Let’s talk. There’s a conversation I’ve been waiting for. When Jenny Choi penned “Dear IOP,” I admit, I secretly thought, yes–maybe we’ll finally have that conversation. Two weeks later, dismayed, I write this piece. You see, it seems to me that in these past few days we at the IOP have reduced Choi’s argument to the obvious: the IOP is not a student organization. But I don’t think Choi intended to start some blame game.
In reducing Choi’s argument, we’ve missed the point of what she was trying to say. As Choi herself affirmed to the Crimson: “…the umbrella goal, which might be hazy, is to really reflect on the way that we have set up politics and public service to be defined at Harvard.” In that vein of thought, I write this piece in an attempt to hopefully bring more structure to a rather nebulous but needed conversation.
The Elephant in the Room: What was left unsaid in Choi’s piece
Choi observes in her piece that many of us do not even question how the “wheel” (of politics, in this case) is made at the Institute. I have to agree. In my experience, most of my peers don’t question how security was organized for Vice President Joe Biden (thanks Carrie Devine and your awesome team); they just show up and hang on to his words. Most people thumb through the pamphlets they find on their seats at each forum not knowing it was Meredith Blake who fought with the copier to get them there. A lot of us have frequented the occasional study group without ever thanking Eric Anderson or acknowledging that Alysha Tierney printed the posters that told us where to go. We’ve gotten internships and research assistantships that have brought new mentors and opportunities into our lives without ever dropping by Amy Howell or Sadie Polen’s offices to say thank you. And these are only some of the staff members that make the IOP what it is.
My point is this: I don’t think there was some implication in Choi’s piece that staff was the problem but if you read as much, let me emphasize this: staff is not the problem. Staff is in fact the biggest asset that the Institute has. They are the reason that you get the unparalleled programming that you do at the IOP. I know this because one of the staff members at the Institute, Laura Simolaris, made sure that I never dropped the ball when I ran the Women’s Initiative in Leadership and most of the members who were a part of my program didn’t even know her name. This simple fact elucidates what I think is a reality of the IOP: staff members, frankly, are often the unsung heroes of the place. They are not gunning for the next election cycle or a leadership position. They don’t even need you to know their names.
This brings me to my second point. If we have a problem with the IOP I feel strongly that it is not on staff’s shoulders that our blame should lay: it is on ourselves.
So what is the problem? Is the IOP in fact broken?
Choi’s article argued that the IOP suffered from a dearth of creative programming, a resistance to reform, and a narrow conception of politics. Part of this, she argued was attributable to the unique institutional design of the place. But we have to be a little more nuanced here. There are two other realities of the IOP that we have to keep in mind. First, the IOP caters to many different constituencies, from the Director’s Intern who’s never set foot in the IOP to the casual one-time forum-goer or one-semester program member, to the die-hard politico, the kid who sits in the student office and takes a nap in between study group sessions. Second, the relationships that undergird the Institutes range from those between the IOP board and staff; staff members and their assigned committee chairs; committee chairs and the Executive team; and committee chairs and their members.
Most members of the IOP are aware that the place has a complex and intricate bureaucracy but they are not sure how they fit into that bureaucracy. So, it was not surprising to me that many readers–myself included–found ourselves nodding along to Choi’s article. We sense the complacency because it is hard from where we sit to see what is going on across the Institute. Let me explain.
It is hard to know that the IOP offers creative programming when you’ve only done Forum, for example, and aren’t benefitting from the “game-changing” public service initiative the IOP launched this fall for seniors like me. You won’t see the fruits of two new programs–The Politics of Race and Ethnicity (PRE) and the Campaign and Advocacy Skills Programs—if you’re a freshman who’s just joined and can’t compare what the IOP was like before both even existed. The fact that these new ideas have come to the fore and have been implemented is evidence enough that the IOP is not wholly resistant to reform and is capable of creative programming.
It’s likewise easy to think that the IOP’s definition of politics boils down to some ritzy affair with swanky dinners and not much action if all you’ve ever attended is a Director’s Dinner. Indeed, for a lot of people, the IOP comes up when they think about going and seeing a head of state in the forum or a cool speaker in a study group or even when they pick up the newspaper to read about the recent millennial polling that HPOP has done. It’s a bit harder to see the IOP members who go off campus each week to teach CIVICS to middle schoolers, the ones who tutor members of the Harvard community for their upcoming citizenship exam, or the members who, having developed a policy proposal, go to Beacon Hill to talk it over with legislators. Often, these IOPers are doing direct service–you don’t see them because they are out in the community.
Defining Politics and Public Service at Harvard
There are 14 different programs at the IOP, each of which has a different interpretation of the word “politics.” In reality, then, the IOP itself offers quite a broad definition of politics; it is we who reduce it to some narrow conception. It is we who allow the assets and resources that the Institute offers to inspire complacency when really our thinking should be–with all of these resource at our disposal, what change can we make? To Choi’s point, that kind of conversation and that kind of thinking is missing from the place. So then the question is–how do we infuse that kind of spirit into the IOP?
First, we bring all the relevant voices to the table. The IOP town hall two weeks ago was a start but there were notable people missing from the room: staff members, board members, non-members. At the Institute, we often fall into a habit of hypothesizing why people don’t come to the IOP. This strategy is lazy. If we want to know why, we have to start engaging these communities and asking them.
I believe everyone has a place at the IOP; everyone has a role to play when it comes to public service. This does not mean though that everyone has to come to the IOP. The reality is students at Harvard are busy. This may very well be the reason that more students don’t come to the IOP. We might not be doing anything wrong at all. But we won’t know what is keeping some students away from the IOP until we start asking.
Second, we need to be more transparent about the many relationships that keep the Institute going. Committee members often don’t know what SAC (the student advisory committee) is. When I was a freshman, I used to joke that I thought it was “Big Brother.” In any case, educating our members about the bureaucracy of the Institute will help us to build pathways for communication that don’t currently exist or are otherwise underutilized: those between staff members and ordinary members, members and board members, etc. Communication flows through the Institute are often hierarchical where they should be free-flowing. It will be the responsibility of the next Executive team to change this.
Third, we have to really have an open conversation about what the chair position of each committee entails. If we want creative programming, we need for elections to be about bringing new ideas to the table. We need an Executive team that, at the start of the new year, holds chairs responsible for a strategic plan and vision–of not just what they are going to keep doing but also of what they are going to change and make better. These plans need to be communicated and fleshed out; they need to be shared with committee members and staff; and this–this is the hard part–they need to have timelines that are followed through.
This campaign season leads with an uncontested ticket for the top two Executive student positions at the IOP. This means that where we might have otherwise had a campaign, we have the rare opportunity to have a leadership that comes in and starts an honest conversation–without the politics. This may seem counterintuitive for an Institute whose last name is Politics, but it also might just be the very thing we need. If we love this Institute as we allege we do, we will not brush Choi’s article under the table, we will debate it, we will talk about it, and we will make changes.
The question now is, will we, as a community, do the hard work of looking in the mirror?
So IOP, let’s talk.