An Interview with Maya Holden Cohen, Design Studio Research Assistant and former Ethics Pedagogy Fellow

Smiling woman with light skin and long hair in a blue shirt

By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado 
March 2, 2022 

This conversation happened on March 2, 2022. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.  

Maya Holden Cohen is a fourth-year PhD student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studies youth civic formation and the relationship between civic education and democratic resilience. Specifically, her work explores the question: What role can (and should) civic education play in addressing the longstanding weaknesses, current threats, and new possibilities confronting American democracy? She is especially interested in the ways student voices can contribute to this inquiry. While at HGSE, Maya has worked as a graduate researcher at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where she has helped launch the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership. She was awarded the E.J. Safra Center’s Ethics Pedagogy Fellowship for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years. She also served as Development Editor on the board of the Harvard Educational Review. 

Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You joined the Center in 2019 as an Ethics Pedagogy Fellow (EPF). What drew you towards pursing a fellowship with the Center? 

Maya Cohen: I learned about the fellowship from my advisor, Professor Meira Levinson, who works with the Safra center in many capacities. I had already been involved with her normative case study work with EdEthics, and she let me know that there was a role opening within the fellowship to focus more deeply on that work. For me, the Ethics Pedagogy Fellowship offered a wonderful intersection of practice and philosophy. It gave me the opportunity to work on research that I cared about and that had a clear connection to educational practice. I was also really excited to be part of the Center's broader community, to learn from the other fellows, and to join the rich intellectual life that happens at Safra.  

AJM: Could you describe your Ethics Pedagogy Fellowship (EPF) experience? How, if at all, did the EPF fellowship impact your work? 

MC: I’ve had the incredible privilege of being an EPF Fellow twice, and both experiences have been amazing. The fellowship is a truly unique opportunity. It offered me the chance to develop ethics pedagogy while also doing meaningful research and scholarship, and importantly it gave me the time and financial resources to be able to focus on that work. The fellowship introduced me to the Center as a community and helped me build relationships with people like Jess Miner and Jacob Fay, who have become invaluable mentors for me, who I then ended up working with for my second fellowship. It helped me connect to the Center as an intellectual home. I also really valued the fact that the EPF is a cross-university fellowship. The program draws fellows from across the university who are working on a wide range of projects, from the Harvard Ethics Bowl Team, to teaching computer science and bioethics, to helping students learn to listen better in the classroom. Being a part of two fellowship classes gave me the opportunity to be in conversation with students, colleagues, and faculty from across the university.  

My first fellowship year allowed me to dig into the EdEthics work with Meira and really introduced me to the Center. During that first year, I learned about the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership (ICDP), a program that the Center was about to launch. The ICDP is a  partnership between five diverse institutions of higher education that equips students to participate in and facilitate challenging conversations across political difference. As a researcher  and former high school teacher interested in the challenges and opportunities of cross-political dialogue, I knew I wanted to get involved. Working with the ICDP became the focus of my second fellowship year.  

The ICDP has deeply informed the direction of my doctoral research. Being involved with the program took my interest in civic education and youth civic formation and gave me a very particular and grounded way to look at those interests. Becoming involved with the ICDP helped me take the big questions that inspired me to pursue a PhD and tied them to a particular community, program, and group of students in a way that has been tremendously important for my work.  

AJM: You are a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) studying youth civic formation and the relationship between civic education and democratic resilience. Specifically, your work explores the question: What role can (and should) civic education play in addressing the longstanding weaknesses, current threats, and new possibilities confronting American democracy? You’re especially interested in the ways that student voices can contribute to this inquiry. Could you talk about how that work developed during your time as a fellow and also how those interests connect to the mission and work of the Center? 

MC: Working with the ICDP has raised (and continues to raise!) many questions for me about the ethical dilemmas, challenges, benefits, and pedagogical practices of civic dialogue programs. Part of what the ICDP wrestles with, and helps students to wrestle with, is the question: how do we need to engage with and challenge each other in order for our democratic institutions to work? How do we think about this question at a time of democratic vulnerability—a time that demands that we as a nation reckon with the historical weaknesses and injustices of our democratic institutions that we are still working to address today?   

