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The Citizen

An Inspired Story Powered by Stories

By Billy Pope, MC/MPA ’13, Correspondent

On the July 17, 2012, I walked up the steps leading to the Kennedy School for the first time.  I squeezed the worn door handle in my palm and the gravity of the moment hit me.  I froze.  I couldn’t go in.  I needed to clear my head.  It was a beautiful morning in Cambridge and the city was just coming to life so I made my way into J.F.K. Park where the sidewalks and benches called out to me:  The perfect place to collect my thoughts before beginning this incredible journey.

As I soaked up the early morning sun I thought back to my childhood, growing up in the small, dusty town in California’s Mojave Desert.  We had sunrises there that would rival the best in the world and the places to explore were endless.  All of that wide open space came at a cost, though.  The social services we take for granted in big cities just didn’t exist in my community.  For example, our town library was a bus full of books called the Bookmobile that used to make a fifty mile trek from the valley to visit us every two weeks.  Everyone in our community depended on the Bookmobile.

In many ways, the distance between Helendale, California and the Harvard Kennedy School is vast.  More than a decade of service as a military officer and a lifetime of foundational academic experiences formed the stepping stones for me to connect these two extraordinary places.  Fundamentally, however, my story stems from a supportive family and an education enhanced by the Bookmobile – that is to say it stems from an opportunity given to me.

I eventually snapped out of my trip down memory lane, made it out of the park, and back up the steps to begin my studies at Harvard.  Today, I say with marginal confidence that I will graduate from this fine institution in May.

But a question haunts me:  What if the Bookmobile program had never existed?  Would I be here today?  I don’t like to think about it, but I feel it is my obligation to do just that.  I feel a sense of responsibility to make certain that kids in our communities have opportunities to stretch their imaginations, improve their individual lot in life and chase dreams.

Rather than just ponder the forks in my own road and my own journey;  I have dedicated a large part of this year to action – towards seeking to ensure that the generation of children emerging from Boston’s inner-city have similar opportunities to those I enjoyed as a child.

I’m running the Boston Marathon on April 15 to raise awareness and funding for ReadBoston, a children’s literacy program that focuses on putting books in the hands of kids.  I am training as hard as I can and spreading the word as far as I can in hopes of supporting ReadBoston.  The organization’s goal is to bring all third graders in Boston up to an average reading level, giving them a foundation from which to build.  On top of that, ReadBoston has mobile Storymobiles…enough said.

You can learn more about this effort on the website I established to get the word out at

I challenge everyone who reads this to find a quiet bench in a place where you can reflect on your own story.  Imagine your personal path that brought you to the Kennedy School.  Remember the people, the places, and the opportunities that aligned to guide you to arguably the top university in the world.  While our backgrounds are as diverse as the issues we face, I would venture to guess you’ll find a Bookmobile of some sort rooted deeply in your upbringing.

As we prepare to tackle the world’s biggest problems, we must not forget where we started.  Our individual circumstances shaped us.  Now it is our time to give back.  If you have ever chased a dream, experienced pride, been given an opportunity, or wished you had, this call to action is directed at you.  Find a cause that links to your past and give it your heart.  Together we have the power to make dreams come true.