Reclaim Harvard Law: Student Voices Reshape an Institution

The Black Tape Incident, Source: Student Presentation
Black Tape Incident (Source: Presentation Slide)


"Our varying opinions on why it matters highlight an important factor of media and participatory politics - different voices and opinions can all come together to form one movement. The question then is, how do you channel the movement into actual change?

At Harvard, one of the most prominent recent student efforts about issues of racial injustice has been Reclaim Harvard Law.  The movement gained traction and intensity following an incident in November 2015 in which portraits of black Law School faculty members were vandalized with black tape. News of the incident spread quickly via social media and ignited outrage across campus. This movement is close to home for us as students here, but it is also widely influential given that it is occurring in the context of a prestigious institution. In light of this personal and political significance, we discuss why this issue is important to each of us and more broadly to the topic of youth and participatory politics in America." - Gaby Giotti, Michaela Morrow, & Kailash Sundaram

Why Does It Matter to Us?



The issue of racial injustice in this country has been important to me for a long time, in part because of the way that I was raised. My parents care deeply about diversity and bringing people from different communities together, and their passion led them to start a school in Boston called Neighborhood School which is very diverse in a multitude of ways. The school occupies the first floor of the house that I grew up in and the house across the street, so I was fortunate enough to have people from a wide range of backgrounds come to my house every day. As I have gotten older, I have become increasingly aware of my own privilege and of the fact that most of the world does not look like Neighborhood School.

Last fall when I heard about the black tape incident at HLS, it was striking to me because it was such a stark and clear issue of racism on our campus. It really drove home the fact that racism is something we need to be actively fighting against, because it is still very much present even right here where we live and learn. However, since I am not a student at the Law School, I watched the movement grow from more of an outsider’s perspective. I think the moment when it really became salient for me again was in the spring when The Crimson reported on the fact that students opposing the movement were writing angry and hateful comments on the walls of the room that Reclaim HLS occupying. The opposition really made me angry because it struck me that they were valuing making a political point (that they had a right to “free speech”) over basic respect for their fellow students. It made me really sad to be reminded of the deep divides that exist even on our campus.

However, I am hopeful because I see that Reclaim Harvard Law was able to have very real success. They took courageous risks and stood up for what they believed in, and they got one of the most powerful and influential universities in the world to listen to them - that’s pretty amazing. It makes me want to understand how they were actually able to have that impact, and what lessons future student organizers can learn from them.

A couple weeks ago I was at a rally for the HUDS strike, and one of the HUDS workers at the law school said that he felt so encouraged by the students of Reclaim HLS last spring because they held steady in their beliefs and worked together to keep occupying space. He said it was so hurtful to him to read signs that opponents put up on the walls, including one that said “The Affirmative African.” For him, those signs brought him right back to angry signs of protestors that met him when he was in 3rd grade and being bused to a white school as part of integration efforts. What gave him hope last spring, though, was that even in the face of those angry signs and racism, the students of Reclaim HLS continued to speak out and support each other day in and day out. This story really moved me because it made me realize the ripple effects of Reclaim HLS to many members of the Harvard community. I find their bravery admirable and inspirational, and I believe that we all have a lot to learn from them.


I grew up in a predominantly immigrant community - many of our family friends were from South and Central America, some undocumented. As such, I learned about racial injustice and discrimination at an early age. In fact, my mom was victim to microaggressions and discrimination on numerous occasions, which for a young girl, was a scary reality. My family was one of thousands of Latino families living in Florida. Yet, racism was persistent and harmful. I began to notice how segregated schools, churches, and community groups really were; as one who is racially white but ethnically Latina, I myself was unable to find my place within those various groups.

While I struggled with issues of identity, police brutality and violence were never on my mind. For one, I had never witnessed it. My opinions toward the matter were fairly selfish and privileged. It was not until the Black Lives Matter movement first erupted that I began to recognize that. My experiences didn’t match the daily fear of an altercation with police, or the generational inequality produced by slavery hundreds of years ago. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown reminded me, and millions of other individuals, that racial injustice is real and that the black community is still hurting. 

I am awe of the movement. As a student at Harvard, these issues have been particularly charging. Reclaim HLS offers a tangible, and rather participatory, example of Black Lives Matter, close to home. I bring to this case study the same questions I have with the broader BLM movement. I hope that through our conversations with Reclaim HLS, I will first learn to listen - taking the conversation off social media and engaging with difficult personal experiences in real life. I grapple with the following questions - how do we engage with political action when it first appears online and under the protection of social media? How can we translate digital impact into real life results that shape perceptions and ultimately shape an institution?


As a person of color, I’ve always thought that communities of color should stand together. The black community has done so much to create progress for other communities, and it’s important for people like me to stand with the black community when it needs us the most. It hurts me that more than 200 years into this great experiment we call the American democracy, people and groups in America still feel unequal - completely antithetical to our founding idea that “all men are created equal.”

Regarding our case study, I’m particularly interested in seeing how groups mobilize to have their voices heard and create change - specifically young people. People often say that while our generation is one of the most opinionated, it struggles to participate in politics - mobilize and then actually make action happen. We’re happy to sit back at our computers and send out tweets, but not willing enough to come together as communities and force change to happen. But what’s been very exciting about these racial justice movements is that people have come together to have their voices heard and made physical changes to our communities. I want to find out how Reclaim Harvard, started by Harvard Law students, was able to channel protests into sitting down with decision makers and getting the seal changed. 

My hope is that the framework we develop from our case study will be a guide to future movements - whether they be political, cultural, or institutional - and that they are source to better our world.