To the point about listening to student voices, colleges across the country are grappling with how to foster productive dialogue, and other forms of civic learning, on campus. However, we know very little about which students choose to participate in difficult conversations across difference, what their motivations and goals are for doing so, how they experience these conversations, and what the impact of their participation is on their future civic engagement. Without this insight, it’s going to be hard to develop effective programs that are inclusive and prepare students for life in a pluralistic democracy.  To develop civic educational experiences that meet this moment of democratic reckoning and repair, we need to listen to and work with students.  

Working with the ICDP has given me a wonderful opportunity to learn from students across the country. The ICDP is made up of five institutions: Harvard, Stanford, St. Philip's College, Santa Fe College, and California State University Bakersfield. These schools include two- and four-year colleges, a historically Black college, Hispanic-serving institutions, a state school, and universities that are research focused. The students are incredibly diverse by race, age, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political ideology, and more. Being able to learn from these students is such a privilege.  

To me, all of these questions connect directly to the Center’s work exploring the ethical, philosophical, and practical challenges of building a strong democracy, and the role of education in that process. I am so grateful to be a part of a community that takes civic education and its connection to democracy very seriously. 

AJM: Can you talk a bit about the work you were doing with Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), teaching and serving as an assistant director at The School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C., and serving as the Executive Director of GlobeMed. How has your background in student organizational development played a role in your graduate work? 

MC: It was a winding path, from global health to teaching to criminal legal reform, but the core ideas that link each chapter are the values of justice and equity, and a belief that young people are powerful and vital to our world and our democratic institutions. My work in each of those spheres was about helping young people access their potential as leaders and social change agents. The biggest way these experiences influenced my work is they gave me a sense of the importance of integrating student voices in the design of civic education. We have to start and end our work as educators, researchers, and advocates by asking young people what they think, and allowing their goals, experiences, and insights to guide our efforts.  

Each chapter of my career has taught me, in different ways, what young people can accomplish. Through GlobeMed, I’ve seen how students can work with grassroots leaders around the world to challenge health inequities and improve the lives of people living in poverty. Teaching showed me the capacity of students to wrestle with and take action on urgent, ethically complex issues. Working with the CFJC I witnessed the injustice and violence of mass incarceration, and the incredible resilience of children, their families, and their communities impacted by it. I saw the change that years of their community organizing and advocacy had been able to achieve.  

These experiences have given me an abiding belief in the power of young people to do amazing things. I take that belief into my work with the ICDP. We dream about being able to build a national (or global!) network of young people who are concerned about democracy, and who want to steward conversations about topics that are difficult but vitally important to their communities to speak about. I start from the assumption that, of course, that is possible. We just have to figure out how to give students the resources and structures to thrive.  

AJM: Can you talk a bit about the work that you’re doing for both the ICDP fellowship and the Design Studio with Meira Levinson and Jake Fay? 

MC: This year, my third year with the Center, I’m serving as a Research Assistant for the Design Studio. My focus now is mainly on the ICDP, continuing the work I began as a fellow. I am part of the ICDP program team, which meets weekly to plan and design the lessons, materials, and activities for the ICDP weekly seminar sessions.  

I also just started the ICDP’s first research study. I am interviewing this year's fellows about their motivations, background, goals, and experiences with the fellowship. At the beginning of the year, I recruited about twenty-eight fellows and senior fellows from the program to sit down with me for an hour and tell me about their background and why they decided to join the fellowship. I’m particularly interested in what they were hoping to get out of their participation, and what fears or concerns, if any, they had going in.  

At the end of this year, I will do a second round of interviews with that same group exploring their experiences with the fellowship. We’ll talk about how the fellowship went for them, what they feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the program, and how they think they might use their facilitation skills going forward. The goal is to channel these findings right back into the ICDP, making the program stronger for the next cohort.  Additionally, I hope this research will contribute broadly to our knowledge about framing and designing effective civic educational experiences and dialogue programs in a period of national fracture.   

