Photograph by Mark Spooner
For Ed School families living and learning together, Anna Kirby wants Harvard to feel not just like a school, but like home
Coming from a small, close-knit town, Anna Kirby, Ed.M.’20, family program manager with Harvard University Housing’s Graduate Commons Program (GCP), wondered if Harvard could feel like home when she first started as a Ph.D. student at the Ed School.
Kirby had a background in developmental psychology and understood the importance of relationships. She’d worked in community-based arts education programs and was interested in how events like concerts or workshops can deepen relationships, not just among community members, but between parents and children. When making the move to Cambridge, she wasn’t sure if the pace of urban living would allow for deep connections to develop between people and place.
“I’ve always liked to feel rooted in the places I live and rooted in the communities I’m part of,” she says. “It can be hard to meet your neighbors in an [urban] environment.”
Yet as she moved into Harvard housing, she was struck by exactly the opposite. Her building felt quiet and residential, there were plenty of green spaces, and the GCP organized events to help residents meet neighbors. Inspired by that newfound community spirit, Kirby began working for the GCP as an intern.
“The position was a complement to my class work because it was focused on building community,” says Kirby. “I’d be drawing on human development research to build relationships and programming that supported the development of kids, parents and caregivers, students, and their partners who were all adjusting to life on campus.”
She also appreciated the diversity of the campus housing community — graduate and postdoctoral students, faculty, staff, visiting scholars, and of course, their spouses, partners, and kids. Many have traveled long distances and the transition can be a sacrifice for families. Kirby felt that the place where Harvard community members and affiliates live, then, must feel like a safe, stable home.
“I think we’d all want Harvard to be a place that feels like it’s built for the families that are making that commitment to having a Harvard journey,” says Kirby, noting that because Harvard is so big and students are often socially siloed into their schools or departments, it can be difficult to make Harvard feel less like a school and more like a home. The GCP acts as a cross-campus network that families can use to connect with people as neighbors.
Kirby began developing programming for families. Then COVID hit and physical meeting spaces across the university began to shut down. Families wondered how they could support their kids. In response, Kirby worked with the GCP to develop a Zoom series called Parenting in Challenging Times.
That included leaving room in meetings for families to voice their concerns and struggles. But the uncertainty wasn’t just confined to the pandemic. Kirby and the GCP team also recognized that, after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, families had a real desire to talk about justice and what it means to be antiracist. Many were unsure of how to start these conversations with their children. Kirby collaborated with fellow Ph.D. student Hania Mariën and local social justice education organizations, Little Uprisings and ZNT Arts. They sent families picture books to spark conversations about race, class, gender, and culture. Corresponding art projects also took place over Zoom. She and Mariën developed a packet of resources that families could continue to use once the program ended.
Modeling conversations about race and identity has been at the forefront of Kirby’s mind as she develops her dissertation — a look at how children understand and grapple with concepts like justice and equity. “How these ideas relate to our identities and who we are plays out in the communities we live in,” says Kirby. “They say something about how we should act, and the kinds of responsibilities we have to the people around us.”