Taking a Stand

For an empowering institution, Harvard College can easily be perceived as an increasingly limiting institution. Whether it is landing the highest paying jobs, gravitating towards the most impressively stressful course load or competing for the most visible poster space on the Science Center kiosks, our actions reflect a gradual homogenization.

As we compete for similar goals, we assign decreasing importance to selfless acts that do not contribute directly to our place in the rat race, like charity events.

Indeed, two weekends ago, there were three dances for three causes on campus. So there are definitely individuals and groups on campus that are interested in giving back and creating events that can bring Harvard students together in both fun and socially conscious ways. Yet rather than compete for attendees (which was inevitable to some extent), the dance organizers communicated with each other and promoted each other’s events throughout the week. Rather than pitting three important but disparate causes against each other, the fundraisers opened Harvard’s students’ eyes to the myriad ways in which they can give back to the world.

Getting back in touch with the root importance of these events reinvigorated a fundamental spirit of change and the means to create a real impact for people outside of the Square, with which Harvard does indeed empower us, should we choose to embrace such means and events.

However, the mere existence of charity is not sufficient to develop a culture of community service and social justice on campus, which Harvard seems to lack at times. The population of students that are working hard to promote social justice issues is small, yet passionate, and it is often difficult to find avenues for engagement with the larger student body. Events like the three dances last weekend are tangible ways for the student body to come together around fundraising for worthy causes.

There is then a question of whether to focus on the educational element of what the cause is actually about or the event itself. As we have seen, it is difficult to garner attention around the issue at hand, while also advertising for the event itself. There develops a need to focus on the social element without the social responsibility so as to draw in the greatest number of students. However, this approach also does not do sufficient justice to the causes we are raising money for, nor does it help instill a sense of social responsibility in the Harvard student body.

The sense of community that can result from bringing students together around issues of social justice should not be mutually exclusive from the community that develops around campus parties or Harvard-Yale. As human beings, we have a responsibility to think about people beyond our immediate community, and we have a special opportunity as Harvard students not only to encourage our peers to give back but to shape the way they view their role in the world. Given that historically Harvard has churned out future leaders in every field, it is especially valuable for us to encourage our peers to think about the impact of their actions and to give back in a social setting.

Indeed, the events two weekends ago, specifically Stand Up, the Dance Marathon and One Night STAND, were certainly overwhelming in their publicity. Posters were strung throughout the Yard, and there was much, arguably obnoxious, hawking outside of the Science Center. Ultimately, for event organizers, it comes down to making sure everyone knows about your event, perhaps even more so than the charity itself. When purchasing tickets for these dances, was it the music or the cause that drew in the most students? Indeed, event organizers admit that the social half of ‘social responsibility’ takes the cake for ticket sales and awareness maximization. But it is precisely that acknowledgment and honesty about event planning that has driven social change across the board.

These charity events raised awareness and funds that will drastically change the lives of slum dwellers, those affected by genocide, and cancer patients. Mahila Mandals are women’s groups in New Delhi, India, which Asha created, that educate and care for slum dwellers, providing individual healthcare and advocating for gender issues. Shift to Sudan and Burma, where the Genocide Intervention Network implements an on-the-ground program to protect civilians from attack in the midst of ongoing hostilities. Now fly back West and land in waiting rooms that double as playrooms, and a place where the ills of cancer contrast the elation of Disney paintings in the Jimmy Fund Clinic. We, as a student body, contributed to significant strides for each of these causes.

Event organizers will continue to emphasize the most marketable aspects of charity events to maximize the impact created. For these charity dances, however, it takes two to tango and our undergraduate population must take a stand. We must inform ourselves and be open to understanding the charities that we support. We should be empowered, not overwhelmed, by the charitable opportunities we have. Charity events should not merely be hats to wear to feel good the following weekend when we drink the day away outside Harvard Stadium. Let us remember that we are not limited, nor overwhelmed, but empowered every day by charitable opportunities and we should embrace, rather than disparage or ignore, the forms of social responsibility that ultimately create the biggest impacts in our lives and those who benefit from our hard work.

Jason Y. Shah ‘11 lives in Lowell House and  is Chair of Stand Up. Bianca A. Verma ‘10, an anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House, is Chair of the Harvard College Dance Marathon.