Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Student Spotlight: Nathaniel Pettit ’20

Concentration: Public Policy

Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA 

You just finished up your public policy thesis, titled “A Home for the Liberal Ideal: Brown University Housing Policy & the East Side of Providence, 1937 -1997.” Could you summarize what your research looked into? 

Throughout my time at Brown, I've done a lot of work related to housing and homelessness, primarily through the student organization Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, or HOPE. HOPE is very good at thinking about housing at the state and city level, but we realized that a big deficiency in our understanding of housing in the state and our advocacy is being critical of our institutions’ impact on affordable housing in Providence and Rhode Island. My thesis works to inform that realization. For a long time, there were working-class communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities that existed at the edges of Brown’s campus. By and large those communities are no longer there. So my thesis is largely a history of the story of Brown's contribution to changing those communities at the campus’ edge; it’s a history that dates back to Henry Wriston in 1937, and goes until about 2000, with the end of the Varton Gregorian administration. 

How did it feel to finish your thesis after classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

I'm grateful to have something that's been a good distraction — and something that is linked to the world before the virus, when I started my research. But, it is also definitely interesting to be thinking a lot about housing at a time when it is obviously so important, it's a necessary aspect of trying to survive this virus, and a time when so many people are struggling to pay for shelter. 

Last year you served as the Director of HOPE, a student-run organization that “addresses structural issues surrounding homelessness and poverty” in Providence and Rhode Island, according to the organizations’ website. This year you were University Relations Advocacy Director. How did your time working with HOPE influence your four years at Brown? 

I discovered HOPE and it’s work when I first got to Brown. When I joined HOPE, I was really excited to find a community of peers who very much believe that we are collectively capable of affecting real change in the lives of our neighbors. The organization is really integrated into the state's affordable housing advocacy network. I think a lot of us say something to the effect of, ‘I'll be an alumnus of HOPE as much as I will be an alumnus of Brown,’ and I know that that will be true for me. As someone who studies Public Policy, I think working with an organization like HOPE will be a huge factor in shaping my future. It already has shaped my overall Brown experience, which is something I am incredibly grateful for. 

Some of the best lessons in policy that I've learned throughout my time at Brown happened on nighttime outreach with HOPE, where you see all sorts of systems failing people, or lacking the structure to really provide much assistance. Working with HOPE has set me on a path that I think I'll be on for a long time, with regards to housing work, with regards to governance, with regards to bolstering existing social service systems. 

Which courses have shaped how you approached this work, and your thesis?   

I’ve been fortunate to take a number of classes at Brown that have directly related to housing and homelessness. Professor Irene Glasser teaches a great course called “Anthropology of Homelessness.” Marijoan Bull in the Urban Studies Department, for the past few years, taught a great course called “Housing in America.” A number of my research based classes have also given me the opportunity to conduct research on different questions that deal with housing in the local Providence community. Last year, I did a Departmental Independent Study project with Professor Bull that evolved into a course this year called “Housing Justice.” Through that course, I was able to do some research about the prevalence of source of income discrimination — it's currently legal for landlords to prevent tenants from renting units, whenever those tenants use Housing Choice vouchers, or “Section 8” vouchers. Through that course and in partnership with a partner of HOPE, called SouthCoast Fair Housing, I was able to do some research that documented the prevalence of that phenomenon. That is just one example of how I’ve been able to blend classroom learning with community engagement, with the ultimate goal being contributing to the larger effort of addressing a serious problem that is causing real harm for real people.

What are your post-grad plans?

I'm going to be doing a fellowship with an organization called the CORO Institute. The organization is based in a number of cities, one of them being my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I will be working. They place fellows with a number of different city government or nonprofit agencies in the Pittsburgh region that are doing public interest work. I think that in Pittsburgh, like Providence, housing will be a big issue for the city in the years to come as the city becomes more popular, and a lot of well-endowed organizations are coming into the city, it is at risk of becoming a less economically inclusive place. I hope to be doing work related to housing, and bolstering an affordable, inclusive community — continuing to work on some of the same topics I’ve studied in my classes, and worked on with HOPE, here at Brown.  

  --Elise Ryan '21