My name is Harry Niles, and besides being named Harry Niles, I am the editor in chief of my school’s newspaper, titled the Deerfield Scroll, the co-president of the Young Democrats club and Model UN, a head tour guide, and a peer counselor. I definitely wear a lot of hats on our campus, but I’ve always been interested in helping people. I think that each and every one of those roles allow me to help people shape and project their own voices.
This summer, a couple of friends and I started an organization called Shielding Our Defenders. It all started when Angie reached out to Eric Wang and said, “Hey, my mom is in need of masks,” and Eric said, “Do you want me to send these masks to you?” and Angie said, “Yeah, go for it.” They thought that they could possibly do it on an even bigger scale, something greater than just sending 60 masks to Angie— maybe they could ship hundreds or maybe even thousands of masks to other hospitals. Eric contacted Angie, me, and Mark Chung. From then on, we created Shielding Our Defenders, buying over 20,000 masks and donating over 15,000. By the end of this month, we will definitely have donated over 20,000 masks to hospitals and protests across the United States, which is awesome.
Additionally, through Shielding Our Defenders, we started an initiative in response to the Black Lives Matter protests all over the nation. We thought that it was really necessary that these protesters could protest safely, and to make sure that COVID-19 wouldn't stop this movement or create a reason for some politicians to end these protests— we definitely came at it looking through a public health lens, even though each one of us had a different perspective on the protests. We wanted to make sure that the main priority was public health so that the protesters could do what they were passionate about safely.
Shielding Our Defenders has been impactful in many ways. We’ve received many emails from students who go to schools across the nation who have all been interested in joining our team— kids who go to local schools in New York City, Chicago, California, Washington State... We’ve encountered a lot of great outreach from people we would have never met if not for this organization and it’s taught us a lot about how we can connect to one another, how we can utilize our resources and social media as a platform, how to fundraise, how to contact hospitals and people who were donating... It's tough, because in Deerfield’s curriculum, we don’t really learn about these “real world” things— like how to pay taxes. This initiative was a great way for us to take control of a situation as unpredictable as COVID-19. We wanted to do something that would be fruitful and beneficial to communities not only in New York City where it started, but in different communities.
To people who are thinking of starting an initiative like Shielding Our Defenders: be ambitious. When we were first starting Shielding Our Defenders, our goal was to donate 5,000 masks. We expected to reach our goal of 5,000 masks, and send some to Chicago, some to LA. I would have never expected that we would raise over 35,000 dollars, receive the Cost Award, been granted a CSGC fund, and have donated over 15,000 masks. So, take whatever you believe is possible and expand it. If you go with your gut, it will yield a positive result. If you see that there’s a positive change that you can make in your community, make that change, be ambitious and make sure that you recognize your privilege when you are doing something like this, if you have any. And make sure that you can be as useful as possible. I think that for me, the want to be useful is what drove me. The coronavirus was an opportunity to say, “There’s an issue right now and I must be proactive.” You can either sit still and say that there’s nothing to be done or you can stand up and say that there’s an issue here and acknowledge it. I think that coming from a school like Deerfield has played a role in recognizing the privilege we have.
I also just recently took an online HarvardX course— it was an audited free class and it was about political philosophy and how these philosophers from the 1700s to 1800s intersect with modern day politics. They talked about affirmative action and asked, “Should people in the present day be accountable for the issues of the past?” That also got me thinking, “Should schools like Georgetown and Deerfield recognize their past with slavery and in doing so, pay back the debt that they owe to a lot of people?” Essentially, it’s this idea of reparations.
At Deerfield, we’re really privileged to receive the education and the resources that we have. Something that Boyden (Deerfield’s most famous, formative headmaster) instilled in our community is the concept of service to the public. We go to a really great institution that offers us a lot— so how can we as students say, “We’ve been given so much. How can we pay this back and how can we help people that aren’t necessarily in our community?” Recognizing that and being able to say, “I have an opportunity to make change,” is really powerful. We all have an opportunity to make change no matter who we are.
I think every member of the Deerfield community has faced different struggles in our lives, but the one thing we can share is that we are very lucky to receive an education and connections and opportunities to help people out from our experience at Deerfield.
Additionally, my time in quarantine has definitely been introspective. I’ve been focusing on ways that I can improve myself, ways that I can do better. As boarding school students, we don’t get to spend that much time with our families— and the coronavirus is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do just that. For many of us, we never expected to be home for this amount of time again— pretty soon, we’ll be off to college and then leaving home for good. Being able to spend this time with our families is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I think that it’s made people reflect on who they are and discover ways that they can improve themselves.
This whole situation has been very difficult, but in the long run, it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens when we return to school. We’ll hopefully see how much people have evolved and grown through this experience and learned more about themselves— especially through college applications and college essays, since we have nothing better to do but to write our essays now.
I think that this pandemic is going to be a stepping stone for our nation to reflect on how dirty we’ve been. There have been many statistics to prove it. In eighth grade, I attended a speech competition, and one of the students’ whole speech was about how unclean the US was as a country. He revealed the number of people who don’t wash their hands after they use the bathroom, and it was staggering and incredibly surprising to me.
There are a lot of other countries who value cleanliness as a high priority. Having a country like Hong Kong go on lockdown fairly early because every citizen genuinely had a passion to uphold public health is really powerful and it worked really well. As a society, they’ve had a good job preventing epidemics in the past (like SARS). Hong Kong is a city of 8 million people with only around 1,400+ cases— it is something that we can look up to and ask, “What did they do right and how can we do right in the future?”
I’m hoping that this pandemic forces us to look to other nations to see how we can be better. A lot of people are going to say, “no, how can we look internally.” However, I think that it’s necessary to look at other countries and ask, “what are they doing well?” It’s great to see how these other countries have dealt with the coronavirus, because the US has had a conflict with people saying things like, “this is my civil liberty to not regard the public health and to focus on my own individual health,” and I don’t think that we can continue with that mentality for much longer.
Even from such a young age, you have to begin to reflect and somewhat solve the problems of the world, exploring the ins and outs of being a human being. There’s a lot of change happening as a whole in the nation and I’m hoping that this pandemic will be a catalyst for change that has been much needed for a while now.
Written by: Ellia Chiang
Check out Shielding Our Defenders here and support their cause!