The costs of inequality: Across Harvard, efforts to improve lives

March 22, 2016 at 8:30 am
Programs work to aid individuals, opening vistas that many in struggling communities have never seen. Illustration by Kathleen M.G. Howlett.

Last in a series on inequality, one of America’s most vexing problems, examining Harvard’s ground-level efforts to make a difference in the surrounding communities, and beyond.

On a cold winter morning in 1848, Edward Everett, then president of Harvard, noticed a chilled freshman lacking an overcoat.

According to the Annals of the Harvard Class of 1852, the freshman received $30 to buy a coat. Renamed the Winter Coat Fund, the program still exists and may be Harvard’s oldest effort to help the underprivileged.

Some analysts of America’s deep schisms involving inequality say that large-scale solutions are needed to combat problems nationally. But others say that fundamental fixes can best begin locally, in communities, with programs that improve life neighborhood by neighborhood. Change the difficult conditions under which people struggle, they say, and you start to change their lives for the better.

A number of Harvard-based programs take that advice to heart, and some have done so for more than a century.

In 1904, a group of students founded the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) to honor a Harvard graduate and preacher who helped the poor. The student-run group now hosts 80 programs that involve a whopping 1,500 students in public and community service.

Various Harvard departments and Schools have long embraced efforts to help surrounding communities. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, for instance, has provided free legal representation to poor defendants since 1913.

Over time, the scope of University-affiliated programs has grown dramatically, along with their reach. They include free medical screenings through the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Family Van program in Dorchester, the tutoring and mentoring of Boston high school students through the Crimson Summer Academy, and efforts by Harvard-affiliated Partners In Health to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, tuberculosis in Russia, and HIV in Haiti.

Other programs benefit nearby communities directly. The Ed Portal connects professors, students, and the University’s vast educational resources with residents of Allston and Brighton. A partnership with the nonprofit group Food For Free has provided more than 40,000 pounds of healthful food to local pantries.

To see some examples of how local involvement can have a ripple effect in combatting inequality, person by person and case by case read the full article in the Harvard Gazette.