January 18, 2010

On a day when many Americans celebrated the life and work of the Rev.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in song, service and other activities, two Amherst College students participated in a very different yet fitting memorial: They helped lead a conversation about youth violence in nearby Springfield.

Josh Mayer ’13, Megan Kepnach ’13 and two fellow “Applied Policy Analysis” classmates from the University of Massachusetts helped organize a focus group on the sensitive topic among 14 teens at Eastfield Mall in the city. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and several members of the media attended parts of the wide-ranging discussion, which touched on bullying, gangs and the lack of adult intervention, among other difficult issues. (The event was covered by WAMC-FM, WFCR-FM, Springfield Republican, CBS3 Springfield, and ABC 40 News.)

Megan Kepnach ’13 (third from left) listens to
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno (far left) speak
while Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (center,
in blue shirt and sport coat) looks on.

The event was very different in tone from many other MLK Day gatherings, but it served a broader purpose that Martin Luther King Jr. would appreciate, said Kepnach.

“There were two students who told me beforehand that they were just going to tell [Patrick and Sarno] ‘how it is,’” she explained. “They were very earnest and honest. One told a very personal story—and one that hadn’t been talked about by his school in any way—about how a friend tried to kill himself, and how he considered that an act of violence. He also talked about what he saw as poor teacher preparedness, and how he didn’t think people were doing enough to combat the problem of youth violence. And he said all of this in front of the mayor of Springfield. We were really pleased to gather that kind of information, but also with the fact that some very important people were there to hear it.”

Kepnach, Mayer and their colleagues will use such feedback in their final project for “Applied Policy Analysis,” a non-credit, interterm course offered by the Center for Community Engagement in conjunction with the college’s chapter of The Roosevelt Institute, a student think tank, and The Springfield Institute.

For the second straight interterm, the class has explored policy-making and provided participants firsthand experience with the participatory public policy process.

Throughout the month of January, the 25 undergraduates from the Five Colleges and other area schools involved in the course (15 are Amherst students) spent time in the classroom studying the theoretical backdrop for education reform and health disparities as well as youth violence and then formed project groups on each subject. They interviewed members of the community, met with city officials, conducted cost-benefit analyses and wrote policy briefs. At their final meeting Jan. 26, they will present policy recommendations and research that will then be shared with stakeholders, officials and other interested parties in the Pioneer Valley.

“What Megan, Josh and their classmates really bring to the table is talent,” said course instructor Aron Goldman, the executive director of the Springfield Institute. “Most of them are liberal arts students who have a variety of backgrounds and perspectives—they’re from all over the country, from cities and rural places—and they’ve been exposed to a lot of people and ideas that, unfortunately, many Springfield teens haven’t been exposed to, at least not yet. It’s a privilege to be able to offer up those perspectives, analytic skills and energy and enthusiasm. And as long as we do it in a way that’s mindful and respectful and doesn't perpetuate historic power dynamics, folks in Springfield have been totally receptive.”

An added perk is the students get to know people in the Pioneer Valley beyond their own campuses and towns.


Josh Mayer ’13 (third from left) participates in a
press conference with Massachusetts Governor
Deval Patrick.

“I think the course is really good at fostering relationships—slowly, but surely—between the Five Colleges and Springfield,” Goldman said. “I get the feeling that a lot of Five Colleges students know more about Darfur or Gaza than they do about Springfield or Holyoke, and they have a lot to learn from these two places in their own backyard.”

Mayer, who served as a student facilitator/leader of the class and was even asked to participate in a press conference with the governor, had a similar view. “I think there really is an expectation that students from an academic institution are not going to do much with the community itself,” he noted. “But we did more than just interact with residents for academic purposes, and I think it went a long way toward countering the image that is out there. I think many people could see that we are trying to help the city while learning from them at the same time. It’s a mutually beneficial kind of relationship.”

Kepnach agreed. “At Amherst, you get these top-notch in-class experiences, so it’s also really great to be a part of something that means getting experience outside of campus, outside of town. I remember being warned about the ‘Amherst Bubble’ back in freshman year and encouraged to join organizations that get you out in the community. But I guess I never really thought ‘The Bubble’ existed until I took this class. It’s been a great opportunity to learn about the area and local organizations.”

And meeting the governor and mayor wasn’t too bad, either, she added. “I was really star-struck by [Patrick and Sarno] at first. But as much as I was star-struck by them, I have to say I was even more impressed by the young people.”