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In the spring of 2011, graduating senior Kenzie Bok ’11, a former president of the Institute of Politics, Marshall Scholar, and lifelong Bostonian, reflected on the purpose of a Harvard education in a Crimson op-ed titled “Veritas and Us.”
“To respond to the freshman-year anxiety as to whether each of us ‘deserved’ to get into Harvard: I won’t know until I do something with it to serve others,” she wrote.
“So what kind of life should we lead?” Bok continued. “As I consider my own future, I wonder if I should spend my time shuttling between intellectual inquiry, political activity, and direct service, or try to settle on an intermediate location somewhere on the plane defined by those three points.”
Twelve years later, Bok is an outgoing Boston City Councilor, a recent lecturer on housing policy in Harvard’s Social Studies program, and an incoming head — or “Administrator” — of the Boston Housing Authority. In all these efforts, Bok seems to have kept the same spirit in her career of public service.
In an interview with The Crimson, Bok described the formative influence of her time at Harvard — both as a student and lecturer — on her career, including both her policy and her political philosophy.
After graduating from College, Bok went on to study intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. She began researching American political philosopher John Rawls while at Harvard, which would later give her the tools she said she now uses as a policymaker and administrator.
“A very simplistic way of talking about one of John Rawls’ core principles is the idea that when you’re doing policymaking, you should have an initial instinct of, ‘What’s the impact of this on the least well-off set of folks in the situation?’” Bok said. “There’s actually a ton of undergirding and thinking about why that should be your instinct.”
“That’s also a very useful mental tool when thinking about actual policy problems,” she added.
Following her time in England, Bok returned to Harvard for a program on housing at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, before then becoming a lecturer on housing policy and political theory in the undergraduate Social Studies program.
In a class she taught about applying distributive justice — “who should get what and how, and what makes that fair and equal,” as Bok describes it — to housing, students analyzed existing housing policies for their final projects, which at one point were presented to members of the Boston Housing Authority itself.
The BHA, which Bok will lead after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 appointed her to the role in April, manages the city’s public housing stock and its housing voucher program while promoting fair housing throughout the city. At the time she was a Harvard lecturer, Bok also worked as a senior adviser to the BHA.
Bok often talked over policies she was implementing there to her class, particularly the values undergirding them.
“If it’s just like, ‘This person needs that thing,’ you might give everybody vouchers and let them end up wherever they want in the private market,” she said in reference to housing. “Which then might exclude areas — and you might be like, ‘That’s fine, because the people needed housing and they have a roof now, right?’”
“But if you’re actually like, ‘No, no, it’s actually very important to our democracy that people of different incomes be able to live among each other and participate in the same local political world,’ then you become more focused on ways that you’re going to actually anchor that housing subsidy in place so that people can stay in the community,” she continued.
As a result, Bok has worked on policies like adjusting payment maximums for housing vouchers to keep consistent with the average rent of the zip code they are used in.
Assessing the value of her time as a Harvard undergraduate, Bok said extracurricular involvement in the Harvard College Democrats, IOP — where as president she oversaw a student budget of $60,000 — and other clubs was “very good training” for life post-graduation.
“A thing that’s really parallel about undergraduate extracurricular activities and the campaign world is that you’re sort of forming a group of people and standing up a project that almost always is less than a year from start to completion,” Bok said.
Though she credits her time at Harvard for helping her to develop her professional skills, Bok cautioned students against overlooking their academic experience.
“What I always tell Harvard students is, ‘You’ll have your whole life to work, and you only have these years — and maybe a few more as I did — to really study,’” she said. “Make sure that you make time for the life of the mind.”
—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.
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