ReclaimHL: Student Voices Reshape an Institution [Student Paper]

Introduction: Reclaim Harvard Law


We plan to explore the topic of youth activism in modern racial justice movements. In particular, we will look at Reclaim Harvard Law, a group of students attempting to increase sensitivity to issues of racial injustice on campus.  They have made a series of demands including:

  • Removing the crest of a slaveholding family from the Law School’s seal
  • Reforming curriculum to make it more inclusive of a range of narratives and ensure that it addresses topics of racism and inequality
  • Creating an Office of Diversity and Inclusion
  • Increasing the financial accessibility of the Law School to students from different backgrounds
  • Emphasizing the hiring and support of staff of color

The movement used a variety of avenues to pursue these goals, such as occupying a prominent space on campus (which they refer to as “Belinda Hall”), starting a social media campaign involving many students at the Law School, holding community meetings, and more.  While not all of these demands have been met yet, notably the movement was successful at getting the Royall family crest removed from the Law School’s seal last spring.  Our hope is that through this case study we will gain a better understanding of which strategies were most instrumental to their successes, as well as more knowledge of the challenges and opposition they faced.  We also aim to explore the unique nature of this movement as taking place on a university campus and what that means for the sustainability of the movement in the face of student graduation and leadership turnover.

Why It Matters to Us

(This secion is introduced previously)

Our varying opinions on why it matters highlight an important factor of media and participatory politics - different voices and opinions can all come together to form one movement. The question then is, how do you channel the movement into actual change?



Main Issues

Main Issues

Throughout our case study, the main theme that we want to explore is how were mostly young university students able to use their voices in a way that actually produced significant change. Changing the law school seal was no small task or easy achievement, and yet they were able to do so in less than a year. What made that possible?

As part of exploring that larger question, we will examine the following themes: 

  1. Sacrifice - Knowing that activists occupied a physical space for an extended period of time and faced sharp and emotionally charged opposition, they definitely made many personal sacrifices on behalf of this movement. They also may have worried about how their involvement in the movement could influence their future professional opportunities. What gave them the courage and the drive to make these sacrifices? Do they believe now that their sacrifices were worth it?
  2. Efficacy - How was Reclaim HLS able to move from the domain of protest to actually making meaningful change? Have they created “impact” and how do we define that? Which demands have they been less successful in meeting and why? How do they plan to pursue their current and future demands? 
  3. Self- protection - How can one be vulnerable, yet protected in sharing their own experiences, especially in an environment like Harvard - where they consistently interact with the students and professors who hear their stories, and their stories may even become part of the national media? Did students feel like they needed to protect themselves?  If so, what strategies did they use to minimize personal and collective risk? How did they deal emotionally with the highly critical and sometimes inflammatory opposition that they faced?

These theoretical frameworks can also be categorized under umbrella questions of the YPP Action Framework. The following questions will help us explore the three issues discussed above as guiding questions and principles. 


Questions that We Will Pursue

Questions that we will pursue

1.    Why does it matter to me?

We hope to learn what motivated the leaders of Reclaim Harvard Law to action. Are they motivated because of how the issues personally affect them and those they care about? Are they acting more out of a disinterested stance (and general feeling of responsibility/duty to society) or one of equitable self-interest in which they see their own well-being as tied up in the well-being of society? What moments in their life gave them the motivation, the hope, and the courage to lead this action

2.    How much should I share?

How did leaders of Reclaim Harvard Law think about personal protection? I (Michaela) have a family friend who was involved in the movement, and his parents told us jokingly that at his graduation they hurried to check his diploma to make sure that he had really graduated. Even though they were partly kidding, there was a grain of reality to their worry about how his open involvement in a movement criticizing the school might jeopardize his educational pursuits. Additionally, as mentioned above, students faced strong opposition to their involvement, including other students writing hateful phrases on the walls of the space they were occupying. How did students navigate these risks and challenges to their participation?

3.    How do I make it about more than myself?

How did the different leaders of Reclaim Harvard Law find one another? How did they start thinking about the issue as something that other people around them might also care about? Additionally, what strategies did they use that helped them include a larger group of people in their movement beyond those who feel personally discriminated against at HLS? How did they create a sense of “us” for everyone involved, and yet also recognize important distinctions between the experiences of people of color and allies? 

4.    Where do we start?

How did Reclaim HLS get off the ground? What were the organizers’ first steps once they decided they wanted to hold a march? Did they first publicize it on social media? Did they reach out to students they already knew? Did they contact news organizations? Did they reach out to administrators? What was their pathway to action? Why did they think that that action in particular would be influential?

5.    How can we make it easy and engaging?

Marshall Ganz has said that people are not drawn to participate in activities that are “easy” but rather in activities that are “valuable.” He claims that there is a delicate balance between making involvement accessible and doable but also making sure that it is not so easy that it feels trivial to people. What specific avenues did Reclaim HLS provide for other people to get involved? How much effort did those methods of involvement require from others? How did both groups make movement participants feel that their engagement was valuable and could make a difference in the greater struggle?

7.    How do you handle the downside of crowds?

Reclaim Harvard Law faced student opposition who claimed that they had a right to make their voices heard in the same spaces that Reclaim HLS was occupying. These opposed parties then wrote many angry comments on the walls of that room, justifying their actions as “free speech.” How did Reclaim Harvard Law respond to this opposition? How did the opposition hurt or help the movement?

9.    How do we get from voice to change?

This question is essentially the broad theme of our case, and we believe that it is the key to understanding the significance of this movement. Reclaim HLS was able to have significant impact (changing the seal) so which of their specific actions was most powerful in leading to that change? Was it the fact that they had a lot of people involved? That they occupied physical space? How did their social media efforts play into their overall success? Also, what made them successful on some issues but not others - which actions affect which types of issues? Finally, did the fact that this movement happened at a prestigious institution have an impact on its success?

10.    How can we find allies?

How were these racial justice movements able to identify other organizations which could help them? How did they reach out to non-black participants and were they effective in bringing in non-black participants?


General Plan - Investigating Reclaim HL

General Plan - Investigating Reclaim HLS

We have several driving questions and themes that we hope to unravel through this case study. As such, we’ve determined that the best method to understand these issues is through interviews and data on Reclaim HLS involvement. We have already contacted Reclaim HLS through email and Facebook. A copy of that message is attached below. In addition, we’ll be reaching out to students who are involved in Reclaim HLS. Our interviews will mostly pursue the questions listed in the earlier sections about the YPP Framework, as they are relevant to the three points of political friendship and the broader theme of moving from voice to influence. Essentially, we want to hear stories and experiences from the field and from those most affected.

