For Myisha Cherry, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, her year as a Graduate Fellow of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Santayana Fellow of the Harvard Department of Philosophy has been one of surprises and firsts.
As Cherry readily admits, prior to coming to Harvard she was unsure about how supportive the environment would be. “I had this concern that there might be a lot of competition and posturing to appear very self-assured,” Cherry says, “but what I found to my delight and surprise was a great sense of camaraderie among the fellows at Safra. I’ve been really impressed at how well-supported we are and that we have the ability in seminars to be vulnerable and honest about our work, rather than trying to appear further along than we are.”
Cherry makes a point of stressing just how rare such an atmosphere is in academia. “It frees you up to take risks and it opens you up to the input of your colleagues. I leave seminar sessions with incredible suggestions that I can’t wait to incorporate into my work and bring back to the group.”
In addition to the support she has found, Cherry notes that Harvard has provided her with opportunities that she had not previously experienced: “Tommie Shelby’s class last Fall, for example, was the first African American philosophy course I have ever had!” “As someone working in this area,” she says, “I cannot tell you how meaningful it was to be a student in that class.” This Spring, Cherry has continued her ongoing education in African American philosophy by taking a seminar on W.E.B. DuBois with Professor Cornel West. “I didn’t want to just read on my own to gain competency in this area,” she explains. “I wanted to be taught and have the chance to engage other people’s minds.”
Engaging others is a longstanding interest, one that drives much of Cherry’s work and that proceeds, in part, from her life prior to graduate school. “For a number of years I worked in public radio in Baltimore,” she says, “and then later I worked for a non-profit teaching formerly incarcerated people and helping them reintegrate into society.” When she got to graduate school, Cherry started thinking about doing a radio show that would appeal to her formerly incarcerated students. And thus was born The UnMute Podcast. Now in its third year, Cherry’s podcast brings listeners into contact with a diverse range of philosophers and issues, including, most recently, a discussion with Professor Tommie Shelby on his new book Dark Ghettos.
Although Cherry imagines her primary audience for the podcast to be her former students, “I don’t see myself as introducing them to philosophy,” she says. “They are already doing it. What they wrestle with, what they think about, is what we are doing in seminars.”