Community Housing & Health Depends on Creatively Breaking Silos and Building Local Power

Written by: Rita Lara, Jules Rochielle Sievert

Date: January 14, 2022

“When health is measured not just by a lack of diseases and illness, but by access to opportunities, we see that some populations have greater access to opportunities than others. When we move toward a society committed to health equity— we work to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, neighborhood, or financial status, has fair and equal access to a healthy community of opportunity ”

Policy Link

Like many cities, Boston is amid a housing crisis, one that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated. The situation is particularly acute in East Boston, a gentrifying neighborhood, where centuries of immigrants are being priced out and displaced due to the overdevelopment of luxury condos and apartments.

Housing is integral to our collective wellness and overall public health, as is the food we eat. Food and housing are the two most significant social determinants of health and wellbeing. However, while social services that mitigate food and housing insecurity are essential, these services alone will not resolve our problems. In order to create the kind of healthy ecosystem of humanitarian support necessary for long-term community success, we need to move out of service silos and centralize decision-making relationships with movement builders, artists, advocates, direct service providers and other community partners who bring a fuller perspective of issues and solutions. That alone requires a paradigm shift that fundamentally alters the way we work together to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Building a Culture of Deep Care

Boston Housing Support volunteers operating a housing defense station at work duuringthe Eastie Evolution Exhibit, an annual local outdoor event in East Boston.

Boston Housing Support volunteers operating a housing defense station at work duuringthe Eastie Evolution Exhibit, an annual local outdoor event in East Boston. Credit: Boston Housing Support

The current pandemic has brought many problem-solvers out of our silos. This process encouraged working with new partners to address the pain and disruption in our communities. Those of us who choose to stay together and work collectively for the common good understand why we must continue to do so.

We must not go back to sleep. What can we learn from global movements that profoundly impact and connect our survival during this pandemic and future crises? At Maverick Landing Community Services, we are building an intersectional coalition that uses a social ecology framework. In a social ecology framework, people, organizations, institutions, and our natural environment are interdependent. That awareness translates into collective action. Movements are the most resilient and interdependent in this framework model. The fluidity of their structure makes them adaptive and vital vehicles in moments of massive collective change, such as the one we are in now.

Today, our working definition of housing equity includes health, race, disability, and other measures of equity and justice, centering on the people most impacted by a lack of access to housing and health equity. Our political frameworks and understanding of this moment offer an opportunity to deepen our intersectional analysis and collective memory on amplifying collective wellbeing, care, and safety strategies that have worked in our past and that can strengthen our futures. The political frameworks that fuel our vision of Health Equity include Economic Justice, Racial Justice, Language Justice, Disability Justice, Healing Justice, Holistic Security, Transformative Justice, Reproductive Justice, Racial and Gender Justice, Trans Justice, Environmental Justice, and Climate Justice.

All must guide our collective future.

Together, our coalition builds collective power that supports what it takes for people to survive and thrive in East Boston. A core value of that work is a commitment to using our collective knowledge and resources to create the world we want to see—that means folding together community-based arts programming, learning circles, youth engagement in the arts, and advocacy. Our combined efforts will continue to build community understanding of gentrification by utilizing skills and culture to address gaps in knowledge regarding the inter-relatedness between housing insecurity, food sovereignty, systemic racism, and other systemic inequities.

We believe that culture contributes to the connective tissue in local communities that supports and builds a sense of community, belonging, and resilience. Culture in this sense is about working with local residents to build, design, organize and create local solutions through art. Grant Makers for the Arts defines Culture Organizing as “the action of placing culture at the center of an organizing strategy. It can be done to unite people through the humanity of culture and the democracy of participation.”

Leading with Knowledge & Action
Pandemic disruptions have created an opportunity for us to define what constitutes a healthy community ecology collectively. These disruptions have also deepened our perspectives about root causes of disease and have shed light on the entrenched historical and current systemic inequities that limit resources and opportunities for many community-responsive groups and networks.

Many have come to know what advocates have long preached: our social fabric is worn painfully thin, and our democratic institutions are frail and risk ceasing to exist. A true and equitable partnership between service, arts, and culture, academia, and movement—one that translates to resourcing local movement builders, creativity, democratic values, and sustainable community stewardship – is crucial for our shared success.

Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. Moving forward, what we do with this knowledge is on us.


Rita Lara is the Executive Director of Maverick Landing Community Services (MLCS). In June 2019, she participated in an Ayni Institute workshop on movement ecology. It expanded her perspective and sowed a seed essential in supporting her response to the pandemic in East Boston. She received the 2020 Community Champion award from the City of Boston for that work, her incredible team at MLCS and East Boston partners, and her organization’s engagement in the maker space movement. In 2021 she was also recognized with the William L. Boyan Award for her work in the community.

Jules Rochielle Sievert is the Creative Director, NuLawLab, Northeastern University School of Law. Jules Rochielle Sievert works at the intersection of art and activism. In 2020-2021 Jules was an Ambassador of Health Equity at Policy Link. From 2017-2019, Jules was a Creative Placemaking Policy Fellow at Arizona State University through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. At NuLawLab, they are currently working on a project known as Stable Ground. Stable Ground addresses the complex relationship among chronic housing insecurity, its psychologically traumatic impact, and municipal housing policy through participatory community-based art and culture programming.

More about the Boston Housing Support Coalition

Boston Housing Support is a Boston-based coalition working to fight displacement and eviction during the COVID crisis and beyond. This effort has resulted in a rich collaboration among the NuLawLab at Northeastern University School of Law, the City of Boston Artist-in-Residence program and Office of Housing Stability, Maverick Landing Community Services (MLCS), City Life Vida Urbana, Mutual Aid Eastie, Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Suffolk University Legal Innovation & Technology Lab, Ropes & Gray, and Runcible Studios to introduce housing stability stations in East Boston.

“Our coalition built on what we have learned through our collaboration on a project known as Stable Ground. Stable Ground is an initiative funded by two rounds of grants by The Kresge Foundation’s Arts & Culture program. We focused on these issues through participatory community-based art and cultural programs structured to inform the work of the City of Boston’s Office of Housing Stability (OHS). This project began as a residency program that embedded artists, legal designers, and trauma experts into community settings that hosted local visual/performing arts exhibits and art-making events. COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the second phase of Stable Ground but as a group quickly pivoted efforts toward strengthening our response to the emerging community needs in East Boston.”

Editors Note: Readers interested in financial supporting this model of engagement and organizing can directly donate to the coalition by clicking here.