Service Versus Action

The Dual Challenge of PBHA

In 1969, when taking over University buildings and going on hunger strikes was de rigeur for anyone who claimed to work for social change, Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) weathered some hefty criticism. Criticism usually came from two warring tribes: the people who thought PBHA didn't do enough, and the people who thought it did too much. The underlying issue was the appropriateness of political activism in PBHA or, Does social service demand political activity or exclude it?

The "must do more" camp felt that PBHA couldn't just be an office for groups that wanted to go on hunger strikes, send students to Africa, and lay siege to Mass. Hall. PBHA had to actively endorse and encourage activism by taking stands on the battles that national student organizations like Students for a Democratic Society and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were busy fighting.

The "stop it all now" camp was worried that by supporting activism at all, PBHA was excluding some of its most vocal supporters. For years, many of the volunteers of PBHA were more conservative students who felt that service fulfilled the obligations of a life of religious conviction or of privilege. These students often felt that one or another of PBHA's constituent programs went too far: PBHA's Committee on Economic Change aided in the formation of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW); and PBHA's Migrant Farm Workers Committee pushed Harvard Dining Services to boycott grapes.

This debate--over whether to be activist--was ablaze in the PBHA Cabinet throughout the entire Vietnam war, but the range has been burning on low ever since. For the first time in more than a decade, it seems were cooking again, and it isn't just because grapes are back.

With the acceptance of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) into PBHA this semester, the question of political activism is once again at the fore. This semester, PSLM has participated in protests of Guess? and raised awareness of the actions of the Cardinal Health Corporation by pressuring a second Business School professor.


This has enraged the "stop it all nows." Kevin A. Shapiro '99, in a Harvard Salient piece on Oct. 27, argues that political advocacy for change does not fall under the rubric of social action and therefore should not be done at PBHA. After all, goes his reasoning, PBHA is a service organization and should stay apolitical. Alex S. Herzlinger '00, son of the Business School professor whom PSLM has targeted, argued similarly that the new trend toward social action isn't part of the mission of PBHA.

At the same time, "must do more" types in the activist circles of Harvard-Radcliffe have called for individual PBHA programs to compel volunteers to think harder about the deeper social problems at work in the communities they serve. They have decried what they see as a lack of deeper consideration in some programs, where volunteers teach, tutor, mentor and otherwise serve without concern for healing the wounds they bandage.

So who's right? First, one fact: social action is not only clearly written into PBHA's mission statement, it is an integral part of the organization's history. And now the PBHA Cabinet has accepted the PSLM, recognizing the immense potential of student groups like PSLM not only to educate us about issues in the world and prepare us to deal with them, but to effect real changes now.

That said, there is truth to some of the arguments made by students on both sides. PBHA should never become a partisan organization. Our internal policy of not officially endorsing political issues, candidates or causes goes part of the way toward preventing this tendency, but it is essential that we continue to provide support for a spectrum of groups. And there certainly is room within PBHA both for programs that endorse activism and for older programs that help volunteers think more reflectively about the forces they see at work through their programs. Reflection programs held during the summer, where students work with facilitators trained by Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles '50, have helped to accomplish this goal.

However, these conflicts need not exist. When PBHA is strong, as it presently is, the organization itself demonstrates that we don't need to have warring tribes. Through participation in the settlement house movement in the 1920s, during the activism of the 1970s, and with the new college volunteerism of the 1990s, PBHA and a host of other public service programs at Harvard and Radcliffe have attempted to bring the "must do mores" and the "stop it all nows" together. Some programs can accomplish this by including both service and action (the Small Claims Advisory Service simultaneously provides advice on negotiating small claims court to and lobbies for structural change of the collections system). But the mere presence both of programs emphasizing service and programs emphasizing action under the same roof fosters an understanding of both approaches and is the only hope of finding the most pragmatic, idealistic and effective means for social change.

There will always be Harvard and Radcliffe students who believe that PBHA has strayed too far to the left or to the right. PBHA has been most vital at the times when all students have felt that they could work there and argue peaceably with one another over how best to improve our little community at Harvard, and the larger one beyond it. Whether they teach a class of 5th graders, poster for a rally, find housing for a welfare recipient, or chain themselves to a statue in protest, I hope that they will act on behalf of others without necessarily feeling branded as liberal, conservative, activist, or anything they don't necessarily want to be.

This said, plenty of people should and will participate in public service or social action because they feel it helps them live up to their ideals, liberal or conservative, activist or otherwise. But there are good-hearted people voting for grapes and against them, and there are people who will both do service and be activists.

For those of you who are part of our community for at least a few more years, I hope that you will always feel that you must do more for the causes you believe in. However, what is even more important and much more elusive is an ability that PBHA did not have in 1969 and that we all continue to seek: the patience and sensitivity to work with those who disagree deeply with you.

Roy E. Bahat '98 is the president of PBHA.

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