Engage!

By

An afternoon with Drew Faust.

By CAROLINE CRONIN & PULKIT AGARWAL

 

The Inclusion and Belonging Task Force at Harvard has been met with a variety of reactions this year. Its origins are muddied by the ongoing debate on administration enforced sanctions relating to single gender social organizations and the perceived hypocrisy of many of the University’s actions. However, on Wednesday April 5, University President Drew Faust held a 3 hour-long event in Sanders Theater to expound on the ideals and aims of the Task Force. Since the Task Force’s creation by Faust in September 2016, it has been operating in a “Discovery Phase.” It plans to more into a more active capacity this coming fall of 2017 and sees the “Afternoon of Engagement” as one of the necessary prerequisites to entering that active phase.

 

The Task Force publicized that, “This special event will offer the Harvard community an opportunity to explore what the concepts of inclusion and belonging mean for our campus through story-telling and small-group conversations.” College Dean Rakesh Khurana also stressed the cooperative aspects of the Task Force’s event. In an email following Faust’s announcement of the event, Khurana stated, “Change begins with open dialogue and collaborative problem solving, and I know that together we can spur Harvard to deliver on its aspirations.” The event was open to students, staff, and other Harvard affiliations and the video of the administrator speeches was posted on the Task Force website. Though the Task Force is made up of over 50 individuals, speeches from the leaders of the Task Force filled the first 90 minutes of the event.

 

Co-Chair Danielle S. Allen, wearing a yellow “Afternoon of Engagement” shirt, opened the forum by asking for the audience’s “help to identify obstacles to inclusion and belonging,” and to finding solutions to those issues. She acknowledged the “courage and compassion” it takes to tell and listen to the variety of stories and experiences on campus and in the world. Interestingly, Allen then listed a few “ground rules” for the engagement. More like the instructions on how to be a good listener, the “ground rules” seemed to keep the “engagements” from becoming debates. As Allen finished her introductory remarks, Faust made her way to Sanders stage – a position she has been in on countless other occasions.

 

Despite what could have become a routine description, Faust noted that Harvard is probably, “the most diverse community to which we will ever belong.” The statistics of the student body support this claim, and attending Harvard is an immersion unique among the experiences of most people. Still, this specialty of Harvard does not make it immune from the prejudices of the world. Faust continued to tell an anecdote from a press conference in 2007 at which she realized, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard. I didn’t want an asterisk next to my name.” Nor does anyone, most likely.

 

But, as many students are sure to tell, being a part of Harvard means more than a simple accomplishment of the individual; it holds deeper meaning to families and friends who admired and supported the aspirations that led to Harvard. Faust understands this as, “My belonging here made their belonging somewhere else.” To “share this experience of belonging” is now a goal of hers wherever she goes.

 

Others followed Faust to present heartfelt anecdotes of their own. Allen told the story of her departure and return to Harvard due to a complicated concerns arising from a number of encounters. In one of these, a “supervisor asked me why black people don’t like being called Negroes anymore.” There is a reason why this event is not just about undergrads at the College.

 

Next, Kalan Chang, who arrived in New York City from Ecuador and began working in construction without knowing a word of English, told of her relationship with language and storytelling. To Chang, it is important to remember the value of “language, understanding, resilience.” Lastly, Katarina Armstrong told of her humble beginnings and struggles in school. Now, after she has accomplished much, it troubles her when people refer to her male colleagues as Doctor but forget to do the same for her while she runs a department that is far more diverse than it was in the past.

 

The storytelling session of the event over, the engaging commenced. Due to random seating, audience members took the opportunity to discuss in small groups their experiences with inclusion and belonging and their reactions to the stories told by the speakers. The effort to sincerely have a profound experience with your stranger neighbor in a packed Sanders Theater (a venue that may also be tainted with the tedious nature of Ec lectures) may have been a forced one. The audience was as bubbling with the opportunities to spill their favorite stories as the administrators were, but the self-selection bias that determined the audience’s makeup cannot be dismissed. It is possible that Sanders Theater served as more of an echo chamber than anything else. Given this possibility and the current goals of Faust and her force, it is more important than ever that the voices of the students be heard in a professional and actionable context. Only time will tell whether the University’s efforts will truly make everyone feel a sense of belonging at a campus that is meant to challenge ones ideas of the world and what it actually means to belong.

 

Caroline Cronin ([email protected]) and Pulkit Agarwal ([email protected]) hope that the administration’s engagements with students result in policies that truly reflect the minds of the student body.