Alumni Delta Talks: Celebrating Positive Change

A delta is many things: a Greek letter, a symbol for change, a place where a river meets the ocean. At Rivers, it’s now taken on one more meaning. Alumni Delta Talks, launched in late September as a joint effort by the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) and the Rivers alumni engagement office, celebrate the many ways Rivers alumni are creating positive change in the world.

The idea is simple but powerful. Once a month, a Rivers graduate returns to campus to have an intimate lunch and conversation with a small group of current students. The alum speaks for about 20 minutes about his or her involvement, either personal or professional, in activism and social change. Then the floor is open for dialogue and student questions.

At the inaugural talk, held on Sept. 26, six students—lured by the subject matter—listened attentively as Chris Whittier ’07 described his post-Rivers path. Whittier’s journey to activism was perhaps an atypical one. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he became a financial consultant, eventually signing on with BlackRock, one of the world’s largest asset managers. After five years, he left to pursue a master’s degree at MIT in real estate and urban planning; he recently completed that degree and hopes to launch a career in real estate development.

Whittier is aware that investment management and real estate development aren’t traditionally hotbeds of social change. But his point to the students was just that: Thanks (at least in part) to social media and the priorities of millennial workers, he said, businesses now understand that social issues must be part of their focus. “In the five years I was at BlackRock,” he said, “I saw a massive shift from tolerating social issues to heavily investing in them.

“To some extent my generation, and certainly your generation,” he continued, “represent, for the first time, people willing to forgo profit, to accept less money, if it doesn’t align with their values.” And if companies don’t respond to the push for social change, he said, “They will lose customers, clients, and people who want to work with them.”

One way that played out at BlackRock, Whittier said, was the creation of workplace affinity groups. He had earlier asked the students about their involvement in clubs and activities, and he recalled his time in Model UN and on the golf team at Rivers. Now, he tied that back in to the cultural shift at BlackRock and other businesses: “You assume clubs exist in high school and college; now they also exist at work, where there are clubs and affinity groups engaging around diversity.”

Whittier got involved with BlackRock’s LGBTQ affinity group. One of the students asked him about that work, and he noted that the group, along with similar affinity groups, evolved in his time there. “At first these groups existed to give people a safe space and to allow a community to coalesce,” he said. “But then we realized we also needed to be outward facing. We started by doing events only for people identified as LGBT. But then it changed, so we could mix and share best practices and engage allies.”

After five years at BlackRock, Whittier told the students, he felt ready for a change. So he decided to go back to school, and in this, he says, he called on his Rivers education and the lifelong love of learning it kindled. “I was fortunate to come here,” he noted. “When I graduated from college, I was not done learning.”

In his new field, real estate development, Whittier sees untapped potential for creating social change. “It has a bad reputation now,” he admitted. “But one of the first things they said at MIT is that without real estate developers, you don’t have your favorite streets, your favorite places. What MIT preaches is that real estate developers have a responsibility to contribute to a community, rather than just extract value from a community.”

Each Delta speaker will bring his or her own perspective on work and social issues, sharing the ways in which Rivers students can engage with the wider world. Whittier told the students that he believes the push for social change in the business world will only intensify as they move toward their own careers. “It’s an interesting time to be out in the world working,” he said. “When you arrive in that world, it will be even more so.”