Keynote speaker Kristen Clarke ’97 encouraged Harvard students to think about how they can leverage their education to benefit society. “[W]e have an obligation to make sure that the generation behind us inherits a world that is better than what we have today,” she said.

Photo by Will Halsey

Campus & Community

The power to make a difference

4 min read

At Public Interested, alumni encourage students to pursue work in public service

Hundreds of Harvard alumni and students came together for the seventh annual Public Interested Conference on Jan. 27 to consider taking on roles to address many of society’s most pernicious problems, from civil rights violations to poverty to sexual assault.

Yet despite the focus on humanity’s wrongs, a sense of optimism pervaded the Science Center as alumni shared inspirational ideas and practical advice on how to create meaningful change through a career in public service.

Keynote speaker Kristen Clarke ’97, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, emphasized the importance of staying positive and resolute in the face of daunting challenges. Noting the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Clarke called on students to continue King’s legacy by rising above the “politics of hatred” and dedicating themselves to careers that strengthen democracy.

“I believe we have an obligation to make sure that the generation behind us inherits a world that is better than what we have today,” Clarke said. “A Harvard degree carries with it tremendous power and tremendous possibility. I encourage each of you to think about how you can use your degree to go out into the world and make change.”

One alumna who already has is Rise founder Amanda Nguyen ’13, who delivered a simple but compelling message: “Hope is contagious.”

A rape survivor who had to struggle to navigate the justice system in its aftermath, Nguyen set out to rewrite the law to protect the civil rights of the country’s estimated 25 million rape survivors. In 2016, Congress passed her Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights — making it only the 21st bill in modern history approved unanimously by both the House and Senate.

“You have the power in you to make a difference,” said Nguyen, urging attendees not to give in to activism fatigue. “There are so many things now that make us feel powerless, but no one can make you feel powerless when we come together. No one can make you feel invisible if you demand to be seen.”

Rise founder and CEO Amanda Nguyen ’13 lobbied Congress to pass the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights in 2016 after navigating the often difficult justice system in the wake of her own trauma. “There are so many things now that make us feel powerless, but no one can make you feel … invisible if you demand to be seen.”

Photo by Will Halsey

Nguyen was one of five alumni to present a TED-style talk about their innovative public service ideas. Also participating were Richard Kelley ’10, senior associate at the DC Affordable Law Firm, a nonprofit that represents underserved residents in Washington, D.C.; Beryl C.D. Lipton ’10, projects editor and senior reporter at MuckRock, a collaborative news site that helps people file, track, and share public records requests; Sarah Lockridge-Steckel ’09, founder and CEO of The Collective, which invests in workforce development as a means of alleviating poverty among young adults in Memphis, Tenn.; and Wael Wahby, M.P.A. ’18, co-founder of Patient Doctor New Era, a volunteer-run health care quality improvement initiative in Egypt.

The full-day conference also featured a workshop led by Harvard Kennedy School lecturer and Shorenstein Center Senior Fellow Richard Parker, a panel discussion with Professor of Government Dustin Tingley and five alumni working in public-interest fields, and opportunities for one-on-one networking.

“I’m always amazed by the inspiring work our alumni are doing to make our communities, our country, and our world a more just place,” said Gene Corbin, M.P.A. ’01, assistant dean of Harvard College for public service. “Through this conference, we aim to celebrate these alumni and engage them as mentors in helping undergraduates to imagine possibilities in the public interest sector.”

Kate Hahn ’11, community school director, Juan Morel Campos School of the Arts; Christopher Lewis ’01, vice president, Public Knowledge; Bran Shim ’15, senior fiscal policy analyst, Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance; and Triada Stampas ’98, vice president for research and public affairs, Food Bank For New York City, participate in the workshop “Why the Public Interest Sector?” Not pictured is moderator Harvard Professor Dustin Tingsley and participant Jenny Ye ’13, WNYC data director.

Photo by Will Halsey

Public Interested is coordinated by the Phillips Brooks House Center for Public Service & Engaged Scholarship in collaboration with the Center for Public Interest Careers, the Harvard Alumni Association, the Harvard Varsity Club, the Institute of Politics, the Office of Career Services, the Office for Sustainability, the Phillips Brooks House Association, the Public Service Network, and the Undergraduate Council.