Homegrown Activist

Paul M. Soper

Emma S. Mackinnon ’05 is not afraid of standing out in a crowd. Since the fall of her freshman year, Mackinnon has taken her passion for service workers’ rights at Harvard from the bargaining table to the asphalt outside of Massachusetts Hall, lighting fires under the proverbial seats of Harvard’s most influential decision-makers.

But she is surprisingly modest—sitting in the Adams dining hall, soggy from a late-day downpour, Mackinnon is unpretentious about her role as an activist.

“Coming to Harvard as a place of extreme privilege and entitlement was hard to reconcile,” says Mackinnon, a Brooklyn native. Inspired by the Progressive Student Labor Movement’s (PSLM) living wage sit-in the spring before her matriculation, Mackinnon was eager to get involved early.

“I jumped right into PSLM as a freshman,” says Mackinnon. Although the group had a non-hierarchical structure, Mackinnon became what is known as a “bottom-liner”—one of the most active and vocal members of the group. She knocked on almost every single freshman door before University President Lawrence H. Summers’ inauguration, urging them to hang living wage signs in their yard-facing windows.

Just weeks later, Mackinnon got her moment in the limelight. On November 30, PSLM organized a 600-person rally outside the Science Center, “Justice for Janitors.” And Mackinnon was on the mic.

“My hands were shaking the whole time I was holding that bullhorn,” says Mackinnon. But soon after, she hit her stride.

After the largely successful living wage campaign came to an end, Mackinnon became a central player at HarvardWatch, a student and alumni watchdog agency that “keeps tabs on Harvard finances and governance,” she says. Her research for the organization delved deeply into the involvement of Harvard Corporation member Herbert S. “Pug” Winokur ’64-’65 in the collapse of Enron Energy.

When Winokur suddenly and unexpectedly resigned from the Harvard Corporation in the spring of 2002, it was clear that HarvardWatch was a force to be reckoned with. “That was pretty fun,” laughs Mackinnon.

In the years since, Mackinnon has seen her academic life fold into her extracurricular life, with her studies focused on the things she feels passionate about. Her mentor and advisor, Hazel Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Peter E. Gordon, writes in an email that in her academic work, “[Mackinnon] has a quiet intensity to her, and there is a discerning, moral disposition that characterizes all of her thought.”

But she’s not all work and no play.

“Emma is a warm, kind person,” says Aoife  Spillane-Hinks ’06 of the co-president of the Dudley House Cooperative. With a recent production role in the Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club’s production of “Albanian Softshoe,” Mackinnon has exercised her range of talents, but her passion for justice will inspire her and others well beyond Commencement.