We also hope to explore which demands have been met and which haven’t, their social media reach, and how many have been involved--on both the student and faculty level. Some of this information may be found through the Reclaim HLS website and other media outlets. However, we also expect to gather more knowledge through the in-person interviews. In general, our plan for investigating this case study is as follows:

  1. Contact Reclaim HLS and set up interviews.
  2. Conduct interviews based on questions discussed in the earlier sections.
  3. Simultaneously, collect information from their website-- their timeline, history, and demands-- and outside news sources to better understand the history and development of this movement.

Message to Reclaim HLS

(Contacted through Gmail and Facebook)

Dear Reclaim HLS, 
My name is Kailash Sundaram and I'm a sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Social Studies. I'm currently in a class about youth political participation in the digital age, and a couple other classmates and I have been tasked with analyzing a social movement. 

Being Harvard students, we are very interested in the Reclaim Harvard movement - how it leveraged social media, how it garnered support, and how it created actual change - like the Harvard Law School seal. 

Would your team be willing to participate in our study? We would love to learn about the Reclaim Harvard movement, and it would only require a couple of hour-long interviews at your convenience. Please let me know if you have any questions!

Thank you!


(Tentative) Conclusion

What’s different about 21st century movements from those of the 1960s is the digital age. People today can reach audiences much faster and much larger than they were able to in the past, and this new capability has perhaps helped a younger group of leaders emerge. At Harvard Law, in particular, black students felt unsafe and unwelcome. To remedy this, they started a movement - Reclaim HLS - to have their stories heard and make administrative and school-wide policy changes. They leveraged social media to build a coalition, conducted protests, and held sit-ins to force the administration to take actual steps to remedy racial issues at Harvard Law.The movement made a series of demands, and while all demands have not been met, it was successful at getting the Royall family crest removed from the Law School’s seal last spring. 

Our goal is to analyze how Reclaim HLS used social media and other electronic tools to protest, have their voice heard, and create change. Our hope is that through this case study we will gain a better understanding of which strategies were most instrumental to their successes, as well as more knowledge of the challenges and opposition they faced. We will look at three particular ideas of the YPP Framework - Sacrifice, Efficacy, and Self-Protection. We also aim to explore the unique nature of this movement as taking place on a university campus and what that means for the sustainability of the movement in the face of student graduation and leadership turnover.

In sum, we hope to develop a framework for channeling a movement’s collective voice and then going from voice to change in a digital age - and just maybe, this framework will be used to spur more change for the better in the world.

What We Discovered So Far

We began this class with one question--what counts as political? This became an important factor in our case study. Along with identifying the sacrifice, efficacy, and self-protection components of political participation, we sought to understand whether or not Reclaim Harvard Law was in fact “political.” In an interview with Mark*  an active participant of Reclaim, we came upon an interesting definition. To him, political is social. The two are constantly intertwining. In an institution like Harvard, the political is quick to resemble existing social disparities. Mark also defined political as discourse and exchange of power leveraging, which he said some students may not agree with it. Furthermore, the word “activist” is a term that in and of itself is political. Much like some Muslim youth discussed in our readings, Mark regarded his identity as political - being black, queer, and a man are political factors, especially today. In this sense, “political” is acknowledging power institutions and simultaneously recognizing its social underpinnings.

We then learned of Reclaim Harvard Law’s primary goals, none of which included having national impact. They first wanted to recognize the institutions of power at Harvard, giving particular weight to how they were rooted in and perpetuate social inequality. But they knew that Harvard’s name would speak louder than the confines of campus. Campus and national media flocked to the events and actions organized by Reclaim Harvard LAW. Ultimately, this was not a negative result for the group. While the work was aimed internally, on Harvard campus, the students believed that national media could be good for the movement. It was particularly helpful in creating institutional pressure on other university groups and faculty members. More about this and organization of Reclaim Harvard Law will be discussed below.


We first interviewed Mark, 2nd year law student at Harvard Law School. His story and details about the movement are placed under the YPP questions we outlined in our proposal. 

1. Why does it matter to me [them: the organizers of Reclaim]?

When we asked Mark why he personally got involved with this work, he talked about different examples of ways that he has noticed institutional racism at Harvard Law. Often there are only a few black students in each section, and so he spoke of a sense of pressure to almost “represent” his race when speaking in that environment.  Additionally, he linked institutionalized racism to structures and norms of law schools in general.  For example, he spoke at length about the socratic method and its dangers for marginalized students; when you are cold called as a minority student you might feel an extreme sense of pressure again because you might feel that you are being taken as a representative of your race or group.  When faculty are challenged about the value of the socratic method, he said that they often claim that its purpose is to “break down students so we can build them back up.”  

According to Mark, in law school there is a large emphasis on doing things because that is the way they are always done - it’s a focus on precedent that almost mimics that of the actual law.  In an environment that so values the past, social change and challenging the status quo is particularly difficult.  For Mark, his awareness that he is living and learning within a system that does include such challenges for minority students is part of what gives him the drive to be involved with campus activism.

The most immediate trigger of the founding of Reclaim Harvard Law and what made students care about doing something to address racism at a specific moment was the so-called “black tape” incident.  Late last November, students discovered that portraits of black faculty members at the law school had been vandalized with black tape.  While many student groups related to race and activism already existed on campus, meetings following the black tape incident brought many of these students together and provided the immediate motivation for students to develop specific demands and form “Reclaim Harvard Law.” 

2. How much should I share?

In talking with Mark, the issue of self-protection was immediately very important.  When we first began our conversation and asked Mark if we could record it, he said no just to be on the safe side.  Last spring, hidden recording devices were found in Belinda Hall and other locations where Reclaim students met.  As Mark told us, that was one instance in which students were reminded that this work put them at real risk of violations to their privacy. Therefore, it’s clear that students involved with the movement need to think a lot about how much they share, even in spaces that they may think are semi-private.
In another setting related to “sharing” students involved in Reclaim had to recognize that when they voiced their opinions in campus publications or other media, they would face many opposing comments.  While Mark characterized some of this dissent and space for dialogue as productive, it’s worth noting that press and media are another venue in which students must carefully consider how much they want to share, knowing that it will be scrutinized.

