Apr. 21, 2011

Harvard junior Peter Davis, a member of the 2011 student Freedom Ride, is seen at WGBH. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

There's one question that really gets Peter Davis going — one question to which he dedicates his academic and extracurricular time.

How do you bring people together? 

That inquiry led the Harvard junior to build a social network (no, not that social network) intended to foster community among neighbors. And in May, it will take him on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, where he'll take a historical look at how hundreds of students mobilized to fight segregation during the Freedom Ride of 1961.

Watch the full episode. See more Freedom Riders.

"I’m really interested in how communities work, how do you make a neighborhood strong, how do you make a community strong, how do you make a strong culture of local politics, good culture of civil society, how you make sure that people in communities all know each other’s names,” Davis said.

The Falls Church, Virginia, native was born into a family of liberal activists: his father was involved in the indigenous rights movement, and his grandfather was a democratic precinct captain. But Davis, who is majoring in Government, Community and Democracy, wanted to explore community engagement from a different angle, wondering whether our digitized, atomized methods of online social communication could foster neighbor-to-neighbor interation.

"Why don’t we build a Web platform that doesn’t connect you to people all over the world, but to the people right next to you, to share, connect and partake in collective action?” Davis had asked.

CommonPlace was born two years ago, intended to offer neighbors a place to share information, ask each other questions, and provide a place for civic groups to posts announcement feeds — a town-hall bulletin board for Web 2.0. He piloted the project in Falls Church, but hopes to put more trial communities on CommonPlace in the Boston area this summer, potentially in Medford and Somerville.

Davis says youth and student engagement could benefit from a similar marriage of elemental needs and modern tools. The Freedom Ride, he says, will give he and his peers a sense to learn how the riders found the strength to demonstrate — and a chance to think about what his generation should do differently.

"If we could be half as courageous, half as creative, half as committed to public ambitious as opposed to just private ambitions, we’d get a lot done," Davis said. "But do we necessarily need to have another March on Washinton, another bus ride that involves aggressively going into something? That was what was needed to break segregation then."

Davis thinks students tend to get snagged in '60's protest nostalgia, rather than thinking about how they can take those lessons into the present. Thus, paradoxically, part of his goal on the Freedom Ride is to consider how activists today can demonstrate in ways very, very different from what the riders did then.

"We say, wow, darnit, I wasn’t alive in 1961, I would have gotten on the bus. And what we try to do, is we try to recreate, use the exact same tools, that they did that back then," Davis said. "And what I see is the thing we need to take from them is not necessarily their tools, but their spirit."

Davis says he plans to use the ride to draw more connections between the commitment among the Freedom Riders and the tools available to students today.

“With CommonPlace, people are like, 'Oh, that’s not activism,' " Davis said. "We’re hoping that if we can build up these insitituions, build up official trust, America will be a lot easier to activate."

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