Priya Millward MPP ’24 highlights neighborhood associations as civic participation building blocks

As some of the oldest civic organizations in Boston, neighborhood associations are integral to the city’s local politics. Millward examines who participates, and how to make these groups more inclusive.

Photo of Priya Millward in the HKS courtyard

Born in Washington, D.C., Priya Millward’s interest in local politics was initially limited. Having spent much of her career working as a digital organizer on presidential campaigns, federal politics were all-consuming. However, attending a South End Neighborhood Association meeting with guest speaker Mayor Michelle Wu proved eye-opening for Millward, revealing a gap in local government research that inspired her Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE). While neighborhood associations had the ear of their local elected leaders, participation from neighbors themselves seemed low and was biased towards older, richer, and whiter residents. She set out to study the underlying factors at play. 

“The big piece that I want to identify is the number one barrier to broader participation from neighbors in their respective association … whether it’s money, whether it’s the city not helping with promoting these groups, whether it’s a time constraint on constituents, I want to try to collect relatively broad patterns across neighborhoods,” she explains. 

Working with her client, the City of Boston’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS), Millward focused her research on uncovering the reasons for low involvement and devising strategies for how ONS can help to address these challenges to grow membership with an eye towards more equitable participation. By increasing participation in neighborhood associations, Millward believes that cities can create avenues through which citizens can feel more connected to their governing bodies, bolstering civic engagement across the nation. 

The history of neighborhood associations in Boston 

To truly understand how neighborhood associations came to be what they are now, Millward had to contextualize present-day circumstances within Boston’s rich history of activism and organizing. Supported by Ash Center funding, she ventured into several neighborhoods around the city to conduct interviews and identify the origins of these associations as well as the challenges they face today.  

Her findings ran in stark contrast to her preconceived notions of unequal distribution of neighborhood associations. Identifying more than 130 groups across the city, Millward found almost every Boston resident lived within the jurisdiction of at least one association. However, the origins of these groups and their theories of change differed widely. Wealthier associations were better funded, had a larger online presence, and more often reported being unhappy with the City’s level of responsiveness to their individual issues, despite other research confirming they receive disproportionate amounts of city services.  

“In the more historically Black neighborhoods, like Mattapan and Hyde Park, a lot of these neighborhood associations grew out of other organizing efforts in the ’60s and ’70s that were much more justice-oriented … their vision of a neighborhood association was more about how they could achieve equitable outcomes for their neighborhoods overall. And they were also much more positive about working with the city.” 

Current challenges and potential solutions 

While these groups rely on strength in numbers to affect change, Millward found that many of these organizations have struggled to grow and maintain a strong membership base. Challenges include finances, leadership turnover, coordination logistics, digital fluency, language accessibility, and more.  

Photo of the flyer board outside the 7/11
“A big problem some groups mentioned is that their previous methods of outreach don’t work as well in today’s world. They used to do a lot of flyering around the neighborhood on big points of contact like the 7-Eleven at the end of the block … but people work from home now at a higher rate and don’t leave their houses as much. So, if you’re physically flyering, people won’t see it,” notes Millward.

Increased funding could solve several of these problems and could particularly help associations in lower-income neighborhoods catch up to the administrative capabilities of their richer neighbors. But as Millward notes, “It’s difficult for the city to expend official resources to these groups because they’re not recognized, they’re not LLCs, they don’t have a tax entity.” However, to address this lack of formal recognition, her research uncovered that “a lot of other cities have worked around this by creating the neighborhood organization registry…,” a solution that she recommended to her client as well. 

By creating a registry, the city also provides neighborhood associations with a pathway to obtain funding through grants for services like website development, premium Zoom memberships, and printing — all of which would increase membership by raising awareness about these groups and facilitating meeting logistics. And by creating some form of formal recognition, the city can more comfortably promote these groups to new members who are currently underrepresented, like young people, renters, and residents of color. 

“Giving [neighborhood associations] some tangible support is essentially the core solution to a lot of what they’re facing in terms of their recruitment problems and just regular maintenance and administrative fees,” Millward asserts. She also notes that this support will help to bring the “traditional forms of civic engagement, like neighborhood associations, into the modern era where people are much more mobile and where if things aren’t online, you don’t ever encounter them.” 

Neighborhood associations have been — and could still be — central to Boston’s civic life, serving as a conduit for citizens to engage with their government. Supporting these organizations is one piece of the larger puzzle of increasing civic engagement locally and nationally, Millward argues.  

“At a time when national rates of civic engagement are declining, helping these well-established neighborhood groups grow is one way the City can encourage more constituent participation,” Millward emphasizes in her report. 

“At a time when national rates of civic engagement are declining, helping these well-established neighborhood groups grow is one way the City can encourage more constituent participation.

Priya Millward

Harvard Kennedy School Graduate, MPP

Millward’s hopes after HKS 

Having completed this year-long process, Millward reflects on how her perception of where she could affect the most change has shifted: “I’ve worked on campaigns at the presidential level, but [my PAE] opened my mind to thinking about how we can create samples or templates for what policy changes look like at the local level with like-minded people who are invested in seeing the communities thrive.” 

Millward leaves the Kennedy School with a newfound appreciation for the impact that local politics can have on constituents. “The policies that are maybe [the] most every day to folks are still ones at the local level. Local governments are making incredible strides at improving their democratic responsiveness by being more equitable, more environmentally conscious, more civically responsive, etc.,” she says. “All these sorts of things, I think, are places we should look for hope if we’re worried at the national level.” 


More on this Issue

Avoiding conflict over conflicts of interest
A sign reads,


Avoiding conflict over conflicts of interest

Developing and enforcing conflict of interest policies is no simple task for anti-corruption advocates and ethics officials alike. Archon Fung and Dennis Thompson help to better understand the problem and examine when risk is underestimated and when it is overestimated.

Laws That Govern Jail-Based Voting: A 50-State Legal Review

Additional Resource

Laws That Govern Jail-Based Voting: A 50-State Legal Review

As part of the Ash Center’s ongoing work examining the legal, political, and policy implications of advancing jail-based voting, Aaron Rosewood and Tova Wang examine the statutory basis for jail voting in each state.