My Surprising Harvard Experience – Teaching Organizing 101

Published on June 22, 2022.

In 1993 I received a Public Policy Fellowship from Harvard University. The Vice President of Harvard, John Shattuck, knew me from an award I had received honoring unsung heroes from the Petra Foundation. He suggested I apply for the Harvard fellowship, to be followed by becoming a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe College. It was a paid position, so I was able to find a place to live and moved up to Cambridge, MA for the year.

A Rocky Beginning

The other Public Policy Fellow (there were just two of us) informed me that this fellowship was a post-doctorate position. I didn’t know what she wanted me to say! Clearly, she knew I hadn’t graduated from college, so I just restated the obvious. “I only have a high school degree.” She said, “I know,” in that tone of voice I knew. We Southerners use it when we say, “Oh, bless her heart,” in a certain tone that means something is VERY wrong.

But I was warmly welcomed by folks at the Bunting Institute. A fellow organizer, Jane Midgley, who had been a Bunting Fellow, was quick to find me and reach out, as well as Florence Ladd, the director of the Bunting Institute. John Shattuck also welcomed me and set up regular lunches to check in with me.

Going to Harvard was a culture shock! One of the hardest things was that everyone was so deep into academic language, I often had a hard time understanding. No one meant to shut me out, but it just felt like a huge wall that I kept bumping into many times a day.

Teaching is Like Organizing

As part of my Public Policy fellowship, I was supposed to teach a class. I could choose what it would be about, how many students could enroll, and who would be in the classroom. I decided to teach “basic organizing 101” for students who came from low-income backgrounds and wanted to take their knowledge back to their community to help make positive change.

I had worked with a lot of college interns at Piedmont Peace Project, including some from Harvard. Even though they might have been at Harvard on scholarship, I knew the interns were often unprepared to return to their communities and use their education without sounding elitist. I saw how they needed to learn how to rethink to go back to their roots.

I limited the class to 12 students. To attend the class, they were required to write an essay about what they hoped to do when they returned to their communities in the summer or after college. I was inundated by more than 100 applications! I chose 13 and more than half the students were from other countries.

I decided to run the two-plus hours evening class just like I would organize in North Carolina. I brought food to the first class, of course, and began by asking people to tell a story about where they came from and who they were. Some needed prompting, like who their parents were and what they did, what it was like growing up, what they wished for and how they hoped to help their communities.

About halfway through introducing themselves and their family stories, one man raised his hand and asked, “When is the class going to start? Telling our stories is taking so long.” I explained the “class” part would happen in the last 15 minutes. (He didn’t realize that we were already in the most important part of the learning.)

Getting to the Point

Fifteen minutes before class ended, I asked the students, “What have you learned?” As a few people started to tell us, more students began to realize how “introductions” was more than being polite. They began to see how they could use this technique to connect people, build knowledge and trust.

As the classes unfolded, they began to share more and more of themselves. We explored why I asked for volunteers to bring food to every meeting; people realized that this was an actual organizing technique. Another benefit was how the food could reflect the various backgrounds in the classroom, building more community.

Students also began to share their struggles with classism, and how they found it difficult to fit in at Harvard. I found I could coach people who were feeling this way to find their voices and begin to speak out confidently. It was as comforting and powerful to me as it was for them.

As the semester progressed, each student took on a project that represented what they wanted to do when they went back home. Pretty soon the class began to build real trust and love for each other. They all started going out to a local pub as soon as class ended. I heard back that much of their learning happened outside the classroom, talking and processing together, maybe more than in class!

A Fast and Effective Technique

Using story as introductions in groups is very effective to get people to bond and connect more quickly than anything I have ever done. It builds community. I knew I had accomplished what I set out to do with Basic Organizing 101, and the students could take these new organizing strategies with them.

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