There’s a well-worn refrain among Harvard’s most dedicated student volunteers and its legions of alumni who pursue careers as public service leaders: “Phillips Brooks House Association was the best course I took at Harvard.”
The irony, of course, is that PBHA – the student-run public service organization that oversees 76 programs, from homeless shelters to summer camps – is an extracurricular activity, not an academic offering at all.
That’s changing this semester, however, with a new not-for-credit course, “Education for Social Action,” being offered by PBHA. For the 25 students enrolled, some of whom devote as much time and energy to their public service work as their course work, the course provides a much-needed link between service and academics and between Harvard and the community.
“There’s really an opportunity to relate this complex, important work we’re doing to our academics,” says Tim Schneider ’03, who launched the course along with PBHA officers Roona Ray ’02-’03 and Nika Seidman ’03.
And, he adds, the course’s guest lectures by community leaders and policy experts boost students’ learning and skill sets with real-world information about the communities and causes they’re serving.
“If you don’t know about rent control and you can’t talk about Section 8 vouchers, how can you advocate for housing?” he says.
Seeing the big picture
Although she’s spent the past several years advocating for the homeless at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, Mia Lozada ’03 is one of the students in “Education for Social Action” who admits she had a lot to learn about the big picture of housing in Boston and America.
“A lot of us hadn’t been exposed to much of the history of affordable housing,” she says. “It’s always helpful to know about the history of any given issue, to better understand the current battles and frustrations in the area.”
Last week, Xavier Briggs, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School and an expert on housing and community development, gave Lozada and her classmates a two-hour crash course on the full sweep of housing in America, from teepees to tenements, CDCs to Section 8s.
“It was incredible,” says Lozada.
Briggs, who worked in policy and research for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Clinton administration, must have thought so, too, for he invited the students to continue their discussion over dinner at his home sometime.
Briggs helped the students make the leap from ivory tower to public housing high-rise with an animated, informal talk that encompassed history, advocacy, and policy. He detailed urban renewal’s reasons and regrets (“some people called it ‘Negro removal,'” he said), and outlined what he called the “four pillars of contemporary housing policy in America”: public housing, rental subsidies, financing of new affordable housing by community development corporations (CDCs), and tax policies that support home ownership.
Housing policy in the United States, he said, is hampered by uneven objectives and multiple priorities, and is often buried beneath other pressing social issues – health care, education, social security – on citizens’ and lawmakers’ radar screens.
“Housing is somewhere below where the money runs out,” he said.
Expert commentary, community support
While Lozada and her section took in the housing landscape, two simultaneous sections explored education reform with Roger Harris, headmaster of the Boston Renaissance Charter School, and youth violence with Dr. Felton Earls and Maya Carlson, both of the Harvard Medical School.
The 25 students in “Education for Social Action” will meet with community leaders representing housing, education, and youth violence issues for several weeks, then they’ll re-divide into sections focused on three neighborhoods that PBHA programs serve: Cambridge, Chinatown, and the South End/Lower Roxbury.
Conceived a year ago through many brainstorming sessions, the course took shape when the organizers received a VISTA grant. The grant brought VISTA volunteer Moira Mannix to their service, and the “Education for Social Action” syllabus and speakers emerged from the unfocused haze of good intentions that Ray, Schneider, and Seidman had dubbed “The Idea.”
“She’s a superstar,” says Schneider of Mannix, who gets credit for tracking down and scheduling the course’s lecturers, who number among the Boston area’s most respected and busiest community leaders.
Throughout the course are reflection sessions with the entire group, providing what the organizers call a much-needed forum to step back and contemplate.
“When you’re doing all this public service, there’s not much time to stop and reflect,” says Schneider. “What does this mean to you, to the people you’re doing service with, for your future?”
After just a few weeks, “Education for Social Action” is creating a welcome community of public servants who can tap each other’s diverse experiences and share frustrations.
“Finding other people you can talk to about issues you care about is a really important thing,” says Kristin Garcia ’05, a PBHA officer and next summer’s director of the Franklin I-O Summer Camp in Dorchester.
Those issues aren’t always pretty: Burnout, guilt, and juggling service with schoolwork weigh on student volunteers.
“To be able to talk to other people about how they got through rough times in public service … that in and of itself is a great opportunity,” says Lozada.
From charity to advocacy
If “Education for Social Action” provides knowledge, tools, and support, it also aims to bridge direct charitable service to advocacy and organizing.
“We saw a huge disconnect in PBHA between the advocacy groups and the direct public service groups,” says Seidman, who, with Ray, was Housing and Advocacy Officer for PBHA. “We concluded that any good public service organization should include both.”
Their hope is that a talk like the one given by the headmaster of the Renaissance Charter School, for instance, might empower a student who’s tutoring kids at a charter school with a better understanding of the charter school movement and a passion for educational reform.
Buoyed by the excitement and energy of the class’s first few weeks, the organizers are upbeat about the long-term impact it could have on public service at Harvard.
“Ideally, we’d like to have this type of course happen at a lot of different levels,” says Seidman. For freshmen or others new to public service, “Education for Social Action” can be an introduction to the issues they’re addressing and the neighborhoods they’re working in. Others, she hopes, will get skill-based organizing tools from the course, and for juniors and seniors, it can provide a window into public service careers.
Schneider sees the course as a way to cement Harvard’s academic excellence to its long-time commitment to public service, reinforcing the notion of a “moral education.” In other words, making PBHA truly “the best course I took at Harvard.”