This fall, Simmons students from the Social Action Leaders course are channeling their academic studies into advocacy. These emerging leaders are raising awareness concerning women experiencing homelessness in the Boston area. We spoke with students Felipa Canchola ’24, Lisa deRosier ’24, and Rashida Alisa Hagakore ’24 about their passion for experiential service learning and their conception of good leadership.
“We are seeing a nationwide trend in increased homelessness, and women, mothers, and/or LGBTQIA+ adults are especially at risk,” says Marketing major Felipa Canchola ’24. “According to the most recent Boston homeless census, there was a 17% increase in individuals experiencing homelessness in the city, as well as more families in need of shelters and transitional housing.”
Canchola is taking the Social Action Leaders course (BUS-224-CD), taught by Brian Daly, Associate Professor of Practice in the School of Business. According to Daly, “Social Action Leaders is an opportunity for our students to learn about leading social change and to practice leading projects in the real world that directly address social issues. Each year students in the class develop a social action campaign and work on this throughout the semester. . . In previous years, students have addressed refugee emergencies, women’s rights, and many other issues.”
As Simmons University students, we want to support an organization that would allow us to give back to the Boston community.
“My classmates and I are engaged in a social movement campaign committed to creating a tangible, positive impact,” she Canchola. “As a women’s-centered university, our class has chosen to focus our campaign on Rosie’s Place, a woman’s shelter and provider of social services in Boston. Our initiative is a dynamic call to action to support Rosie’s Place, which offers overnight shelter, as well as other services, to women and families.”
Canchola and her colleagues have a two-fold objective. According to Business and Management major Lisa deRosier ’24, “First, we are creating awareness for the larger issue regarding women experiencing homelessness. And second, as Simmons University students, we want to support an organization that would allow us to give back to the Boston community.”
In Social Action Leaders, Simmons students work collaboratively. The class consists of 11 students, four of whom serve on the research team, collecting information and data that includes surveys, statistics, and the Boston homeless census. Their findings inform the five students working in marketing, using social media, press releases, and other marketing materials to help raise awareness about the current epidemic of homelessness and the crucial services that Rosie’s Place provides. The remaining two students, who serve as project managers, coordinate the teams and project deadlines.
“We launched our campaign during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week [November 13–21, 2023] so that we can communicate a call to action. The condition of being unhoused disproportionately affects women, particularly Black women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Business and Management major Rashida Alisa Hagakore ’24, a member of the marketing team.
One finding that the research team highlighted is the importance of “people-first language.” As Hagakore explains, “Instead of saying ‘homeless women,’ we urge people to start saying ‘women experiencing homelessness.’ In doing so, we underscore that these women are just having an experience, rather than defining them by what they don’t have. In other words, we try to avoid reducing someone’s identity to the condition of being homeless. We prefer to see them as total, dignified persons.”
To galvanize further their support for Rosie’s Place, the team members partnered with E & E Tea Co., an award-winning small business based in Columbus, Ohio. Months earlier, Canchola met the owner, Essence Unique, through a Tea Lovers club. “Unique and I developed a business relationship and friendship, and I consider her one of my mentors,” says Canchola. “Our Simmons course created a chance to extend our rapport, which in turn lends support to Rosie’s Place and E & E. Unique and her husband Shane have created a limited edition tea called Rosie’s Blend, a mixture of black tea and rose petals. With each purchase of this custom tea, E & E will donate 20% of the proceeds to Rosie’s Place.”
Participating in Social Action Leaders offers students a unique opportunity for experiential service learning. For Hagakore, “Doing it ‘for real’ is how I learn best. I call it ‘apprenticeship style.’ I like to learn something in the classroom and then apply the academic and theoretical principles from the course to my work.” For Hagakore, the course unearthed hidden strengths. “I realized that I had a lot of talents that I don’t use very often. For this project, my social media and design experience helped mobilize our work and it was very satisfying. I see now that I have a lot to give, and my skills can impact communities in positive ways.”
Canchola expressed that service learning aligns with her belief in the transformative power of education, which can and should extend beyond the classroom. “This kind of learning experience fosters valuable skills, including communication and critical thinking, and it encourages social responsibility, civic engagement, and community-building,” she adds.
While deRosier has volunteered before in other contexts, she believes that the course taught her the value of working collectively. “Doing this kind of work collaboratively is very empowering, and together we can make a more substantial difference.” deRosier also appreciates that, as a Complete Degree Program student completing coursework from northern California, she can still perform a leadership role that impacts the Boston area. “For those of us who are geographically diverse, we felt that we could interact with Simmons and its surrounding community in a meaningful way,” says deRosier. “I am graduating in May and will come to Boston for the commencement ceremony. I also plan to visit Rosie’s Place in person.”
Through Simmons, I felt like a legitimate leader, and this is the biggest gift the class has given me.
One significant takeaway from the course is that benevolence should be a signature component of leadership. deRosier says that “leadership is not just managerial. It can revolve around the common good.” Hagakore unpacks leadership further through the “social change model.” Using this approach, she explains, “we contemplated the ideal aspects of a good leader, including self-reflection, receiving feedback, listening, and being sensitive to diversity. . . We then apply the academic principles we learned in the course in a direct way, one that makes a positive impact on a given community and realizes social change.”
For Canchola, studying at Simmons has helped her reconceive the phenomenon of leadership from a more global perspective. “We are not just leading within our local community, but throughout the United States and beyond. . . Teaching and learning are not only bound to textbooks; they can be hands-on and immediate, and Simmons encourages this. Through Social Action Leaders, we emerge with a more holistic perspective on leadership.”
Students acknowledged that their Simmons affiliation was an asset when performing community leadership. “When we invoke the name Simmons within the greater Boston community and beyond, people pay more attention and are more open to connecting with you,” explains Hagakore. “Simmons gives us clout, which in turn allows us to help people further. Through Simmons, I felt like a legitimate leader, and this is the biggest gift the class has given me.”
With the fall 2023 semester ending in mid-December, it is a fitting reminder to help people in need. “As the winter and holiday season are approaching, we should express empathy for those experiencing homelessness and advocate for them,” says Canchola. “Our experience as Simmons Social Action Leaders underscores the need to destigmatize homelessness and humanize individuals experiencing homelessness. Organizations like Rosie’s Place work tirelessly to help people find shelter while treating them with dignity and respect. It is incredibly inspiring to use my academic studies at Simmons to contribute to social justice.”