Three key themes formed the concept of the Activist Lab at Boston University School of Public Health in August 2016: educate, innovate and empower. Harold Cox, associate dean for public health practice at Boston University School of Public Health, said the Activist Lab was formed because there was a need to engage the students, faculty and staff with the local community. Cox added that it was necessary to form conversations around the topic due to an increasing number of homeless individuals around the school.
“We need to help the people in our school to understand the individuals on the streets,” Cox said. “We want to train students, faculty and staff to manage their own safety while showing respect for those who are challenged in the local community with addictions, mental illness and homelessness.”
The Activist Lab’s goals are to educate the school about specific problems in the community, create innovative models and programs to address the problems and advocate on behalf of the communities that are most affected by the problems.
Emily Barbo, communications specialist for the Activist Lab, said students can get involved in several ways. The Activist Lab provides mandatory advocacy training to all first-year students as part of their core curriculum. They provide opportunities for students to practice and build those skills with projects and programs throughout the year. These are extracurricular, and students can choose their level of involvement.
Barbo mentioned that they provide Activist Bucks, innovation grants awarded to small groups of students interested in making a positive impact in their local community. Funding for those grants is provided by Santander Bank. In such cases, the students get involved by indicating an area of public health they are interested in improving and work on that. They also hire two Activist Fellows who receive academic credit for their work in specific public health-related advocacy issues.
Their first project involved distributing 100 water bottles per day for three days a week in the summer. They usually go through about 12 cases of water bottles each week. Students, faculty and staff distributed the bottles, which were gladly accepted by many on the street. That project served two purposes: It provided water on hot summer days and formed an easy way for the school to engage with those living on the streets. As they distributed water bottles on the streets, they realized the work involved in engaging the school with the community was large.
Soon after, they formed the Life on Albany Street Committee to understand and build relationships with people living on Albany Street, Cox said. Furthermore, the School of Public Health also partnered with the nearby medical and dental schools, since both shared similar sentiments and views about engaging with people on Albany Street.
The school administration has been very supportive of the Activist Lab and the Life on Albany Street Committee. The project earned support from administrators at the School of Public Health, the medical school and the dental school.
The Life on Albany Street Committee hosts monthly meetings during which time local community health workers discuss their work with the people on Albany Street. Additionally, they have hosted luncheons and larger meetings with the Boston Public Health Commission as well as local service providers, such as physicians and nurses, to understand more about the issues at stake. In October the group is planning to host a hackathon where students, faculty and staff can explore topics such as safe injection facilities.
Cox said the Life on Albany Street Committee attends local community meetings hosted by neighborhood organizations.
“The reason for doing this is to demonstrate to the local community that the school would like to listen to them and work alongside to support them.”
He said that they can understand the local people and their challenges better by being a part of these nearby communities.
The group’s long-term goals are to organize training sessions for the usage of Narcan, a prescription medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. In fact, Dean Cox mentioned, they will provide Narcan-use training to students during academic orientation this fall.
“We don’t want students to be unaware,” Cox said. “We want them to know that we have a perspective and we are taking it seriously.”
According to Barbo, the more than 400 new students at the School of Public Health have received advocacy training this year. There are currently two Activist Fellows and 25 Activist Bucks grantees. These numbers will continue to increase as more students get engaged.
When asked about the challenges in getting the work done, Cox said, “There is absolutely no lack of interest or involvement from the school. However, the challenge is to make sure the work we do is meaningful, respectful and impactful to those on the streets.”
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