They blew smoke in our faces. A row of black-clad demigods puffing cigarettes and T.S. Eliot references. The undergraduate magazine's open house was a scene staged to intimidate. For me, whose public school poetry library consisted of three battered copies of Whitman, the message felt clear: You cannot make it here.
That was three years ago. In the intervening time, my peers have worked like crazy to alter what many of us--especially members from public secondary schools, members of color, and members from middle or working class families--felt to be a hostile space. I know we're not the only group on campus to have to address these kinds of issues. And I know we've got a lot more to do. So as a new semester begins and many of us gear up for another comp process--another competitive, months-long audition for membership to campus extracurricular organizations--I want us to all make one promise: Don't be a dick.
Most of us don't come into this school wanting to be dicks. Most of us, personally, are not dicks. But I think a lot of undergraduate social life here is structured around institutional, well, dickishness. Comp processes can embody this. At their best, comps are for learning: Comp Crimson multimedia, and you get a crash course in photography. Comp WHRB and you're basically Terry Gross. But too often, we confuse the normal pain of learning processes with social and political pain that we impose: Smoke-blowing. Throne-sitting. Social politicking that relies on elite racial, class, or gender norms. Demands of deference to an organizational ethos.
Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between these two types of pain. And sometimes, it's easy to say well, hey, maybe a certain amount of intimidation is necessary to group formation.
Here's the thing: The way we structure community here doesn't just affect us in this place, at this moment. It affects the kinds of powerful, scarily driven, sleep-deprived, sometimes demagogic people we as an institution are putting out into the world. That's a big ethical question. And our current answer suffers from a serious collective dearth of creativity. We think we're people with big ideas. But if we can't imagine models of community that don't involve intimidation, how on earth are we going to write novels, reform healthcare, make more just economic systems? If we're dicks here, how are we going to keep from being even bigger dicks out in the world?
This is a love letter to the labor--and it is labor, a long, slow slog--of creating spaces that welcome and empower, not intimidate and coerce. Of spaces that relentlessly address the way social power affects our daily lives. Because open spaces enable people to think better, to love freer, to do their work. Because when we don't do this, we lose people.
We lose people who are most vulnerable to social injustice in the world at large: to racism, sexism, class inequality, homo- or transphobia. We lose people who don't or won't or can't play the game. We lose some of the most unruly people, the gutsiest, the most critical, people with things to say. That's creativity we can't afford to lose. Not as a community. Not as a world.
Here's a challenge: This semester, design your comp for the most vulnerable person in the room. For the nervous freshman who really needs a community, or to the poet whose secondary school didn't have poetry books. Design your comp for you at your most anxious. Design your comp for your younger self. And I don't mean "dumb it down." I don't mean "lower your standards." I mean cut the bullshit that makes people feel like they're less valuable because of who they are, where they come from, or because they are younger, less organizationally powerful, or on the "outside."
Ask yourself: Does your comp require students to choose between a part time job, school work, and joining your organization? Do you offer financial aid? Do you say racist things or make cultural assumptions? Do you assume everyone is cisgender or heterosexual? Do you make sexual "jokes" to and about compers? Do you account for differences in secondary school preparation? Do you require compers to make shows of obeisance to the organization?
It's my senior spring. I've got a lot of thesis to write, a lot of cuties to mack with, and a lot of Zumba moves to break out at First Chance dance. But sometimes, I'm still anxious about this place: socially anxious, class anxious, anxious about winter sidewalks and smoke-filled rooms, frigid days when you slip on ice you didn't even know was there and feel like everyone's laughing at you.
Some of this angst naturally goes along with being 22 and a fan of Lena Dunham. But we can change a lot of it.
Because I've got another feeling about Harvard. It surged through my belly on the Megabus coming up I-95, at that moment when we crested Cambridge. Anxiety, yeah. But also a feeling of possibility. Like maybe this is a place where we can imagine different worlds. Where we can make them. And that felt like a kind of homecoming. The Charles River spread beneath the highway. The glimmer of Lowell bell tower standing on its tip toes, its blue a concentrated slice of sky.