PBH: A Tradition of Change

(This is the first of a two-part series on PBH. On Friday, Ben Sendor will examine PBH's relationship to the University, Its financial prospects, plans for educational programs, and the reorientation of PBH away from traditional institutions.)

PHILLIPS BROOKS HOUSE NO LONGER amuses itself with beauty contests for Radcliffe freshmen. No longer do Thank a giving "turkeys," as volunteers were called 20 years ago, deliver holiday baskets to poor families in a spirit of noblesse oblige. No longer does PBH retain the sectarian thrust of the organization as founded in 1900 to "nurture undergraduate spiritual improvement by enhancing the charity, compassion and public spirit of these leaders." PBH is still engaged in a 72-year-old struggle to define a satisfactory role for volunteer work in terms of society's needs and demands. What has evolved is an ambitious coalition of volunteers--working in programs aimed, in varying proportions, toward both individual service and social change--trying hard and with mixed success to understand their own contribution and the motivations behind effective volunteer work in the 1970s.

Generalizing about success and failure in the progress of PBH poses difficulties. While evidence exists of both tremendous achievements and outright impotence, "success" is always viewed in terms of how much remains to be done, and "failure" in constantly mitigated by the sense of lessons learned and experience gained. Members of the Harvard community have caricatured PBH as a self indulgent haven for mindless do-gooders, an image that has taken its psychological toll on PBH's leadership as well as threatening PHB's support within the University. The sophistication of the House's understanding of its problems and the intensity of its overall commitment belie the caricature, but only a clearer assessment of the limitations and potential House programs can give Harvard and PBH the confidence to transcend such allegations.

Almost all of the work at PBH is done through its 14 committees. Some problems exist for at least the larger of these. Each, for example, must reduce the volunteer turnover rate. Some members graduate; others move on to social work on a larger scale. More leave because of a lack of commitment, personal frustration, or changing demands on their day-to-day schedules. The decentralization of PBH contributes to a certain anomie among volunteers which probably contributes to the Tran science of PBH membership; few can envision PBH's operation in its entirety, and, according to Barry Gordon '70, PBH's graduate secretary. "A lot of people haven't thought all that much about why they're here."

To reduce this atomization will be difficult because PBH seeks volunteers who are primarily committed to individual projects. The committees are now trying to give prospective volunteers a better estimate of the time and effort that will eventually be required of them. Meanwhile, programs of lectures, films, and discussions add cohesiveness to House projects giving the volunteer a stronger sense of a supporting organization, and enabling him to see his motivations and the problems to be comforts more clearly.


A lack of continuity impedes the success of House leadership, as well. Student officers acknowledge that at least a semester is needed t master as executive position. Leaving only another five months to push effective reform. Some committees, which originate with the efforts of a single dedicated individual or an initially committees group, dissolve as soon as the funding leadership departs.

Some chairmen claim a further problem in the declining interest of freshmen in PBH. A poor freshmen turnout at PBH open houses and frustrating attempts to canvass freshmen dorms this year have convinced people of a changed attitude toward the kind of work PBH does. Membership figures (ace table at right) do not yet exist for this Fall, but a review of the last four years contradicts this assertion with a picture of uncanny stability. Only during the semester following the Cambodia strike did freshmen join in unusually large numbers. Other political activities probably account for the drop in senior membership that year. Otherwise, there has been remarkable consistency in the proportions of PBH represented by each class, although the attitudes of each year's volunteers may change.

A final problem, with roots outside the organization, lies in the nature of the bureaucracies with which PBH must deal. In some cases, professionals have been unabashedly hostile to PBH volunteers. Some volunteers have been frustrated not merely by other institutions' red tape and inefficiency but by their seeming unconcern.

The direction of PBH's overall activity planning reflects the effort to resolve these problems. One trend points to the expansion of educational activities within the House, both in terms of small group programs in each project area and larger study programs relating to social problems and social service in general. Another trend exists in the development of activities oriented toward specific problems rather than toward an entire group of institutions. Not only does this development offer intrinsic advantages for committee planning and evaluation, but it helps to see past institutional bureaucracies and the prospect of co-optation, to areas where volunteers can offer concrete assistance in the lives of individuals.

A third trend, and the most significant for changing the character of PBH, is the redirection of programs toward community involvement as opposed to work within institutions. These new efforts frustrate any attempt to arbitrarily distinguish "social action" from "social service" because of the programs' relative independence of some of society's more odious establishments. By entering the community, volunteers may gain a greater sense of the uniqueness--and the limits--of their contribution.


THROUGHOUT THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, discussions--even among House executives--have bogged down on the relationship between volunteer service and institutional change. PBH has not yet succeeded in fully throwing off its image as a brings holiday baskets; it is still associated with what Harley called short-term head-aid solutions" to essentially long-term problems.

The most convincing argument on the relationship between social action and social service maintains that well convincing social service automatically argues for social changes. According to Gerdon, "Talking about the delivery of social service should be talking about human right." David Cohen '74, chairman of the one-to-one program for juvenile offenders, observed, "I'm not convinced that people talking about institutional change in theoretical terms understand the lives of the people being affected by those institutions."

The emphasis of at least two other programs is unmistakably on social change. The Harvard Africa Volunteers Project (HAVP) provides personnel for programs designed by African governments and organizations "engaged in furthering self-determination on the part of African peoples in the liberation and development of the African continent." Tunbridge in Boston, which, like HAVP, uses PBH essentially as a clearinghouse, is establishing a community network of nonprofessional adult teachers. These people will teach their businesses, skills, or crafts to students working in an alternative educational structure. Tunbridge, set to open in July 1973, will have no scheduled classes, but will serve to bring together students and the resources at its disposal.

Brighton Educational Opportunity and the Easy Reader Program fall most readily into the traditional social service, category. Both provide tutoring for high school students in the first case, and for second and third graders in the second. One can still argue, however, that even these plant the seeds of social change by extending community resources to people who would otherwise be denied. Adelante, which teachers English as a second language to Spanish and Portuguese immigrants and helps provide translators for hospitals and airports, affects people's lives so directly that dismissing the project as a "Band-Aid solution" would be to overlook the immediate and the potential importance of its work.