Peter D. Davis ’12 is known to many at Harvard as the “funny guy,” as a member of the comedy show On Harvard Time, the co-president of Harvard College’s Stand-Up Comic Society (HCSUCS), and one half of last year’s joke ticket for the UC Presidency.
Davis, who ran as the vice presidential pick of Collin A. Jones ’12, was frequently spotted holding a large felt board with three pillars, representing the campaign’s three-pronged platform—democracy, safety, and the 21st century—while Jones donned a Tigger suit and wielded a pogo stick.
“I wanted to have some original memories of things that happened here,” says Davis. “You have one college life to live so might as well go big.”
Like many other Harvard students, Davis has a laundry list of extracurricular achievements. What distinguishes Davis, aside from his Elmo shirts and broad, toothy grin, is his involvement in projects including Harvard Thinks Big and the recent Occupy The Facts movement.
Behind their hilarious antics and comical YouTube videos, there was a meaningful message to the campaign: “I hope that [Collin and I] were entertaining, and that in our satire, we’ve inspired the UC to be more accessible to the students,” says Davis.
Although he dabbled in a number of things, Davis advocates a “push back against solely a culture of joining.”
“Joining things your freshman year is one part of the Harvard experience that educates you and allows for the seniors to teach you wisdom,” says Davis. “But another part can be creating, transforming, and re-imagining; you don’t have to accept our present institutional forms but you can re-imagine them.”
One of the things that Davis created, together with Derek Flanzraich ’10 and the organizational help of the College Events Board, is Harvard Thinks Big, which brings together 10 Harvard professors to talk about their ideas.
“I wanted to inspire people that school is not just about grades and getting a job, but also about thinking hard about the great ideas of our time that are coming out of Harvard,” says Davis. “Exciting ideas can be the sexy thing; it doesn’t have to be drinking parties and football.”
The project took 16 months to materialize. Still, Davis sees Harvard Thinks Big as a move in the right direction.Harvard needs to be an ideas-friendly environment, where we shouldn’t be afraid of the new and untested.
“We should have a spirit of democratic experimentalism on campus,” Davis says. “The churn of new ideas and organizations is always a good thing, even though 80 percent of them are going to fail. Eventually you’ll find keepers that really make life better.”
Davis spent the first 18 years of his life in Falls Church, Va., a small town outside of Washington D.C., where he was immersed in a tradition of activism. His grandfather was a part of FDR’s presidential campaign. His father was a public-interest anthropologist and an activist on indigenous rights issues.
“We always emphasize participating in your community and engaging to make the world more just,” says Davis. “My mom always told me that any average citizen is as important as the president of the United States, so you have to treat everyone with dignity.”
At Harvard, the Currier House resident concentrates in government, and focuses on issues of civic life, institutional innovation, and “civic creativity,” a term he uses to denote the art of imagining possibilities for our society.
Earlier this month, Davis helped jump-start Occupy the Facts, a burgeoning student organization that aims to provide the resources and public policy research surrounding the demands of the Occupy movement, making them engaging and accessible to a broader audience.
“We’ve been inspired by the Occupy movement’s call to be active citizens and to not let a certain subset of the country run the country,” Davis says.
The group, which initially consisted of five founding members in the senior class, now has around 50 people on its mailing list. Out of them, 25 are working on creating public policy fact sheets, which will then be converted into informational packages, such as infographics, YouTube videos, and a puppet show.
“At worst, we can educate ourselves and the Harvard community on some of the aspects of the demands made by the occupiers,” Davis says. “The middle goal is to help distribute information to a wider group about the movement.”
Davis considers himself an occupier, and keeps a level head as he ponders the movement.
“When Occupy Harvard makes the claim that Harvard was complicit in the financial crisis, I’m open to hearing the reasoning, but eventually they have to do the hard work of educated comprehension of what their claims are,” says Davis. “We have a duty as citizens when making claims to not just drum up anger, but also to educate.”
While Davis calls on the administration to consider alternatives to extreme measures such as closing off the Yard, he ultimately doesn’t aspire to be a critic, but rather a creator of solutions.
“The Peter Davis School of Social Change is about building things that matter,” says Max D. Novendstern ’12. “While our peers are sitting in tents and chanting, Peter is doing hard, serious, obscure work required to create stuff that really helps people. Publicity isn’t his goal; he wants to create institutions that last.”
After graduation next year, Davis is working full-time on CommonPlace, a web platform for local community engagement that he created with Novendstern. The website, which Davis calls “Facebook for local community,” has been launched in 10 cities and aims to help people get connected to their neighbors.
As his penultimate semester at Harvard is coming to a close, Davis hopes that the legacy of his class will be to prove to younger and future students that Harvard is a platform for creativity and solutions to public problems.
“Don’t feel like your only option is to climb the hierarchy of previously created organizations; you can join in organizations and transform it, or you can even create new organizations,” Davis says. “The barriers to entry for making ripples on campus are not as high as you think they are.”