3. How do I make it about more than myself?

According to Mark, the black tape incident was really the catalyst that united students and helped them begin working together as a larger group instead of as individuals.  Mark said that they came together out of frustration, fear, anger, and all of the other shared emotions that they were collectively experiencing in response to the incident.  Older students (2L’s and 3L’s) seem to have initiated many of the meetings, and 1L’s like Mark followed them almost as mentors.  Both at the beginning and throughout the existence of Reclaim, they have tried to make their events and movement as open as possible - Mark stressed this.  We would still like to find out more about what the involvement of allies of other races was like.  Did organizers hope to have involvement from white allies, for example? Did they do anything to try to explicitly reach out to ally groups or did they mostly let these groups come or not based on their own interest?

4. Where do we start?

Essentially the movement started in the wake of the black tape incident when students began having a series of meetings, some on their own and some with faculty members.  Many of the early student meetings were led by 3rd year students, and initially the meetings involved venting emotion.  The Dean sent out an email soon after the incident that said the administration were taking it seriously and proposed a community meeting to discuss the event.  However, at early meetings with administrators, many students did not feel that their voices were heard.  For example, Mark described a lunch meeting where administrators and faculty spoke from 12:00-12:50 PM and then opened up the floor to students.  By that time, everyone had to leave and go back to class at 1PM, so students effectively did not get to share their voices.  

This frustrated many students who felt that this was just another example of the institution showing that it did not truly care about them. In response to complaints, another official meeting was organized where students could have a voice. In preparation for this meeting, students focused on organizing themselves and planning specific tactics that would help them be heard.  For example, students discussed in advance the setup of the room, the number of mics, who would be ensuring mic turnover, etc.  Through this organizing, students were able to voice their concerns and present their demands to the administration at the community meeting on December 4, 2016.

In coming up with their goals and demands, students were intentional about preserving a non-hierarchical structure, though many 2nd and 3rd year students did have a history of activism and were thus natural leaders.  1Ls were involved with making decision, but they would often give deference to those with stronger “institutional knowledge.”  Mark credited the previous activism and knowledge of these older students with much of the success that the movement had; these students were ready, they had the tools and skills necessary to lead a movement.  One specific way that older students aided the movement was that there were 3rd year negotiation students who could act as moderators and facilitate meetings.  The students main goals in their early meetings were to come up with “concrete asks” - demands that could actually be met and lead to progress.  Aside from the meetings, the students also formed smaller working groups to develop demands.

5. How can we make it easy and engaging? 

Reclaim Harvard Law’s organization came out of failed attempts by the administration to bring students together. In the first few discussions after the black tape incident, conversation was primarily held by administrations. This frustrated many students, including Mark, who saw the talks as perpetuating unhelpful power dynamics, in the face of a serious hate crime. So first, the organizers of Reclaim Harvard Law sought a space where all students could have a space to talk. To make these discussions actually “easy and engaging,” they set up events with multiple microphones and met nightly for several hours, providing students with varied opportunities to participate.

And they included 1Ls in the decision making and planning processes. Their most obvious efforts to make Reclaim Harvard Law and the movement at large accessible to all, even to those outside the Harvard community, were creating a website, drafting a public list of demands, and setting up a Facebook page. They also had a social media campaign that involved students taking pictures of themselves with signs bearing the hashtag #ReclaimHarvardLaw. Breaks and final exam period often chipped away at the membership; however Reclaim Harvard Law seeks to retain its members by organizing monthly events and meeting with administration. The latter was a form of increasing “engagement,” as it encouraged students to participate and stay connected with the organization--even in light of decreasing momentum and fluctuating membership.

6. How do you handle the downside of the crowds?

Like many movements, Reclaim Harvard Law faced loud opposition. Its most well-known opponent was Bill Barlow. At the first meeting, he quickly dissented the actions of the protesters and continued to do throughout the organization’s growth. The most famous incident being when Barlow removed posters by Reclaim Harvard Law organizers. As the opposition continued, many students left. According to Mark, students began to question the methods of the organization, particularly in regards to the free speech debate. Yet, to some level not much could be done to actually silence the crowds. Reclaim Harvard Law just needed to keep moving forward. And so they did, by changing the format of discussion, instituting leadership organization, and pushing goals of making Harvard a place for open discussion. At the some level, they needed to accept the opposition. Reclaim Harvard Law’s position on Barlow and other opposition provides an interesting perspective on the goals of other movements--accept the disagreeing opinions, but keep moving forward with larger numbers and louder voices.

7. How do we get from voice to change?

One of Reclaim Harvard Law’s smartest tactics was to create a list of demands that the university could reasonably act on. This, Mark noted, was done to ensure that the university could not refute the demands on the grounds of not being “plausible” or straining financial resources. Through a series of late-night meetings, Reclaim Harvard Law put together a list of demands that included changing the Harvard Law School seal (which had ties to slavery), a critical race program, increasing the number of critical race scholars at the Law school, having a race inclusion office, and having a director for racial justice issues.

The team then camped out in Wasserstein Hall, which Reclaim designated as Belinda Hall (after one of the slaves in the family tied to the seal), and held out for a meeting with administrators. By putting themselves in the spotlight; drawing attention from students, the faculty, and administrators; and making themselves a part of the conversation, Reclaim forced Harvard to act.  Another indirect factor, though, that could have helped Harvard and isn’t necessarily at the hands of other movements, is simply the “Harvard” brand. By virtue of the movement being at Harvard, Mark noted, the media and outside organizations were also drawn to the movement.

