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To honor the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's birth, an impressive array of Harvard faculty members, government officials, and leaders of non-profit organizations gathered at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on Thursday (April 20) for the John F. Kennedy Centennial Symposium.
The symposium featured panel discussions and forums focusing on the former president’s most important policy priorities and how they remain relevant today. Harvard University President Drew Faust and HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf joined Caroline Kennedy and other distinguished speakers at the event. Family members in attendance included Congressman Joe Kennedy III, Jean Kennedy Smith, Stephen Kennedy Smith, Jack Schlossberg, Bobby Shriver, and Maria Shriver.
“We have come together – students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends – to honor the life of President Kennedy and to explore the ways in which politics, policy, and public service have changed since his time, the ways in which they have not changed, and the ways that they might change in the future,” said Elmendorf.
“As I anticipated our celebration today, I thought about how gratified John F. Kennedy would be that the university that he attended and the school that bears his name remain committed to his vision of narrowing the gap between politicians and intellectuals, between governments and citizens, between knowledge and action," said Faust. “Here people of like and unlike minds share their ideas and research, consider and debate policies, and seek deeper understandings of one another, of the nation, and of the world."
The opening panel, “American Power and Global Security: An Altered Landscape,” was moderated by Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations. Three concurrent sessions took place across campus in the afternoon, focusing on civil rights, international development, and environmental policy.
Panelists at the civil rights session included Maria Teresa Kumar MPP 2001, president and CEO of Voto Latino; Aisha Moodie-Mills, president and CEO of Victory Fund and Institute; T.W. Shannon, former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and an Institute of Politics fellow this spring; and Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at HKS. Session moderator Archon Fung, academic dean and the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at HKS, asked the panelists questions about their experiences working for civil rights in the U.S. and the work that still remains to be done.
Both Kumar and Moodie-Mills spoke of the difficulty of working within a country and its institutions that often don't serve or recognize certain populations. "It's important to show up at the kitchen table," Moodie-Mills said, emphasizing the need for relationship-building in LGBT activism. "People see us as impostors," she said. "It's important to focus on our common humanity."
Kumar had some strong words for those who dismissed much of the unrest since the 2016 election as "identity politics": "It's not identity politics when you're talking about civil rights," she said. "It's also hard for Latinos to imagine participating in a system where we don't see ourselves, or that doesn't serve us."
Shannon drew on his experiences with conservative, rural voters in Oklahoma to urge the audience toward a similar goal: empathy. "There are many people who feel like they don't recognize this country," he said, adding that the arts of listening and compromise are more important than ever in politics.
The trajectory of environmental policy was the focus of discussion during “Silent Spring at 55,” referring to the 1962 book by Rachel Carson which spurred the national environmental movement. Moderated by William C. Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, the panelists offered varying perspectives on national and international efforts to combat myriad challenges.
“Clean air, water and land are not just core values. They are the path that we must follow if we are to protect our children’s future,” said Gina McCarthy, a Spring Fellow at the IOP and former commissioner of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Roger Porter, the IBM Professor of Business and Government, spoke of the tremendous progress that has occurred in the environmental arena over the past 50 years, quite often on a bipartisan basis.
“As a nation we have done something quite remarkable over this period of time,” he said. “We have said that there is this part of our lives which we call the environment – the air we breathe, the water we drink, etc. – and we are going to take measures that will enable those in the future to have the kind of life we have or possibly even better.”
There was dissent, however, regarding how the current presidential administration will deal with the challenge of global warming. While Porter expressed his opinion that the administration would shift its focus over time, Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, spoke of his fear that “climate change has become an ideological issue,” and therefore much more difficult to find consensus in Washington. However, he argued that “it is crucial that the United States remain a party [to the Paris Climate Agreement].”
Meighan Stone moderated a session called “How Has International Development changed Since the Founding of the Peace Corps?” An entrepreneurship fellow at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Stone is co-founder of the Malala Fund.
Robert Zoellick MPP 1981, president of the World Bank from 2007-2012, noted that much has been learned in the past several decades. “The good thing about the past 40 or 50 years is that we’ve learned a lot around the world from different economies,” he said. The Peace Corps, he added, was established in an era when international development had a technocratic, top-down focus. “That’s where I think the Peace Corps is an added additional element, because the Peace Corps is not top-down. It’s not just a technocratic element.”
Dani Rodrik, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Economy at Harvard Kennedy School, echoed that sentiment, stating that one of the primary lessons learned through the years in economic development is the need to understand that “these things work only if you are locally grounded, if you are contextual, if you understand what’s going on on the ground.”
Olivia Lopez, who worked in the Office of the First Lady under Michelle Obama, described the development of the Let Girls Learn initiative, an education program for girls around the globe that partnered with the Peace Corps. Volunteers spend two years learning the language and living with local families. “The volunteers get a chance to really understand what is going on,” Lopez said. “It’s not someone coming from outside and telling them what to do, but it’s really someone coming from outside saying ‘I want to be helpful’ and partnering with them and helping them find the solutions.” In one intervention program, Camps for Girls, girls take classes on reproductive health and life and leadership skills. “The multiplier effect of these kind of interventions is amazing,” Lopez said.
Carol Bellamy, director of the Peace Corps from 1993 to 1995 and board chair of Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, explained the era in which the Peace Corps was founded. Commenting on Kennedy’s inaugural speech and its optimism, she said, “I think it was reflective of American people, where there was a confidence in Americans and their ability to do – not a sense of failure or of anger. We’re very much in need of that today. We live in a borderless world. We live in a world where we’re connected, whether we’re connected by the best in health care or the worst diseases. We’re connected by the best of education and the worst of education. We’re connected by trade.”
Zoellick concurred, noting the role President Kennedy played in the establishment of the Peace Corps. “The idea of big visions, of pushing people, of thinking about systemic change I think is something that has always been part of the American vision and which he very much brought to the fore and I hope we don’t lose it.”
Reflecting on the Peace Corps’ greatest accomplishments, Zoellick added: “I often felt that the Peace Corps’ legacy, whatever it was in the countries, the effect it had on the Americans that took part in it might have been more significant than anything else. You see Peace Corps volunteers in Congress, in the State Department, all different parts of the government. It’s obviously been a very influential part of their growing up, but also the internationalization of America. These are people who had never traveled abroad and had a chance to see the world.”
The event concluded with a panel discussion in the Forum, “Ask What You Can Do: Public Leadership in 2017,” moderated by David Gergen, Public Service Professor of Public Leadership at HKS. Panelists included Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation; Joseph Kennedy III, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts (4th District); Maria Shriver, journalist and founder of Shriver Media; and Elise Stefanik, Member, U.S. House of Representatives, New York (21st District).
“We have come together – students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends – to honor the life of President Kennedy and to explore the ways in which politics, policy, and public service have changed since his time, the ways in which they have not changed, and the ways that they might change in the future” --HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf
Panelists at the Closing Forum, "Ask What You Can Do: Public Leadership in 2017." Guests were Elaine L. Chao, Joe Kennedy III, Elise Stefanik and Maria Shriver.