The 10th Annual Public Interested Conference took place in the first week of February drawing in students, faculty, and staff from the Harvard community to engage on how to build a better world. The virtual format through Zoom did not take away from the significance of the occasion, especially as guest speaker, Van Jones opened with the words: “We need each other, we have to fight for each other.”
Though the CNN host has many titles and an impressive body of work as both a Emmy Award-winning producer and New York Times best-selling author, Jones focused on the grit involved in his work with the criminal justice system through REFORM Alliance. The organization was forged through a collaborative effort with leaders in business, government, entertainment, and other diverse sectors of society for the common mission of advancing prison reform and eliminating outdated laws that target individuals through probation and parole.
As a relatively new organization, Jones shared that REFORM Alliance was successful in shutting down a few prisons and firing one police officer. He admitted in his talk that it might seem like slow progress in the midst of necessary change, but the effort to even accomplish that much had been enormously difficult. Still, this work must be done despite the struggle, to truly engage in public service initiatives, we “need to reach across to help someone not from your community”—to offer support despite not having an intimate shared experience because shared humanity is enough to merit it.
“Your worst day is better than Dr. King’s best day,” Jones reminded the attendees. “Your worst day is twenty times better” than that of Civil Rights Activists who were not applauded for their efforts during their lives.
The Breakout Discussion Tracks that followed such an inspiring keynote were varied, from immigration reform, to public and global health, to even housing access and food security. In the environmental justice session, Katie Miller, ’98, Deputy Vice President for International Operations at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) acknowledged that sustainability “is a white space.” In her work, she has found that the archetype of environmental justice reform needs to “bring in people of all backgrounds.” Li Murphy, Community Scientist at BioBus added to this point by explaining that not all scientists are “locked up in their ivory towers,” and there needs to be a level field where everyone puts in the groundwork. Local communities are powerful, Miller affirmed, sharing how those native to affected places will often have the wisdom and experience for creating a path for fundamental change.
The conclusion of the conference addressed updates on campus public service with Julie Reuben and Travis Lovett, detailing the ways in which Harvard continues to push for change in every area that the breakouts discussed. As uncertainty for the future continues to stretch on, this event was a gathering that encouraged its attendees to fight for public service, even through the harder moments, because change is worth it.