8. How can we find allies? 

According to Mark, the Reclaim movement was aimed internally; the movement did not seek to draw from outside organizations or necessarily make an external impact.  During the movement, though, the team stumbled on allies who turnout to be very helpful. For one, the LL.M. students - international students earning a law degree - became allies of the movement, helping educate the leaders and organize the rallies. A group of South African students, with firsthand knowledge of social activism themselves, Mark noted, really helped push the movement forward. Additionally, a group of Occidental College students reached out to the Reclaim leaders and traveled to Harvard to help with the sleep-in and understand racial justice movements themselves.

Moving Forward

Moving forward, we’d like to take the responses we’ve gotten from the interview and expand on the YPP framework**; particularly, we would like to:

  1. Find overarching strategies and goals that would be successful in any movement
  2. Understand more precisely the role of social media; what were Reclaim HLS’ strategies, and can their tactics be expanded upon or implemented in other movements?
  3. Explore the inclusion of allies - what steps (if any) did Reclaim organizers take to try to make the movement open to students not directly affected by the issues it addressed.
  4. Interview another student - we thought we were going to have two interviews this week but it ended up not happening, so we will keep trying.  

In sum, by parsing the knowledge we already have and gathering more targeted information, we hope to develop a framework for channeling a movement’s collective voice and then going from voice to change in a digital age - and just maybe, this framework will be used to spur more change for the better in the world. 


* Names are replaced with psedonyms

** At the time of student investgation, the Ten Questions were  known as "the YPP Framework." 

Discussion and Conclusion

In this case study we have examined the tactics and impact of Reclaim Harvard Law, a student movement striving to create institutional change around issues of racial justice and inequality at Harvard Law School.  In their own words, Reclaim HLS is a “a movement of hundreds students and staff at Harvard Law School, from various student organizations, affinity groups, and backgrounds, pushing for institutional change at Harvard Law School. This movement fits into a national call for racial equality in education, which has resulted in positive changes at a number of colleges and universities.”  Reclaim Harvard Law was officially formed a year ago, on December 1, 2015. 

We chose this case for a number of reasons. First, it was relevant to our campus and current national issues of racial injustice. Since the Black Lives Matter movement first erupted over social media, there has been an increased awareness of the issues still affecting the black community. It seemed that every other week we would hear something about police brutality and unjust treatment. In a way, Reclaim Harvard Law was born out out this movement, by creating a space for dialogue and action. Second, this case was accessible--a movement directly on and affecting our campus. We felt a personal connection, not only as fellow Harvard students, but also as young adults witnessing or experiencing injustice. We wanted to understand how students, only a few years older than us, could create such a tremendous impact on their administration. What drove them to action, what kept them going. 

Each of us brought along individual interests into the case study, ranging from personal stories to general curiosity. For me (Gaby), this was an opportunity to better understand the experiences of black Americans. I grew up in a mostly Latino community, yet did not have much insight into the lives of other students of color. For Michaela, the case study was rooted in prior interest and participation in the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the summer, she had the opportunity to engage with youth activists while in Chicago. For Kailash, it was curiosity and a drive to learn how students were able to create concrete change. 

As we sought to explore youth activism in racial justice movements, we focused on answering three particular questions: (1) what strategies were instrumental to Reclaim HLS’ success, (2) what challenges and opposition did Reclaim HLS face, and (3) how does the “college campus” affect youth movements. These questions would be answered in the context of the YPP framework. 

In order to research this case study, we began by learning as much as we could about the movement from on-campus, local, and national media coverage. From there, we attempted to contact students involved with the movement. Professor Allen put us in touch with a member of Reclaim who then connected us with another student whom we will refer to here as Mark. We were able to interview Mark in mid-November, and he provided us with many details of his personal experience with the movement.  While we made plans to interview another student as well, she was ultimately unable to meet with us - she had a baby! This case study should therefore not be viewed as an exhaustive portrait of the movement but rather an introduction to its story and a glimpse into the participation of one student.

The Story of the Movement

On November 19, 2015, the portraits of black faculty members at Harvard Law School were vandalized with pieces of black tape. This incident, highly disturbing to many members of the Law School community, would serve as the catalyst for the creation of Reclaim Harvard Law, though it was by no means the beginning of activism on campus.  For example, in 2014, many affinity groups and their allies had pushed for discussions about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on campus.  Even more recently, in October 2015, a group of students, including international students from South Africa, had created the movement Royall Must Fall (RMF) with the aim of “[decolonizing] Harvard Law School, with one first step as removing the Royall family crest from the Law School’s shield.”   In fact, the black tape incident was perhaps partially in response to the work of RMF.  RMF had used black tape to cover the law school’s seal in many prominent locations on campus, and it was this tape that is thought to have been taken and used to vandalize the faculty member portraits.   

The night that the black tape incident occurred, students held emergency meetings to begin discussing their response.  As Mark explained to us, many 3Ls (third year students) acted as de facto leaders of these meetings; many of them had previous experience with activism on campus and it made sense for first year students like Mark to follow their lead.  However, Mark also emphasized that these meetings were not top-down in structure; all students were encouraged to participate and share their thoughts.  These initial meetings also served a variety of purposes: they were a place for students to vent and discuss their emotions, as well as a place to begin discussing ideas for strategic response.  According to the YPP framework, these meetings were a way for students to explore the question: Where do we start? Students hoped to implement the most effective techniques possible to create real change: Mark spoke of their emphasis on ensuring a “legitimate and substantive” from the university.

In addition to discussing strategy, some students also discussed the personal reasons for why they were upset about the black tape incident and why they hoped for institutional change on campus.  In other words, they shared their responses to the question: Why does it matter to me? Due to the limits of our case study as previously discussed, we could not hear the personal perspectives of multiple students.  However, we did talk with Mark about the reasons that he became involved.  One way Mark has experienced institutional racism on campus is through a frequent sense of being on the fringe or marginalized.  For example, in classroom settings where he is one of only a few students of color, he often feels a perception of having to speak on behalf of his race.  The socratic method, used extensively at the law school, exacerbates this pressure because if a marginalized individual is cold-called and fails to answer the question correctly, they can feel that they are failing their race or group.  One of the aims of this method is to “break students down” so that the law school can then “build them back up,” and in Mark’s view, it is one example of a practice that is continued at law schools simply because that is the way things have always been done.  According to Mark, the importance placed on precedence in the legal world can carry over to law schools and make it extremely difficult to change campus culture and work for social justice.  Another institutional issue that Mark saw at the law school was a failure to discuss issues beyond how they pertain to powerful groups in society.  Classes often address cases that include issues still relevant today, for example, the court’s justification for taking away land from Native Americans.  However, students are not given the opportunity to discuss the implications of these issues in today’s world or how they may affect marginalized groups.

