Using Public Service Work As A Means to Social Change
Phillips Brooks House
Van L. Truong '89 likes to tell a story about a future vice chairman of ARCO Oil Company who, when taking a law exam, came upon a case he knew nothing about.
The case concerned fishing rights between two countries, and the later-to-be ARCO official got an "A" on the exam. When someone asked the professor how he could give a top grade to a person unfamiliar with the subject, he replied that the student had written his response from the perspective of the fish.
That, says Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant, is what people should always do--look for the fish. "Look for the deeper things," as he puts it.
And as president of the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBH), which leads dozens of social and community service projects, Truong has tried to do just that. He says in the past several years PBH has grown increasingly popular among students, alumni and with the administration, becoming a part of a new activism that has social service as its focus.
Most students agree that activism at Harvard has changed since the 1960s, saying it has become less confrontational and more cooperative with the University administration. In addition, campus activism has turned inward, diverting its attention from problems abroad.
"To me, activism is taking a direct and vigorous stance for what you believe about a controversial issue," says Truong, who has also organized Boston rallies to protest the Thai government's efforts to discourage Vietnamese refugees from seeking asylum in Thailand. Truong says the reason public service activities have been absorbed into the realm of activism is "because we've gotten more complex about how we think of things."
The term 'activism,' Truong says, has grown to include spending time as a Big Brother for an inner-city child, not just participating in divestment protests.
In addition, activism has grown less flashy than it was during the Vietnam era, but no less effective, says Truong. "Activism has grown inwards."
One reason many activists abandon large-scale protests is that they often do not work, he says. He cites the University Hall takeover in 1969 as an example of a protest that "didn't achieve anything," although sometimes aggressive tactics are needed to make people aware of the issues, he adds.
And judging by PBH's success in the past few years, the tactic of reforming from within may be working.
About 1100 of Harvard's 6400 undergraduates are involved in PBH's 36 committees, and alumni interest in the programs is so great that PBH has already surpassed its $600,000 fund drive goal. The programs range from working with the homeless to sponsoring summer camps for urban children to providing legal advice for the unemployed to supporting the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.
Truong says activism has not become any less important today, just more low-key. "It's a calmer type of activism, but it might be more effective," he says, pointing to the growing number of Harvard students joining the Peace Corps and PBH's own Worldteach, which sends graduates to teach in Kenya.
Although Truong concedes social problems are far from being solved, he says he is pleased by the swelling interest in public service. "I think the spirit is thriving."