Harvard Leader of The Week
For a special winter break edition of Harvard Leader of the Week, we sat down with Osaremen Okolo ’17, the founder of the Institute of Politics’ Politics of Race and Ethnicity (PRE) program.
What inspired you to get involved at the IOP?
During the opening days of my freshman year I stumbled into the Institute of Politics (IOP) Open House, led by a family dinner table interest in politics. I happened to meet former Senator William “Mo” Cowan, and we connected after discovering that we lived mere miles from one another in suburban Massachusetts—he encouraged me to apply to be his liaison, and I was eventually accepted into the Fellows and Study Groups (FSG) program. By the following spring, after comping the Harvard Political Review and completing my term as one of Mo’s six liaisons, I began to wonder why so few of the people at such an esteemed Institute looked or thought like me. Where was the focus on race, ethnicity, and difference in our politics—a focus that would inform students on viewpoints outside their own often homogenous ones? My convictions coalesced and the seed for the Politics of Race and Ethnicity program (PRE) was planted.
Talk specifically about the project you’re co-leading.
In the Fall of 2014, PRE operated under “initiative status”—today we are the IOP’s 14th program, having just completed our first full year as such. PRE focuses on highlighting and discussing the intersection of race, ethnicity, and politics: our mission is to create a space for sustained, nuanced, welcoming, and informed discussion and to collaborate with other programs, infusing this intersection in all corners of the IOP. We meet weekly for one and half hour sessions including guest speakers, panels and group discussions; this semester our topics ranged from the role of affirmative action in the education system to urban policing and incarceration, and from racial disparities in health care to the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement. We also hold events open to the larger community, such as a debate hosted in collaboration with the Harvard Political Union regarding what President Obama’s “legacy on race” will be. Through a sustained dialogue about race, ethnicity, and politics at the IOP, I firmly believe that PRE can contribute to changing and impacting the conversation about race at the Institute, at Harvard, and in America.
Who do you model yourself after as a leader?
If we’re talking fellow students, I’d say former IOP Executive Vice President Niyat Mulugheta ‘16. Truthfully, Niyat is one of the reasons that I became as involved as I did with the Institute of Politics. Seeing a fellow black woman make such an impact on a space that at the time was overwhelmingly homogeneous—when I tell you I walked into the Harvard Political Review’s U.S. section opening meeting in the Fall of 2013 and was met by a room of white, male faces, I do not exaggerate—made me feel like I too could survive and thrive there. But Niyat did not let her presence and leadership in the IOP, first as National Action Committee (NAC) chair and then eventually as Vice President, speak for itself. She actively reached out to me, encouraged me, and established a friendship that I cherish. It was conversations with her (and also former IOP President Colin Diersing ‘16) that truly spurred me to engage in the achievement I’m proudest of in my college career so far: the founding of PRE. She was a mentor throughout the founding process and remained an influence in my leadership over the three semesters I co-led the program. I can only pray to pay it forward and play that role in someone else’s life and tenure as a leader one day.
If we’re talking people I have yet to but desperately need to meet, I’d say President Barack Obama. EOM.
Where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?
I plan to practice medicine as an obstetrician, primarily because I am an only child who wants to alleviate the pain of infertility for parents who struggle to conceive; pain that my mother and father crossed the Atlantic Ocean to escape. And though I’ll likely have just completed my residency, a decade from now I hope to also be engaging in public health research on the social determinants and anthropological factors of infertility. I’ll remain a humanities lover, social scientist, and warrior for equality—perhaps as a physician-author or physician-journalist writing on those topics.
If you had one piece of advice for freshmen at Harvard, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to innovate in spaces that may already seem like institutions. After all, Harvard itself is an institution, and one that would never grow without the contributions of the innovative, passionate, and driven students that inhabit its campus. This isn’t meant as a “fight the power, down with the establishment!” message (although I must admit I’m often a proponent of just that); rather, I urge freshmen to understand that the most meaningful thing you can achieve during your time here is finding a uniquely personal way to leave your mark. Let your creation become the norm.