In our discussion with Mark, he talked about institutional issues not only as they pertained to students of minority racial groups, but also to other marginalized groups such as queer students and women.  We did not ask him directly about whether there were any early efforts to purposefully reach out to members of other such groups as allies, but it seems that discussions of institutional change at the university could have perhaps been used to help the group think about the YPP question: How do I make it about more than myself?

Following the initial student meetings immediately after the black tape incident, law school administrators also began to host community meetings to discuss the issue.  At the first such meeting, on November 30, 2015, many students were left frustrated because they felt that the administration had silenced their voices. Dean Minow spoke at the meeting for 30 minutes and was followed by other members of the administration. Students were left with only a few minutes to share their thoughts before the meeting was ended. At the close of the conversation, one student said he wished students had been allowed more time to speak, to which Dean Minow replied, “Does anyone have an actual comment?” 

Because students had lacked any control over the first community meeting, they began to get organized to ensure that their voices would be heard at subsequent meetings.  Affinity group leaders met and invited interested students to join them, and students also formed working groups to begin drafting their demands.  In preparation for a community meeting on December 4, students planned out every detail of how they would be heard.  According to Mark they planned exactly how many microphones there would be and where, and they decided who would be in charge of mic turnovers and transitions.  In our view, this planning appears to be a key example of how Reclaim was able to begin answering the question: How do we get from voice to change? Ensuring that they would have adequate time to speak at the meeting was a way for students to share their voices; a prerequisite for change.  At the meeting on December 4, students presented their demands to Dean Minow and requested a response by 9am on Monday, December 7.  These demands were their next step in attempting to move from voice to change.

Actionable Demands and Moving Forwards

According to Mark, students sought to present actionable demands. Some of these demands, all of which are found on their website, included: addressing history of slavery by removing the Royall family crest, establishing a Critical Race Program, reforming legal curriculum through student input to ensure integration of marginalized narratives, establishing a Office of Diversity & Inclusion, improving affordability and access to HLS students of color and low socio-economic backgrounds, and recruiting and encouraging Staff of Color.  These demands, Mark said, were practical and feasible for the administration. For example, practical measures could very well be taken to establishing an Office of Diversity & Inclusion. While the list of demands was long, students pushed for every single measure to be met. If anything, they wanted the administration to be aware of their organization, goals, and continued spirit in the movement.  The demands forced the administration to respond and also addressed the YPP question: how do we get from voice to change? 

Students continued to explore this question through activism and online action. Shortly after they visited Dean Minow’s office, with no success, activists congregated in Kumble Plaza to stage a protest. They met again on Tuesday, a day after the protest, for another community discussion. Students from Reclaim Harvard Law and a coalition of affinity groups sat and studied together in Wasserstein Hall, discussing their demands and what future actions to take. On December 8, students launched the Reclaim HLS website, Facebook, and Twitter. A photo campaign with the hashtag #ReclaimHLS soon followed - where activists and allies took photos holding a white board, with the phrase “I Reclaim HLS because.”  Though this, students engaged with: How can we find allies? After winter break, they staged a quite successful occupation of Belinda Hall, which is formally known as Wasserstein Lounge but was renamed after one of Isaac Royall’s slaves. Protesters stayed day and night, creating spaces for reading, fireside chats, and contextual learning. They held regular speaker events and group discussions that truly transformed the student lounge.  According to Mark, the primary goal of this action was creating a safe space for students who had not felt that on campus, in addition to pushing administration. 

Following the occupation and ongoing demonstrations, Reclaim HLS received a lot criticism, the most pressing coming from a fellow student, William Barlowe. Barlowe was an outspoken opponent to the movement, putting up posters that claimed Reclaim was similar to Trump in that both “supported the suppression of dissent.” After some of these posters were taken down, Barlow argued that Reclaim HLS was violating the right to free speech. Growing opposition supposedly “turned off” some students from joining who questioned the group’s tactics and demands. During this time, Reclaim students also found recording devices in their meeting rooms. It was the group’s first experience answering the question: How do you handle the downside of the crowds? Mark told us that the group simply had to keep moving forward. They addressed the opposition and continued to emphasize inter-group action and protests towards the administration. The tense climate  inspired student activists to regroup for a reflection, rather than a strategic meeting. At this meeting, students engaged in conversations around the question, “why are you here?” - why does it matter to me? It was a tense evening, where members brought up painful memories and encouraged each other to continue fighting. The stories, Mark said, was what kept them going and willing to take risks. 

Success, But More Battles

By February, the efforts of the Reclaim HLS organizers and participants seemed to be paying off. Dean of Students Marcia Sells released a statement detailing plans to hire a Director for Community Engagement and Equity and increase diversity training at first-year orientation programs. Sells also promised that Harvard would release a campus-wide climate survey, launch a mentoring program, and improve sexual assault prevention training. In March, one of Reclaim HLS’ most important demands was met; the Harvard Corporation had approved the Law School Committee’s decision to remove the seal. Reclaim HLS had, in turn, gone from voice to change; they were a symbol of efficacy.

With significant progress made towards Reclaim HLS’ initial goal of reducing minority marginalization on campus, the movement took towards realizing a more idealistic goal: ending tuition at Harvard Law School. While the movements’ organizers realized that ending tuition completely was rather lofty, they sought to raise awareness about the economic disparities that students of color and low-income students often confront. The “Fees Must Fall” campaign continues to this day. Having developed credibility first by achieving a set of goals, Reclaim HLS now uses its voice to raise awareness.

