Getting Out of the Ivory Tower

In the confines of the ever-so-convenient Harvard Square, it’s easy to believe that knowing all of the homeless people outside of CVS on a first name basis constitutes social engagement.
By Nicole Savdie

In the confines of the ever-so-convenient Harvard Square, it’s easy to believe that knowing all of the homeless people outside of CVS on a first name basis constitutes social engagement. But the department of African and African American Studies is actually venturing outside the ivory tower and establishing an education that transcends the ten-mile radius of Crimson territory.


The Social Engagement Initiative is a program that allows students to take the theories they have learned in the classroom and apply that knowledge in the field in a way that has a social or political impact. Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the chair of African and African American Studies, explains why she spearheaded the program when she became chair of the department in 2006. “What we were trying to do was to wed a very sophisticated, rigorous, intellectual program—very much a Harvard academic course of study—to something experiential.”

In venturing into the experiential side of the program, students find that—gasp—the textbooks and professors aren’t always right. Overachieving nerds that we are, this may seem like sacrilege, but it is in this that the program finds its unique value. “You have to learn if what you’re reading in books pans out,” says Professor John Mugane, director of the African Language Program.

When Darryl W. Finkton ’10 and Sangu J. Delle ’10 set out to improve water sanitation in Agyemanti, they found that much of it didn’t pan out. Despite its success in Kenya, Professor Michael Kremer’s model for bringing water to East Africa was not feasible in Agyemanti. No matter how cutting edge and brilliant the use of solar panels sounded at first, they realized that once those panels broke, no one would be there to fix them. Higginbotham concludes, “Some of what we do academically doesn’t always apply to the real world.”

However, this is not to say that the academic side of the social engagement program is downplayed at all. Higginbotham goes further, saying, “If anything it’s probably strengthened because the experiential causes you to rethink what you learned.”

Professor Diane L. Hendrix, who is teaching Making Media Across Cultures in the African American Department for the first time this year, notes the ability of students to apply academic theory in the real world. “Students take this class...and learn about the shifting media landscape from traditional TV broadcasters to the new media of the internet and the influence of YouTube and individual producers on culture,” she says. “They also learn what’s new in development theory and newer approaches to collaborative change in developing nations. Students bring that theoretical knowledge to the media pieces (video, web elements, blogs) they create.”

Students preparing to embark on a social engagement project look at the subject from every angle, integrating a wide range of viewpoints. “What we offer is a team of perspectives in this department to our students,” says Higginbotham, using a group of students working with Haitian Creole diabetes patients as an example. “They have to work with John Mugane’s African Language Program because they have to get the Haitian Creole under their belt; they have to work with an anthropologist so that they can get the ethnographic skills; and they have to get a cultural or historical perspective just to understand what are the conditions in Haiti, what’s the culture that people came out of historically.”


This cross-disciplinary feature is most obvious in Darryl and Sangu’s partnership, which brings together the expertise of an neurobiology concentrator and an African Studies concentrator. In addition to this combination of knowledge, Darryl and Sangu went through the African Language Program and met with a variety of experts in African anthropology, culture, and history. Higginbotham recalls with pride when Darryl introduced himself to an Agyemanti town meeting in their native tongue of Twi and received a round of applause. “They trusted him. There was an openness.”

Darryl returns the love. “I think she’s constantly trying to make something innovative. She’s always thinking of better ways for us to get involved and understand that it’s not just about having a great job. Giving back can be a part of your lifestyle.”

Darryl is just one example of the social entrepreneurs that Higginbotham hopes to breed through this program. This summer, Oluwadara A. Johnson ’10 launched a camp for young girls in Nigeria to learn the value of education, enlisting the help of a Nollywood film star to discuss issues of self-esteem. Cherie N. Rivers, a graduate student in the African and African American Studies department, is currently trying to write a rigorous scholarly dissertation while also upholding the aims of the social engagement initiative.

“You don’t have to lead a bifurcated life,” she explains. The social engagement program can add to the list of glossy careers that Harvard students traditionally take after college—doctors, lawyers, etc.—by creating entirely new professions.

However, despite the inventiveness of the program, Higginbotham feels that the African and African American department is simply going back to its roots. “We feel like we are fulfilling a mission that was inherent to the whole call for African American and African studies as we see it today. We feel that we up to a mission that was part of our founding call...” The student protestors of the ’60s and ’70s did not just want to learn about the black contribution to the world and American society; they also wanted knowledge they could take back to their communities. This is precisely what Harvard is now allowing students like Darryl and Sangu to do.

“I don’t know if there’s many schools where a department can latch onto an ideal like that,” says Darryl.

So maybe the ivory tower is just one of those misconceptions concocted by the haters (read, Yalies). Professor Hendrix seems to think so. “I asked someone what’s the difference between MIT students and Harvard students…she said that Harvard students seem to be more aware of culture and society and how everything fits in.”

Whether the program is a novel step toward revamping academia or a return to the African and African American Studies Department’s roots, it is taking education into what Darryl calls the “reality realm.” If there is an ivory tower, Professor Higginbotham is tearing it down.

In The Meantime