is distributed into the neighborhoods around them. 

“Northeastern and other universities are making investments, but the better question to ask is, what are these investments? Are they perpetuating economic injustice?” Evans said. 

Beyond the sphere of financial investment, redirecting and reexamining the recipients of institutional funds, there are other ways for university administrators to work towards improving the existing economic inequality, Papali said.

“Northeastern could spearhead an effort to bring several anchor institutions together to grow their economic base and close the racial wealth gap,” Papali said. 

Anchor institutions, a term used by all three speakers, refers to large companies or establishments that will retain their highly influential status in a given area for the foreseeable future. The speakers explained ways that Northeastern, as an anchor institution, could use this status to the benefit of its local community.  

“Providing increased access for community members to a Northeastern education or offering campus spaces as resources to local grassroots organizations to help stabilize and support them [presents a feasible] way forward,” Papali said.

The panelists also outlined actions by professors and advisors that are likely to have an impact. They said there is a lot of value in the information professors and advisors pass to students. Simply discussing economic disparities and raising awareness about this issue would be an improvement. Rethinking the career advice or encouragement they offer is a more specific area in which these figures can take steps forward. 

“It would be really powerful if we could start to direct labor to the surrounding area. How many of us stay in our communities to work? I think universities play a huge role in this because they can encourage students to pursue local careers and internships,” Payten said. 

The student body, both at Northeastern and at other urban universities, also holds important power that can shape the way these institutions address problems of social and economic injustice, the panelists said. 

“The students have a major role to play here in stewarding how their university, how their institution, is moving. People are getting very active and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, which is the way it needs to be,” Papali said.  

The university has responded positively to some issues that Northeastern students have drawn attention to, proving its willingness to address and try to implement student-proposed reforms. 

“The faculty senate has passed a resolution…to broaden climate justice efforts beyond greenhouse gas reductions. [This resolution’s focus is] acknowledging the harms that are built into the [university’s] legacy and are perpetuated with some of the institutional actions,” Stephens said. 

With enough student support, it’s possible that a similar preventative motion focused on economic injustice could be brought to the faculty senate for discussion, said Stephens. As outlined by the panelists, effective, long-term action might take many forms but the first step lies in university-wide discussions — a dialogue that students are capable of initiating. 

Despite past unjust conduct on the part of anchor institutions across the nation, the efforts of organizations like the Ujima Project and the Center for Economic Democracy, as well as Northeastern’s desire to discuss the role they have to play provides a reason to be optimistic. 

“There’s so much that universities can do, you all should be excited about the possibilities of what Northeastern and other institutions can do,” Evans said. 

Additional Open Classroom speaker events will be held every Wednesday through the rest of April from 6 to 7 p.m. on Zoom. Further information regarding specific topics that will be covered in the coming weeks, access to the recordings of past panels and registration links for the remaining four discussions are all located online.