Like many movements centered around college campuses, Reclaim had to contend with waning student interest and the graduation of the movement’s organizers. Considering that five YPP Action Framework pertain to this issue (why does it matter to me, how much should I share, how do I make it about more than myself, how can we make it easy and engaging, and how can we find allies), it’s no wonder that it’s a hard one to solve. To account for the fact that students had varying levels of interest in Reclaim HLS and time to commit to the organization, Reclaim organizers created events with different levels of investment. Every few weeks, Reclaim HLS would hold low-time commitment workshops that served as political education. One workshop, for example, dealt with queer theory. For those interested in more extensive involvement with Reclaim, Reclaim helped organize support for the Harvard University Dining Hall Workers strike. Because of Reclaim HLS’ past grassroots work, the organization was able to easily mobilize its members in support of the strike. Belinda Hall, the center of Reclaim HLS’ work during the Royall Must Fall campaign, became an activist space. Reclaim did not penalize those who had been involved with the movement but then dropped off for re-joining, and doing so allowed the organization to sustain itself and grow this year.

Looking forward, Reclaim will attempt to build sustained momentum. While much of its activism to date has been in reaction to contemporary events or other ongoing movements, Reclaim will work toward building a mission and framework that allows the organization to keep up its work during less reactionary times. To continue making progress, the organization is also looking to institutionalize their work. Doing so will allow future movements to reference Reclaim’s work when looking to make change of their own.

Major Lessons and Takeaways of our Case Study

In our discussion with Mark, we found an interesting definition of political, which helped us in answering some of the underlying questions of this course: What is political and does raising voices count as civic and political action? Mark defined “politics” as discourse and exchange of power. He acknowledged that some students in Reclaim HLS would perhaps not agree with him. For him, politics and social are intertwined, because in any given situation power relations are always in operation. An institution like Harvard inherently resembles social inequalities--you can’t ignore the social underpinnings. Mark then spoke about the self or individual in the political realm. “Activist,” he said, is a term that in and of itself political. His identity as a queer black man is in and of itself political, placing him in a very different social and political world than others. Essentially, identity is political because in many cases it is related to power structures tied to institutions. 

The three major themes of the course that we saw as relevant to our case study were sacrifice, efficacy, and self-protection. In this case, student sacrifice was necessary in order for any part of the movement to be effective. From the very beginning, students needed to sacrifice their time and effort to plan and attend meetings and draft demands. As the movement progressed, they sacrificed even more time: many of them slept and lived in Belinda Hall for most of the spring semester. Not only did this commitment take away from the time they were able to spend pursuing their academic work, but it also meant that they had to bear the risk of damaging their future career prospects or relationship with the school. I (Michaela) have a family friend who was involved with the movement, and his family jokingly tells the story of how they double checked his diploma last year just to make sure that the university had really let him graduate. Though they were kidding, this anecdote reflects a small fraction of the risks taken by students for the sake of the efficacy of Reclaim HLS.

Because of all the risks involved, this case required that students be especially aware of their self-protection.  Even though much of this movement was not operating in the digital space, it still required students to be conscious of how much they shared at any given moment. As students were reminded last spring with the discovery of recording devices in Belinda Hall, their privacy was often at risk as a result of taking part in the movement. When we interviewed Mark, he asked that we not record the conversation.  While that is one example of individual self-protection, most of the self-protection that we learned about in this case was at the group level. With more time and interviews it would be interesting to examine how self-protection may have looked different for different students, especially students with different intersectional identities.

Efficacy, the third of the major themes we identified for our case study, involves lessons applicable for future movements. Any future movement, we realized, should have answers to three questions: (1) Why, (2) How do we get from voice to change, and (3) How do we respond to the opposition? The “why” answer can’t be a long mission statement or a simple restatement of values - it has to speak to someone’s gut of “why” they want to participate. Take, for example, the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While Clinton appealed to people’s rational side and asked them to side with her for her experience and temperament, Trump campaigned on a motto: “Make America Great Again” - vague but appealing to people’s hearts. How do we get from voice to change ultimately proves the lasting legacy of a movement. To do this, mission organizers need to be willing to make sacrifices, particularly with time, and carry out detailed planning. Reclaim HLS organizers often sacrificed study time for the movement and worked diligently to ensure that the administration could not avoid them. In one instance, to ensure that the questions of Reclaim were addressed at a forum, Reclaim organizers stationed members at every microphone. This way, even if the administrators stopped calling questions at one microphone due to the questions being related to Reclaim movement, there would be other students to continue the line of questioning. Finally, most movements can expect to face opposition and should have a response to the opposition’s argument. Reclaim HLS struggled slightly in this area, and we have attempted to answer how they could have reacted better to the opposition in “Concluding Thoughts and Questions.”

Concluding Thoughts & Questions

How could Reclaim have responded to its opposition in a better manner? As we’ve taken time to reflect on this project as a whole, one question that still lingers for us is what the most effective response to opposition would have been for Reclaim HLS.  Is there anything that they could or should have done differently in order to maximize Reclaim’s allies and resources on campus?  When approaching this question, we are cognizant of the fact that none of us were involved in the movement and we cannot know all of the challenges that accompanied having to respond quickly and under pressure to extremely tense situations. We are therefore not trying to criticize Reclaim’s response but rather trying to create dialogue about lessons that may be useful to future movements. Because each of us have different views, we will each give brief thoughts on Reclaim’s response to opposition.

