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Bite the Hand That Feeds You

Or, my 142,000 reasons to speak

By Reina A.E. Gattuso

If you are reading this as a student of Harvard University, something went terribly right.

You worked hard. Your family supported you. Your teacher encouraged you to apply. You had the uncommon grit to push ahead when no one believed in you.

As people who are lucky enough to be here, we sometimes forget that most of the time, for most people, the world does not work.

The world is an ethical emergency.

This year has seen a lot of those emergencies: racialized police shootings of unarmed people of color. The catastrophic effects of human-induced climate change.

Here at Harvard, we’re learning to be people with the power to impact these emergencies. To worsen them. Or to help make them better.

I worry about this literally all the time.

Because Harvard is not outside these emergencies. Harvard is a community, an industry, and a political actor. The work we do here, the communities we make here, matter beyond these brick walls. And in the past year, a lot of us have taken sometimes-controversial action to try to address these ethical emergencies right here at home.

Some of us organized a #BlackLivesMatter protest at Primal Scream. Some of us founded a magazine for racial justice. Some of us are currently participating in a week-long blockade of Massachusetts Hall, urging the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

These are causes—#BlackLivesMatter, racial justice, and climate justice—that I think most of us are behind. But some of us have felt uncomfortable about the tactics activists use to address them.

That makes sense.

Harvard has a history of rabble-rousers: civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protesters; abolitionists; Thoreau.

But the incredible odds of even getting into this place—the competition, the need to achieve—can encourage a certain type of person. A certain set of skills.

We know the stereotype: Get the grade. Toe the line. Put it on the resume. Speak up, but not too loudly. Don’t offend.

For those of us whose path to Harvard was full of familial, financial, emotional, and academic support, it can be hard to viscerally experience the ways the world hurts people. That doesn’t mean we don’t care; it means we need to exert even greater empathy to make our ethical convictions and our actions line up.

And for those of us whose path to Harvard felt nearly impossible, raising hell is risky. We’ve seen the way the world marginalizes our families, our communities, and our peers. And now that we have the opportunity for success, we’re not going to throw it away. We’re not going to risk being handled with racialized violence by police. Or risk press coverage that might lose us a job. Or stand, hyper-visible, in front of an onslaught of our drunk peers.

Often, it’s not that we’re risk-averse—it’s that we’re grateful. Harvard has changed our lives and the lives of our families. That’s an amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring fact.

We don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.

In the past four years, I have received over $120,000 in scholarship aid from Harvard University. I have received $8,000 in travel grants, $10,000 in on-campus jobs, $4,000 in summer employment from a Harvard-related agency, and an incalculable amount of free food.

$142,000. 142,000 reasons to be grateful. 142,000 toes not to step on. 142,000 reasons to follow the rules.

Sometimes, those $142,000 choke me.

It’s funny. The better I do here—the more confident I feel, the more my work is recognized—the scarier public dissent becomes. I worry I’ll lose what progress I have made, what honors I have accrued. I worry my home will reject me.

The better we do and the more successful we are, the bigger a stake we have in the world as it is.

But that also creates a bigger responsibility to imagine the world as it might be. To challenge the structures, the systems, the institutions that harm humans. To build better ones.

Harvard has invested $142,000 in my education. That’s a $142,000 wager that I have something different, something special, something wonderful to offer the world.

Whether or not you’re on financial aid, Harvard has made a similar bet on you.

And we’re not going to make good on that bet as long as we are too timid to act on our convictions. In ways that are unexpected. In ways that are unruly. In ways that piss people off.

Act even when that means challenging the institution that bet on us in the first place.

Bite the hand that feeds you.

Bite it with anger. Bite it with weird erotic undertones. But most of all, bite it with love.

Because, as frustrated as I sometimes get with Harvard, as much as I want to run around with my boobs out, and barricade buildings, and draw mustaches on all the busts in Annenberg, and drape John Harvard with rainbow flags, I am still in love.

A thrill still swoops through my body when I walk through Harvard Yard, the same feeling I got when I was a child in the park and I swung so high that I touched the sky with my feet.

Because it’s Harvard where I made my closest friends. Harvard where I fell in love. Harvard where I lost my virginity after brunch on a Tuesday. Harvard where I drank Ciroc at parties wearing fur, with cigarettes dangling from my fingertips, grinding with half-known men. And it is Harvard where I have sat in the sunlight in front of Massachusetts Hall urging divestment from fossil fuels.

Harvard taught me to be angry at injustice. Harvard taught me to listen. Harvard taught me to talk back. Harvard taught me how to know when Harvard is wrong. And Harvard gave me the tools to change it.

Reina A.E. Gattuso ‘15 is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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