Whose Mission Am I Serving?



"Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m intruding. Noticing the significant gentrification of the neighborhood and my relationship to its causes weighs heavily on my hopes to 'do good.'"



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The 30-minute drive to Mission Hill takes us across the river and down Storrow Drive, before we bear right onto the Fenway exit. Traffic at 3:20 p.m. is often stop-and-go, and we crawl along Hemenway Street before arriving at the Parker Street lot around 3:50. Time in the van distances us from campus, and when I turn around in the driver’s seat I often see a couple pairs of eyes blearily blinking awake.

For the last three years, this is how many of my weekday afternoons have started as part of the Mission Hill Afterschool Program. The program, run by PBHA, aims to ease the burden of after-school education on families by connecting Harvard students with children residing in Mission Hill, a three-quarter square mile neighborhood surrounded by Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Brookline, and Fenway-Kenmore. I work with 11- and 12-year-olds, providing homework help and leading activities that range from designing a new country, to making slime, to leading field trips to different parts of Boston.

Despite my eagerness to begin serving a new community, I stared blankly at the rows of apartments in the Mission Main development, where our program is located, upon exiting the van on my first day. Lost, I would bury my head in Google Maps when I picked up and dropped off students. Three years later, however, the street names come easily — Parker Street, Annunciation Road, McGreevey Way.

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Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m intruding. Noticing the significant gentrification of the neighborhood and my relationship to its causes weighs heavily on my hopes to “do good.”

In 2020, the Globe deemed Boston the country’s “third most ‘intensely gentrified’ city in the US,” specifying that Mission Hill is one neighborhood experiencing gentrification. A 2013 National Community Reinvestment Coalition analysis identified the area just bordering Mission Hill as an area “eligible” for gentrification. Between 2013 and 2017, the median home value rose from $172,377 to $324,100, while the median household income dropped from $23,764 to $16,094 in the same time period.

Not everyone can afford the skyrocketing home prices. Most of our students come from Mission Main and Alice Taylor, affordable housing developments built in the mid-20th century. The Boston Housing Authority described Mission Main as one of its “most troubled and distressed” properties before it underwent renovations in the ’90s. For residents of Alice Taylor, a collection of townhouses and apartments, rent is calculated at 30 percent of their income, although one can choose to pay a flat rate as well.

One of the more significant contributors to such inequality has been the ever-growing presence of universities and their students, particularly Northeastern and Wentworth. In 2018, Northeastern’s student newspaper, the Huntington News, reported on a meeting where Roxbury residents and housing activists explained how gentrification threatens generational wealth, small businesses, and family displacement. When I drive to program, Northeastern and Wentworth buildings flicker by, and a sign in the parking lot we stop in is emblazoned with the Wentworth logo as well.

Even though I don’t live “up the hill,” — an area largely dominated by undergraduates — I still grapple with the space I occupy in Mission Hill as a Harvard student. Just last year, while living in Dorchester, I reflected on how I benefited from a housing crisis that threatened other people’s homes; when I walk through Mission Hill, I wonder if my personal contributions are beneficial or performative.

Yet I still believe that I have been pushed to engage with the community as much as possible. One of our last in-person events was held in the community center; we set up games in each of our classrooms, inviting students and their families to spend their Saturday evening with us. Pizza for events is ordered from Chacho’s, a local restaurant. If I forget materials for an activity, I’m instructed to go to Fuentes, a local convenience store located a five-minute walk away. And most notably, we support a Junior Counselor program in which students who have aged out of the program can return as paid counselors and receive additional mentoring opportunities.

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I haven’t been back to Mission Hill for MHASP since March 2020; we’ve spent the last year adapting our curriculum activities and tutoring strategies to Zoom. But I did return to Mission Hill in the summer, this time entirely as a visitor. I was meeting a friend for lunch, and he suggested a restaurant on Tremont Street, one of the “trendy” places “up the hill” from Mission Main and Alice Taylor. A sign on the door informed me that they were closed for the week.

I breathed a sigh of relief; we left for a restaurant outside of the neighborhood, instead.

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Jane Z. Li can be reached at jane.li@thecrimson.com and on Twitter at @JaneZLi.