Northeastern’s NuLawLab expanding housing initiatives, providing more legal help in Boston’s most marginalized communities

headshots of dan jackson (left), jules sievert (center), and miso kim (right)
Portraits of NULawLab professors Dan Jackson and Jules Sievert and Miso Kim. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The COVID-19 pandemic surfaced inequities, displacement and gentrification in Boston neighborhoods. But people living with these inequalities often don’t know where to turn when searching for help in fighting for their legal rights. 

By using arts to connect, communicate and advocate for housing rights, the NuLawLab, is working to break down the barriers for individuals to seek the legal help they need. 

“We work deeply with communities in Boston and elsewhere to identify unmet legal needs,” says Dan Jackson, the executive director of NuLawLab. “We craft, explore, design, iterate and prototype new ways of connecting people to their legal rights, with a high regard to their inability to hire a lawyer.”

The National Endowment for the Arts granted Northeastern University School of Law’s NuLawLab a $150,000 grant on Feb. 1. The grant will last two years, with the possibility of extension. 

dan jackson and jules sievert having a conversation in an office
Northeastern executive director of NuLawLab Dan Jackson and creative director Jules Sievert discuss their recent work in their office in Dockser Hall. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Founded in 2012, NuLawLab is the interdisciplinary laboratory at Northeastern University School of Law. The lab is a leader in the global legal design movement or the act of bringing innovative approaches to the challenges people face when navigating legal systems. 

The NuLawLab will use the grant to launch the East Boston Spatial Justice Lab. The project will measure how the arts, advocacy and cultural organizing for housing justice can strengthen residents’ social and emotional well-being. 

“We are honored and thrilled and excited that an entity as prestigious and as important as the National Endowment for the Arts is ready to invest in empirical measurements of the impact that legal design approaches have on people on the ground, in our most marginalized and under-resourced communities,” Jackson says. “That is a tremendous thing.” 

The grant is one of four new research labs the National Endowment for the Arts is funding. 

A $200,000 grant to Maverick Landing Community Services from the Kresge Foundation’s Arts & Culture program also supports the program. 

Creating an alternative approach allowed the Office of Housing Stability in Boston to hear how people were experiencing housing insecurity differently instead of attending a public meeting, “which always turns into an absolute slugfest,” Jackson says. 

During the pandemic, the lab began working intensely with Maverick Landing Community Services to create a pop-up pandemic rental relief response and eviction defense project called the Boston Housing Support Station. The opportunity allowed for further engagement with Maverick, and East Boston became the spot for the Spatial Justice Lab, funded by the grant. 

Time after time, the most pressing legal need unmet in the local communities was safe, affordable, and stable housing, Jackson says. 

“We play the long game,” says Jackson. “We feel very strongly that one of our roles here at a large research university is to find ways to make sure that the resources … are flowing through us and into the community around Boston.”

Currently, the lab is at stage one, coordinating with the coalition and collective in East Boston. The group is conducting weekly meetings to create two years’ worth of programming between now and April. After that, the East Boston lab will officially launch in May. 

Programs may include some driven by youth and using voices through storytelling and video presentations. There are also opportunities for conversation circles, restorative justice, and bringing people together with art workshops and printmaking. 

The aim is to find a way to transform how people are treated inside the legal system to include dignity, says Jules Sievert, the creative director for NuLawLab. One way to do that is through art. 

A better way to frame it is: “what art can do, instead of what art is,” Sievert says. 

Art can pull people together, Sievert says. However, multiple community needs are unmet when traditional art spaces, like museums or galleries, are only welcoming to some, she says. 

“The idea is that this is how we pull people in,” Sievert says. “People don’t always want to come together to talk about their struggles, but providing spaces and other opportunities for people to convene, and connect, also will lift up those conversations about where we struggle and where we connect. We need to have that connection; we need to have solidarity.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.