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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
In many parts of the United States, rising housing prices are making it difficult for ordinary Americans to purchase a home. Government professor Sharon Krefetz and student Helen Williams have been monitoring the impact of laws designed to encourage the development of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people.

Meet the researchers: Developing your own understanding

Interview with Helen Williams
Government major Helen Williams '06 got involved in research early on--during the second semester of her freshman year at Clark. She worked with government professor Sharon Krefetz, who has been monitoring the impact of laws in Massachusetts and Rhode Island designed to encourage the development of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. Helen talked about her research and interest in politics in a recent conversation, summarized below.

Helen, is there an aspect of government that particularly interests you?

I want to focus on American politics, especially the relationship between national politics and the media. I find it fascinating--including the politics that go on just within the media itself! Ever since my senior year in high school I knew I wanted to study government.

How did you get involved with Dr. Krefetz's research?

I took her class in urban politics (Government 171) during the first semester of my freshman year. At one point I went to speak with her--I can't remember about what--and she told me about her research and asked if I wanted to get involved. Her research on the politics of affordable housing sounded really interesting. I hadn't studied much about local politics, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some hands-on experience. I enjoyed working with her a lot.

I was paid for my work through funding from the government department. I started in the middle of the spring semester and worked about four hours per week. I could structure my time myself, which was good, because I had to use some time management.

What did your work consist of?

I collected information relating to the impact of the Rhode Island law* designed to encourage the development of affordable housing. Often local town zoning boards would deny permits to developers who wanted to build affordable housing, and the developer would appeal the decision to a state board of appeals.

Students who had worked with Professor Krefetz earlier on had been collecting information on these cases that had gone to appeal, and what the appeal decisions had been. I continued where those previous assistants had left off, and collected information on an additional seven or eight cases. I read these cases and wrote summaries for Professor Krefetz.

My next task was to contact the relevant town official in each of Rhode Island's 39 cities and towns, and to collect any information on housing development appeals that were anticipated or pending. I got mixed results with that. I was able to get responses from about 75% of the towns. There were six or seven that I never did get through to. I began by making telephone calls, and when that stopped working I tried faxes and emails, and that helped. In the end, I was able to find only 1 or 2 additional pending cases.

When you made your phone calls, did you have a set list of questions to ask?

Yes. I had a phone script. Once I made contact with the appropriate person, I asked for details about the case--the name of the developer, the date of the appeal, and other specifics.

Were town officials usually forthcoming with information when you finally made contact?

Usually. A couple of people didn't have any idea what I was talking about. One secretary was determined not to let me talk to the person I wanted to talk to! Most people were very forthcoming with information, though.

I found that email was a much better way to contact people. It's easier than just making cold calls. Phone calls were much more on the spot for them, and also for me! With email, it was much easier if the person asked a question that I wasn't sure how to answer. Receiving the question via email gave me time to consult with Professor Krefetz. I got at least ten responses from emails that I wasn't able to get from phone calls. And often people wanted to know the results of Professor Krefetz's research, so I had a lot of follow up questions and requests to pass along to her.

Has your work with Dr. Krefetz changed what you want to focus on?

I would say that it hasn't so much changed my focus as broadened it. The saying is that all politics is ultimately local, so I think it's been really good for me to have this experience with local politics. I had to be directly involved with local government issues to realize how important they are. National politics are important, but things happening in people's own backyards get the most passionate reactions.

Can you comment on the advantages and disadvantages of participating in research?

I've always liked doing research. But in high school and sometimes in college writing a research paper often involves going to the library. Libraries are good--I love libraries--but acquiring knowledge first hand helps you learn it better. And having to talk to someone develops skills that you need to operate in the real world. I'm happy to have gotten the experience so early, to help me out later on. I think it's important for anybody, but especially in college, to try to go out and do some first-hand research, just because it is more hands-on.

I would imagine, too, that when you do library research for a paper you're often working with secondary sources, whereas when you go out and do your own research, you're the first person to be collecting this information, and you get to shape it.

Exactly. You get to interpret it your own way. And it's the interpretation I think that helps you learn the most. It was good to get it from the source and then develop my own understanding.

*The Rhode Island Low- and Moderate-Income Housing Act.


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