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A Different Kind of Harvard House

Of the many experiences Harvard students have during their time here, living in the upperclassmen houses is a unifying one: It inspires camaraderie, community, and even some friendly competition. But amid the buzz of conversation around our dorms, not many pass thought to another house. It sits tucked into the quiet edges of the Yard and invariably offers a different kind of home—one open to anyone regardless of class year or House affiliation.

The Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-run nonprofit founded in 1904, manifests itself as an organization fueled by students’ creative energy and idealism. With a unique dual mission of student development and serving community needs, more than 70 PBHA programs collectively reach nearly 6,000 constituents in Cambridge and Greater Boston in the areas of youth development, housing and homelessness, adult services, immigrant services, advocacy, and out-of-school time programming.

Yet, in spite of this meaningful work, which occurs both through PBHA and many other outlets at Harvard, the value of public service often remains an afterthought here. Situated in a milieu where finance, consulting, and technology careers are the norm, public service’s dearth of monetary incentives on campus exacerbates its perception as a risky career path. Some have even questioned the purpose of service at an institution like Harvard, where it seems like capitalizing on the ostensibly stuffed wallets of students and graduates is the more effective option.

To the contrary, public service offers crucial experiences for students and an enduring impact on our constituents. In particular, PBHA is a rare opportunity for meaningful community engagement, student development, and social justice.

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PBHA has been a space for generations of students to develop and go on to impact thousands of others. Its programs are mutually beneficial endeavors that monetary donations could never replace. Our alumni become lawyers, teachers, doctors, consultants—the point is, wherever its participants may end up, PBHA provides a foundation for mission-driven, community-centered work that has inspired leaders with grounded sensibilities and real, human values.

PBHA has still made a tremendous impact on public service: National organizations like Strong, Women Strong Girls and Alzheimer’s Buddies originate from PBHA roots, and others have leveraged their PBHA experiences to create their own nonprofits like the American Civil Liberties Union, which was founded by Roger N. Baldwin, Class of 1905. Providing a unique space for student development through reflection, trainings, and the support of an incredible full-time staff, PBHA’s nonprofit model offers an unprecedented amount of student leadership not found anywhere else in the nation. Rather than its full-time staff, student officers are intentionally placed as the chairs of the programming, communication, and resource committees, and the organization’s governing body, cabinet, is composed solely of students. This structure guarantees that students are the ones making decisions and leading conversation around PBHA’s vision.

As co-director of PBHA’s Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment Afterschool Program, which serves low-income and immigrant youth in Dorchester, I have had the privilege of building relationships with my students in an affirming and safe environment. I recall just last week when I asked one of our students if he would be returning to our summer program counterpart. He rolled his eyes. Of course he would (duh, Mr. Jang). Didn’t I know how much he loves the program? Truly, no amount of data can quantify the relationships formed through PBHA programs. No numbers can adequately reflect these relationships, vibrantly woven into over 114 years of service and advocacy, the kinds of emotions and the humanity that make what we do so important.

But, if you really want—we do have the numbers. Our rigorous assessment of all involved stakeholders makes sure we can quantitatively support what we claim to say we’re doing and improve in areas we’re lacking in. PBHA employs nationally recognized surveys to assess constituents and an annual student experience survey to collect data on volunteers. In fact, our summer programming quality and outcomes are comparable to professionally-run summer programs in Boston, and an officer position dedicated solely to the evaluation and assessment of programs reflects the data-driven culture within PBHA.

PBHA’s intentional programming in addressing community needs serves as a paradigm for what meaningful partnership looks like, rather than the kind of bandage service which can harm communities. Most recently, we partnered with the Union of Minority Neighborhoods to bring community leaders onto campus to promote dialogue and action around poverty legislation. Last year during the Harvard University Dining Services strike, PBHA’s Student Labor Action Movement coordinated student support for dining hall workers with Boston’s Local 26. More than a decade before, SLAM’s predecessors led organizing efforts advocating for the livable wage of Harvard workers.

To that end, our student volunteers do public service, but we also take it a step further. We acknowledge the inextricable ties between service and tackling oppressive systems, critically examine issues affecting our constituents, and ultimately envision an equitable world where our services won’t be needed. Even more, the recent $12.1 million donation by Priscilla Chan ’07, a former PBHA director, promises to be an exciting harbinger of change to Harvard’s public service landscape by eliminating financial barriers and increasing funding sources. Initiatives have already begun to reimagine Harvard’s landscape of public service into a more transparent and accessible field.

I’m convinced monetary donations do not provide the opportunities of mutual growth and self-reflection that service is often contingent upon. And at its very essence, public service celebrates the very best of humanity: people selflessly committing to making the world a more equitable place. I sincerely wish everyone could sit in on the countless PBHA meetings I’ve attended, visit program to meet our kids, or talk with the volunteers, directors, and officers that make PBHA the organization that it is. And ultimately to experience what service, when done right, can be.

Jang H. Lee ’19 is a Psychology concentrator in Dunster House. He is the Resource Development Chair of the Phillips Brooks House Association.

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