Building Community in Interesting Times

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of [people] than any other time in history.”

--Robert Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, Cape Town, South Africa, 1966

The Harvard Club of Cincinnati has a long history. It was founded in 1869, and its first president, Larz Anderson, graduated from the College in 1822. The Club is rightfully proud of its history as one of the oldest Harvard alumni clubs, and the oldest continuously operating one, in the world. But what is the purpose of the Club in these times of great uncertainty? Is this even a fair question to ask of a social club?

Like our nation, the Harvard Club of Cincinnati (HCC) is diverse. What unites us is that we share something uncommon in common – a Harvard education. Although Harvard University does not have a formal mission statement – it’s famously too decentralized for that – Harvard College does: “To educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society…through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” This purpose and this commitment also unite us.

Historically, ours has been a social club committed to civic service. Since 1869, both the University and the HCC have been animated by what President Charles W. Eliot called “a spirit of service,” public and private, “in all fields of activity.” One hundred years later, University of Cincinnati University Librarian Arthur T. Hamlin (A.B. ’34) marked the Club’s centennial by publishing Harvard and Cincinnati: A Century of Civic Service. For the Club to thrive, it must continue this tradition, especially in what Robert Kennedy called “interesting times…times of danger and uncertainty.”

I consider it a privilege to serve as the Club’s president, especially in interesting times. It falls to the president to choose the Club's annual theme. This year’s theme is “Building Community in Interesting Times.” The purpose of the theme is to spark conversations and facilitate mutual learning among HCC members and in our communities.

My term in office has been profoundly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like it or not, mine is the pandemic presidency. The word pandemic derives from the Greek pan, “all,” and demos, “people.” This year, all of us, directly or indirectly, will continue to be impacted by COVID-19, the economic crisis it engendered, and another bloody reckoning with the foundational sins of slavery and white supremacy (which, almost 250 years after the nation’s founding, drafts of the Department of Homeland Security annual threat assessment characterize as the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the United States through 2021). And let’s not forget about the challenge posed to our way of life by human-induced climate change. The epochal effects of these challenges will likely leave us forever altered.

The question is: What are we going to do about them? In the time given us, are we going to harness the creative power of people to overcome common challenges and build more equitable and just systems? Will we find ways, to borrow from Harvard President Larry Bacow’s recent freshman convocation address, “to heal this world”? If the choice facing us today is between “denial and death, or recognition and life,” as historian Ibram X. Kendi argues, I choose the latter.

It appears Harvard faculty and students are also choosing recognition and life over denial and death. Consider the scourge of racism, which Hamilton County commissioners and cities and counties across the country recently declared a public health crisis. The University is taking a multifaceted approach to studying racism in this country, one that mobilizes diverse constituencies and significant resources in hopes of solving the problem, or at least mitigating its worst effects. This year Houghton Library is focusing its digitization efforts solely on sources concerning Black American history for an online collection titled “Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation, and Freedom: Primary Sources from Houghton Library”. Harvard faculty are suggesting readings that promote understanding of the long history of slavery and white supremacy in America. Legal scholar, historian, Pulitzer-winner, and recently named University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed is helping Americans make sense of arguments for and against removing slavery- and Confederacy-related monuments from public lands; Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Shawon Kinew (A.M. ’12, Ph.D. ’16) reminds us that the killing of George Floyd by police took place “on Ojibwe and Dakota land”; and the new director of the Warren Center for Studies in American History, Radcliffe Alumnae Professor Tiya Miles (A.B. ’92), who grew up in Cincinnati, is planning a public history course titled “Abolitionist Women and Their Worlds.” This fall hundreds of students are taking Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government Michael Sandel’s online course “Justice: Ethics in an Age of Pandemic and Racial Reckoning.” All this, of course, only scratches the surface of the state of play concerning, for lack of a better term, racism studies at the University. While none of these institutions or individuals has all the answers, their collective efforts are bound to contribute to the betterment of society, including our community.

Community, I’ve come to believe, is a conscious act. It is a choice that we choose to make or not make every day. We build community in our homes though conversations with family. We build it in our streets while waiting for the bus, buying groceries, encountering strangers, and meeting with friends. We build it with our words, our greetings and glad tidings. We build it through our actions, at work and in our neighborhoods. We build community every day in the way that we treat each other, especially others who are different from us. Community is a quest to make ourselves and our world better.

Here at home, the HCC is finding ways to build community in interesting times. It has had to learn to do some things differently. Since March, Club leadership has been meeting and holding events remotely. As HCC First Vice President last year, I was responsible for planning the annual meeting, and it was disappointing, frankly, to have to hold it virtually. It was also, however, enlightening and empowering. The Board is now considering moving some of the meeting’s traditional business online, enabling members and friends to spend more time enjoying each other’s company. It is also planning programming around this year’s theme. In October, for example, the Club is planning an event facilitated by HCC 2nd Vice President Elise Foster (Ed.M. ’06), Ty Moore (A.B. ’06) and Rebecca Wilson titled “Allyship: Leadership by Another Name.” I look forward to seeing you there.

Another way the Club builds community is through the work of the Schools and Scholarship Committee. Members interview promising students from Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky who aspire to a Harvard education; hold a special event to celebrate their acceptance to the College; and, traditionally, send them off with a picnic on the eve of their departure to Cambridge. This year we did things differently. A send-off subcommittee assembled and personally delivered to local Class of 2024 students gift bags that included face masks made with Harvard-insignia fabric by HCC Past President Gillian Benet Sella (A.B. ’87). At the virtual event, interviewers introduced “their” students; participants mingled in breakout rooms; students opened their gifts in the main room; and new students were able to ask questions of current students. As HCC Past President Valerie Bogdan-Powers (A.B. ’89) later observed, the students really appreciated what was clearly a labor of love. Club leadership plans to continue to support these students and to include them in its future events.

So, ours is not only one of the oldest Harvard alumni clubs in the world, it is also one of the most active clubs of its size. Club leadership spends most of its time thinking of ways to serve its members and the communities in which we live. We need your help in this work because ours is, after all, a social club; it is you and it is me; it is all of us together. If you are already a Club member, I thank you, and if you are not, please consider becoming a member today so that we can benefit from each other’s Harvard education, experiences and talents, perspectives, passions, and energy.

Living in extraordinary times makes extraordinary achievements possible. Now more than ever, we need to stay connected with each other and engaged in the life of our communities. “Community and connectivity,” as the anthropologist and Harvard alumnus Wade Davis reminds us, “is for the human what claws and teeth represent for the tiger,” they are “the cultural foundations of our lives.” Together we can give new meaning to the word pandemic. We can make it mean all people working together to improve ourselves as individuals and build stronger communities.

One way to do this is to participate in HCC events. I invite you to join me and other members for the President’s Reception on Wednesday, September 30. “Building Community One Tapas at a Time” is designed to be a family-friendly, interactive cooking workshop focused on Basque culture and cuisine. You can learn more about the event and RSVP here. I look forward to seeing you there – live, face-to-face, and at a safe distance.

In Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, Mary Oliver asks: “What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”

I would be honored to know your answers to these questions. Meantime, thank you for reading and take good care.


Sean Pollock (A.M. ’96, Ph.D. ’06)
President, Harvard Club of Cincinnati, 2020-21