Public Interested

One of the frequently-asked questions on the Phillips Brooks House Association website is: “How can PBHA be both community-based and located at Harvard?” In response, PBHA cites its “decades-long partnerships” with the communities where it operates and points to the number of people from these communities who staff the programs. This level of community engagement is admirable, but it should be much more commonplace in the way Harvard thinks and talks about public service.

As I sat in my freshman dorm room tabbing through a list of PBHA programs during shopping week last year, one jumped out: the College High-school Alliance: A Nexus For Creative Education. According to the PBHA website, “CHANCE works with students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to develop the desire, support, and motivation to gain admission to college and to succeed there and beyond.” I thought of my high school classmates and the strong and supportive community that they had found at CHANCE, and I pictured the three Harvard students who had given their time to my fifth-grade class through the CIVICS program, a program run jointly by the Institute of Politics and PBHA, which kindled a lasting interest in politics for me and many of my classmates.

In that moment, I realized that the program descriptions of many projects that support Cambridge kids are targeted toward potential volunteers that see them very differently than we had as their beneficiaries. Students in Cambridge, like those in many school districts, face a range of obstacles to college admission and success, but a lack of desire or a shortage of motivation are not among them. They more closely align with the school district’s description of CHANCE: “Harvard students provide off-campus tutoring in… general studies, SAT and TOEFL prep courses, problem solving, writing workshops, college advising and essay help.”

In short, the program addresses a systemic lack of access to tangibly beneficial and necessary support. It meets a demonstrated community need without presuming to do more. It seeks to rectify an injustice of unequal access, not a gap in intrinsic motivation. It is a deeply productive program with a deeply problematic presentation to Harvard students that reflects a pattern in how students approach interaction with the Cambridge community. Programs must sell themselves to Harvard students based both on their community impact and on their desirability as clubs, and the necessity of the latter can distract from the execution of the former. Even highly effective public service programs at Harvard still reflect a campus culture that treats being a good neighbor as an extracurricular activity rather than an obligation.

Many ways in which Harvard students engage with our host community do meaningful, substantial, and lasting good. Students provide mentorship, after school programming, and classroom instruction in civics, science, international relations and more, to communities from Allston to Cambridge to Quincy. Outside of PBHA, the University supports 20 partnerships with Cambridge Public Schools that sponsor summer schools, science internships and field studies, theater and museum visits, support for teachers and administrators, and more.


But true community membership by Harvard students requires more. To be in true community with our neighbors, Harvard students must come from a place of humility. Harvard people often talk about Cambridge as a set of problems in need of creative solutions, and often in need of Harvard students. A Crimson op-ed last year argued that the Cambridge Common “just needs bright minds to populate it” to be a great public park.

Harvard students have a lot to contribute to Cambridge, but what’s needed isn’t wisdom, motivation, or any other personal quality; it’s a willingness to participate meaningfully as residents of the city and to use the privilege that comes with being a student here to make contributions to existing community projects without any other pretense.

So join PBHA programs like Harvard CHANCE, CIVICS, or one of the many excellent after-school programs, and be willing to modify their services to meet changing community needs. Outside of direct service organizations, use economic power to support local businesses and residents. Buy, and read, each edition of Spare Change News. Use Cambridge's directory of businesses owned by women, people of color, LGBTQ+ -identifying people, and people with disabilities when you shop, to promote equality through your consumption. Push Harvard, the largest employer in Cambridge, to pay all of its workers a living wage. Cambridge needs people who hope to build justice here to commit their actions and resources, not just their ideas.

PBHA states that it has a “dual mission”: “providing vital experiences for generations of students in service and activism, while simultaneously offering programming throughout Greater Boston that meets stated community needs.” But to help meet that second goal, Harvard students should place less emphasis on personal or professional development through service and more on the direct services that we are able to provide.

Will H. MacArthur ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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