As nearly 100 people gathered in a local community room to discuss gentrification, seven graduate students from SPEA’s Public Policy Process course eagerly waited to begin the meeting. The group spent the past semester developing the topic and format of the meeting, collaborating with local organizations, and reaching out to community members impacted by or simply interested in gentrification.
Riley Sandel, a SPEA MPA student, helped organize the event. He earned his undergraduate degree in architecture, but knew he wanted to build more than skyscrapers. He wanted to build up communities.
That desire led him to SPEA to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs. The Urban Affairs concentration gives him the ideas and skills needed to address the specific challenges and opportunities found in urban areas. Sandel says this meeting and topic provided the perfect opportunity to practice those skills.
He says gentrification is a part of his larger interest in equitable community development, yet acknowledges the term isn’t without controversy.
“Gentrification is a big shiny word that a lot of people have heard about, but there’s not necessarily one agreed-upon definition,” he says.
Sandel attributes that lack of consensus to a lack of conversation.
He explains that while some view gentrification as a positive influx of economic value into a community, others align the term with the displacement of existing residents—especially those of lower incomes—who can no longer afford to stay in the newly gentrified area.
But the goal of this meeting was not to find a singular definition. Rather, students wanted to start a conversation about the term, the impact, and how those involved with and affected by gentrification view the concept.
The audience was diverse, Sandel says, and included those who experience the negative side of gentrification, those who work to balance the outcomes, as well as those who are often viewed as heralds of the process, such as art collectives.
“Gathering all these different voices and viewpoints in one place allowed us to provide perspective and actionable steps to different actors within the field of gentrification,” Sandel adds.
The group watched a video on gentrification, heard from local organizations that deal with issues relating to the process, and were able to share their own stories about the impact the process had on their neighborhoods and lives.
After placing attendees into small groups, each group received a fictional gentrification situation to assess, looking at the possible pros and cons. The entire room then came back together to hear about those discussions.
“We didn’t aim to come away with notes to create policy changes to email to the city-county council,” Sandel says. “We wanted 100 people to leave the room and create ripple conversations in the community because we know small conversations can have a meaningful impact.”
Those conversations outlasted the event. Sandel says people stayed after to continue the discussion until the building closed.
While student organizers hope this event has a lasting impact on those who attended, they say the experience also altered their own outlook.
“It was a very unusual course for a graduate level,” Sandel says. “I think we all learned a lot about gentrification and about ourselves.”
He says the course gave students the opportunity to have authentic conversations, to find key actors in those conversations, and to learn about organizing community events. Beyond those tangible skills, it also left students with an important takeaway.
“If you don’t put citizenry and relationship-building first, you can easily produce poor policy or outcomes,” he says. “You should be a member of the community first, and an expert second.”
Sandel explains the emphasis on balancing community, humility, and expertise is an integral part of the academic and life education he receives from SPEA.
“The fact that Public Policy Process is required for nearly all MPA students at SPEA IUPUI speaks volumes about the importance the school places on community,” Sandel says. “SPEA not only teaches us that communities exist, but that collaborating with them is critical to creating sound public policy.”