While I’m not currently working with Meira on EdEthics, she and I work with Jacob Fay to design and lead professional development sessions for the educators who are part of the Democratic Knowledge Project (DKP). We've been leading trainings for K-12 educators on the ethical dilemmas of, and skills for, navigating controversial topics in the classroom. Our training sessions focus on topics such as: how school communities determine which topics are open in the classroom for debate and which are settled, how to navigate controversial topics that students bring into the classroom, and specific skills for how to facilitate conversations between students about challenging topics. These sessions draw on the resources of the EdEthics normative case studies and our ICDP curricular materials.   

AJM: Your research for the ICDP is interested in understanding why undergraduates choose to participate in programs like the ICDP. Could you talk about some of the initial trends you’ve come across through this research?  

MC: Yes! Though with the caveat that my analysis is very much in progress. I am knee deep in analyzing the interviews, so these are very preliminary emerging themes.  

The first thing I’ve noticed is that many of the students I interviewed talked about moving between schools or communities or even countries that exposed them to radically different worldviews, They talked about how they learned that social categories like race, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation were conceptualized really differently in different places. Students explained that this taught them that people's beliefs and values emerge from their experiences. Many also said it gave them a sense that people and identities are not fixed—that they're shaped by context. Together, these insights seemed to have helped them see possibilities for understanding, translation, or connection that others may not.  

The second thing that really struck me was that a lot of the students talked about experiences  where they had hard conversations with friends, family, teachers, or other community members that challenged their views in an important way. Through those experiences, they learned that growth happens through discomfort and that certain kinds of growth require discomfort. Strikingly, some described actively seeking out this discomfort, looking for opportunities to engage with people who hold opposing or differing views—though some said it was difficult to find opportunities for these kinds of interactions on their campus.  

Finally, many students shared that, in order to accomplish their professional dreams or to address issues that they care about, they felt they needed the skills to communicate across political difference. Interestingly, this sense was expressed by students with a wide range of professional goals. I heard this theme from students who want to become doctors, teachers, scientists, public health leaders, politicians, lawyers, organizers, entrepreneurs, and more. They hoped participating in a program like ICDP would help them develop the skills they needed to engage in those conversations.  

These may evolve as I continue digging into the data and more may emerge, but those are a few that have jumped out to me so far.  

AJM: Do you have any projects on the horizon? 

MC: I think the biggest project I hopefully have coming up on the horizon is my dissertation! I am hoping to flesh out the study I’m currently conducting with ICDP, and perhaps expand it to include other similar initiatives.  

AJM: What do you do in your spare time, do you have any hobbies? 

MC: I don't know if this counts as a hobby, but I love to read fiction. I think in another life, I would have been a librarian. I was on the library squad in elementary school. I also recently started getting into baking challah. Every time I do though, the loaves come out absolutely massive. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but apparently one of my hobbies is baking massive loaves of challah bread.  

AJM: Do you have a podcast that you are listening to or a show that you are watching? 

MC: I’m about to take a civil-rights/social-justice road trip with my husband. We are going to start in New Orleans and then go to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, and then end in Atlanta. In preparation for that, we have been watching the documentary Eyes on The Prize which traces the Civil Rights Movement. It has incredible raw footage starting in the 50s and it has been amazing. It’s an older documentary, but I definitely recommend it. It’s helped me understand our current political landscape in a much more historically grounded way.  

AJM: What are you most excited about in the coming year? 

MC: I am really excited about the research that I’m doing with the ICDP students. I’m particularly interested to hear their thoughts and reflections on how the program has gone this year. I am also cautiously hopeful that we might, in the next year, be able to start having some more in-person gatherings for ICDP fellows. The students are really interested in meeting each other and building community. If we have the opportunity to bring our ICDP fellowship community together, I think that would be really special. I hope we can do it.