With its long tradition of service and community involvement, the Phillips Brooks House (PBH) — composed of the Phillips Brooks House Association, the student-run, public service organization, and the Harvard Public Service Network, which supports more than 45 student-led service groups — extended its scope last week as it welcomed the first Phillips Brooks House Fellow to campus.
The new program aims to connect students interested in social action directly with people who have devoted their lives to public service and civic engagement. Similar to the Wasserstein Public Interest Fellows program at the Harvard Law School, the PBH Fellowship invites exceptional individuals to the University for a discrete series of events that include panel discussions, lectures, and individual meetings with students.
The inaugural fellow is Dee Aker, deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. For the past 30 years, Aker has been involved in conflict resolution and international peacemaking in her work as a journalist, filmmaker, educator, and psychological anthropologist. She founded the Women Peacemakers Program, which teaches women to become trainers in peacemaking strategies within their own countries; The Nepal Project, an ongoing mission in Nepal to train and educate both civil and political groups in communication and negotiation techniques, as well as approaches to peace building and democratic involvement; and WorldLink, a program that educates youth in the greater San Diego region on global affairs.
Program officials said Aker was selected for her ability to connect easily at all levels, from students to world leaders, as well as for her wide-ranging background and experience.
“I can’t think of another person whose life work has covered so many diverse … disciplines,” said Zandra Kambysellis, department administrator for the Phillips Brooks House, who coordinated the fellowship program.
With current career paths cutting across more disciplines, Kambysellis said it was important to welcome to the program someone like Aker, whose own career path could “show students that everything you do along the way is useful and valuable.”
As part of her Harvard visit, Aker gave an informal address last Thursday (Sept. 27) to a small group at Phillips Brooks House about her work over the past six years in Nepal. The country endured a nearly 11-year civil war between the government and Maoist rebels until a peace agreement was signed in November 2006. Nepal is currently run by an interim coalition government, and elections to create a special assembly that will rewrite the constitution are planned for November.
Aker discussed her efforts to engage all elements of society in the peace-building process by encouraging dialogue not only at high levels of government within current political parties but also within marginalized factions of the civil society to help them understand their voice in the democratic process.
“Peace and justice means working at both high negotiations and civil society … bringing the people in who don’t have voices.”
She described using what she called “benevolent tricks,” like the tactics employed to engage more women in the peace process.
“We make the political parties — if they want negotiation training — bring a woman to the training so the men can’t say, ‘Well, they don’t know how to do it.’”
She also spoke about helping emerging leaders think about means of reconciliation. In addition, she described a series of radio broadcasts she helped create to address different dimensions of democracy.
She plans to return to Nepal in November as an observer for the scheduled elections that will create a special assembly to determine the future shape of the government.
Despite recent trouble with the Maoists, who — angry their call for the immediate elimination of the monarchy went unheeded — quit the coalition in September, Aker said she was optimistic about the country’s future.
“I remain hopeful because the Nepali people are so decent,” she said. “Sometimes, when there is enough peace for a while it sort of takes hold.”
Anne Sung, a master’s student at the Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Divinity School, who has spent time in the southern region of Nepal helping to involve women in the political process, said she was encouraged by Aker’s work.
“The international community is very important. It has a lot of influence in Nepal, and I think people are grateful for the kind of support that organizations like [Aker’s] provide.”
Aker said she found her three-day visit to the campus as the first PBH Fellow inspiring.
“[The students] are so committed to public service. I think I got more out of it than they. … It’s been very rewarding.”