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Phil Bean chats with students during his class on the history of Utica media for the Levitt Justice Lab. .
The Levitt (Center)  Justice Lab, a program designed for students interested in synthesizing perspectives on public policy issues, just concluded a semester focused on exploring policies affecting community wellness in Utica, N.Y. The experience was led by Professors Frank Anechiarico (government), Herman Lehman (biology), Philip Bean (history), and Gwendolyn Dordick (government).

Fourteen students undertook four classes and an internship where they investigated factors that impact community wellness, from public health to social policy issues and even the history of the growing city itself. What is special about this program, however, is not only its course material, but also in the opportunity it provides for change and connection. As Anechiarico said, the Justice Lab is “a deep dive…[and] that’s what’s so exciting about it.”

Collaboration and team problem-solving are keys to the program’s overall success. Along with taking all of their classes for the semester together, students traveled as a group to a weekly class at the Utica library, ate together, and even “unionized to reschedule due dates” on occasion. They were also expected to create and workshop large-scale projects as a group.

Lehman described the process of watching students collaborate on one comprehensive policy paper regarding healthcare: “I think we’re [going to] come up with a good idea,” he said. “The group is small, accommodating, and students are willing to accept wherever the others are.”

While the group dynamic was certainly a highlight of the program for Lehman, the ways in which students engaged with his health systems course individually was also impressive. “Every walk of life and diverse idea you could imagine are represented in this group,” he said. “Isn’t that a wonderful way to do education — to unite [a group of] students around a certain goal? It’s hard to take this class and not want to be involved with the community.”

Lehman knows that feeling. He became involved in local community health during the pandemic as a contact tracer for the Department of Public Health in Utica. Although he had not initially expected to take on that kind of up-close-and-personal role, he said he has become “always open for new adventures” and he hopes the same for his students.

“Isn’t that a wonderful way to do education — to unite [a group of] students around a certain goal? It’s hard to take this class and not want to be involved with the community.”

Bean was drawn to teach about the “meteoric rise, development, prosperity, and slow decline of Utica” from a much more personal angle. As a Utica native and historian, he sought to further develop his own understanding of the city’s history. “As they say, if you want to learn something, teach it,” he said.

However, for Bean, a goal for the Justice Lab is fostering a closer relationship between Hamilton students and Utica — and that happens through internships. Students were expected to research homelessness in Utica with the goal of proposing solutions. Matthew Sinning ’23 described his experience working at the Neighborhood Center: “Over the course of 14 weeks, I learned about their numerous programs and funding streams while building connections with clients,” he said. “The most important thing that I have learned [though] was the individual impact people can have on small communities.”

Like Bean’s philosophy, Sinning has found purpose in working directly to help people. “I have [also] been working with a church in Utica that serves the homeless population,” he said, “and I can clearly see my effort being used.” 

Other students found inspiration through coursework. Mattie Buneta ’25 said of Dordick’s homeless policy class: “I’ve always been a major sociology nerd, and this class has just been such a direct and pointed take on the issues directly affecting Uticans.”

On Dec. 9, Justice Lab students made poster presentations based on their research. Although the program is coming to a close, it is clear that the experiences students gained from it will last. In the form of fond group memories and experiential learning, students will forever be connected with the local community. After all, according to Lehman, it is impossible to have this experience and not want to become involved with protecting it.

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