We were so excited to learn that PBHA’s 2020 President Meherina Khan ’21 was featured as one of Glamour’s Top 10 college women of the year. Meherina chose to focus on sharing about PBHA in her interview and we’re thrilled to highlight it below.
For a nonprofit, the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) is doing quite well for itself. It runs more than 80 programs, including a network of neighborhood-based summer camps that serve more than 800 kids in Boston and Cambridge and two homeless shelters. It has been around since 1904. With such bona fides, it seems like the kind of institution that could be filled with ambitious professionals and a team of well-dressed retirees.
Instead, its staff consists of students at Harvard. A few adult supervisors aside, PBHA is one of the most successful student-led organizations nationwide. (Those shelters? The only student-run organizations of their kind in the United States.) PBHA is such a team effort, in fact, that the organization’s president, Meherina Khan, dismisses the notion that her work is that much more important than the rest of its volunteers’. “I’m part of a greater collective,” she says.
But despite her protestations, she does stand out. Khan, 21, started volunteering with PBHA as a freshman. That summer, one of the organization’s camps in Boston’s South End needed a director, and she volunteered. The experience was transformative, not just moving her to continue to work with PBHA, but also shifting how she looked at what nonprofits in general are supposed to do.
“That summer taught me to love and to listen,” Khan says. “It also forced me to think about, What does it mean to be in management of a nonprofit? But at the same time, what grounds you in the work? What are the values that call to you? What moments and what relationships keep you going?”
These are questions Khan doesn’t have simple answers to. But here’s what she knows: “I want to be a part of social change. I want to make sure that whatever it is that I am doing or that we at PBHA are doing is part of a greater mission, is fighting for justice and thinking about what that looks like. Nonprofits exist because we live in a world of gaps in resources and services. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to exist, because those things would be there.”
Khan grew up in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston, which is where she’s been since coronavirus forced students to leave campus. Organizing from her bedroom, she’s grateful at least that the pandemic has allowed for a reunion for her and her younger siblings. In her childhood home, she’s found that the same principles she holds dear at PBHA operate here too. Reflection, dialogue, deep, abiding love—these form the bedrock of social progress.
“I think a lot about radical love, and how that fuels our work,” Khan explains. “In activism spaces and in this era, we’re often fueled by everything that’s wrong, right? There’s so much anger, because there is so much to be angry about. But at the same time, anger can be exhausting.” As clichéd as it sounds, she chooses love instead. Over the past few weeks, as thousands have rallied to call for justice and an end to racism even older than America, Khan has found herself thinking about how “the oppressive structures in our social lives work” and how love and attention—well-channeled—might be able to dismantle them.
“It’s not that people who are discriminated against are not talking,” Khan points out. “It’s not that they’re not speaking up for themselves. It’s that no one is listening. I want to be someone who listens with my full, complete self. But at the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact that—even unknowingly or unintentionally—I’ve probably been a part of these systems that have caused harm.”
“At Harvard, I’ve become more aware of the privilege that I have,” she continues. “Yes, I’m the child of immigrants. Yes, I come from a low-income background. Yes, I’m a part of a minority population. But the privilege that I’ve had to be able to come to a place like Harvard—that immediately changes the way that people perceive me. Because of Harvard, people now feel a little bit more inclined to hear me out, to make room for my voice. Now I have to think, Well, what can I do with this voice?” —M.K.