Michaela: In my view, the reason that Reclaim’s response to opposition was so crucial to their movement is because it was so interwoven with their ability to find and maintain allies. As was noted in opinion pieces last spring, some students who were otherwise in agreement with the movement’s goals became skeptical of their tactics following their interactions with Barlowe.  As Ethan Zuckerman states in From Voice to Influence, “The decision to protest is always a calculus. Will my statement make a difference? What risks am I taking?”  In this case, part of the “calculation” of students as to whether or not they should get involved with Reclaim also seems to have involved whether or not they agreed with the movement’s tactics.  Reclaim’s actions raised questions about free speech for many students that organizers may or may not have anticipated before acting - I would be interested to learn more about whether or not they expected so much backlash. It seems to me that part of the movement’s initial response to Barlowe was reactionary (such as removing his posters) rather than planned in advance. Perhaps if they had made a plan for how to respond to dissent earlier in the movement, before they received targeted opposition, they would have been better equipped to respond with intentionality. In such circumstances, maybe they would have arrived at the same outcome and still decided to remove opposing posters, but by doing so in advance they might have been able to get ahead of the backlash and clearly state the reasoning behind their response before fellow students began criticizing it.  In other words, perhaps they could have partially avoided always having to be in a defensive position.

Kailash: Reclaim’s opposition, in many ways, was similar to the opposition we saw to racial justice movements around the nation; the argument went that these racial justice movements infringed on others’ personal spaces, violated free speech, and unncessarily made minorities “victims” - the marginalization of minorities was not as prevalent as to the extent which movement organizers claimed. William Barlowe, the leader of opposition to Reclaim HLS, particular centered his case against the movement around free speech. The movement, he argued, tried to tamp down on speech without hearing the opposition - as HLS student Marlen Thaten made the case, anyone “who [even dared] disagree with you [was] labeled a racist or extremist.” Reclaim should have hosted forums not just with administrators but also with the opposition to tamp down negative claims about their movement. Doing so would have sponsored a spirit of unity and maybe reduced the division on campus. Because Reclaim simply said Barlowe and his counterparts were wrong without engaging them, they created more polarization on campus. Certainly, it can hurt to talk about issues you feel should be easily understood or are very personal to you. But Reclaim organizers had an obligation to explain their movement to the entire student body - not just their supporters, but also their opposers. As Professor Danielle Allen and I discussed in class, these organizers should have moved to separate their personal experiences from the issue; doing so would have allowed them to express their objectives clearly without getting caught up in the emotions that come along with describing one’s personal experiences with marginalization.

Gaby: Following William Barlowe’s criticism of the Reclaim HLS it seemed that organizers retreated back into their group for support and to move forward. I certainly do not intend to criticize this aspect of reflecting and support that took place in the form of very difficult community conversations. However, I did find the idea of “moving forward” from opposition to be quite interesting. Beyond matters of free speech, some students voiced concerns about the tactics and attitudes of organizers--feeling as if Reclaim HLS was opposed to even conversation with “the other side.” Perhaps discussions and meetings with students beyond the Reclaim network would have helped. This may have occurred - but we did not get a chance to follow up with Mark or students from the movement. Like Michaela, I wondered if Reclaim HLS expected the opposition, and if so, did they have an organized strategy about how to best respond. For example, spending time in the very early meetings to discuss potential backlash and how the organization would respond in unison. There also seems to be an issue of organizers having different opinion on the next step. While some may have supported removing Barlowe’s posters, it is possible that other students did voice their concerns. Ultimately, I believe it is a matter of everyone agreeing on the mission and tactics of the organization. Creating the list of demands was an example of this, agreeing on the responses would be a wise addition. 

Another remaining question that we have is whether self-protection looked different for different students who were part of the Reclaim movement. How did other aspects of students’ identities affect the pressure they felt to limit the publicity of their involvement with the movement? Because we only interviewed one participant it was difficult to get a sense of varying perspectives on self-protection, but going forward we would be very curious to learn more about how students with different intersectional identities dealt with the movement’s risks.  Did women deal with self-protection differently than men? Did individuals’ LGBTQ identities affect their self-protection strategies? What self-protection was required for white allies? Also, did risks inhibit any groups of students from getting involved with the movement for fear that they wouldn’t be able to adequately protect themselves? How did students help protect one another? Hearing the personal experiences of more students involved with the movement would be helpful to answering these questions.

Furthermore, how did the Harvard title change the circumstances? We can imagine that if this had occurred at a smaller, unrecognized college, the response from administration would have been different. Students here gained ground with local and national news, largely in part of being at Harvard. Most people in the Harvard network were aware of Reclaim HLS, even more so when organizers partook in other movements or protests, like the HUDS strike. There is a sense of urgency in the title that is both beneficial and impactful. Harvard claims to be a world-renewed institution, which it certainly is. In doing so, there is a spoken (and unspoken) standard of legitimacy and prestige that administrators want to protect. The Reclaim HLS movement threatened to change that. So, responding to students with caution and ease was ultimately the wisest decision. In another sense, students were very much fighting for equality at Harvard, with a mindset that this also occurs at other institutions. Thus, the vision itself is broadly applicable. Connecting with other schools, however, is a more difficult task--as it requires further organization and sacrifice, beyond the doors of Harvard. This would be an interesting topic to study in the future of Reclaim HLS. 
Finally, we considered whether there could be similarities between Reclaim HLS and the Harry Potter Alliance and the DREAMers, two movements we frequently discussed in class. While the Harry Potter alliance mobilizes a common interest to achieve good, it stands in contrast to Reclaim HLS, which deals with personal experience and an attempt to better that experience. Reclaim HLS is closer to DREAMers, in which the children of illegal immigrants fought for pathways to citizenship. These DREAMers were fighting for a cause they knew would better their lives, much like many members of Reclaim HLS. The DREAMers, though, were fighting for basic rights; racial minorities at Harvard already had the same rights as other students. Reclaim HLS, however, felt that certain practices at Harvard hurt minorities; these practices weren’t put in place to hurt minorities, yet they placed an undue burden on them. That difference, between fighting for equal rights under the law and fighting to change “colorblind” practices, makes a difference in the movement’s mission and opposition. It would be interesting for future studies to consider whether movement’s attempt to change “colorblind” practices have tougher times than movements fighting for basic rights under the law. It would also be interesting to see whether the ways in which DREAMers went national could help Reclaim HLS expand its mission outside of Harvard.


[3] "We Reclaim Harvard Law Because...," Reclaim Harvard Law, , accessed December 16, 2016,
[4] "Timeline of Student Activism for Diversity and Inclusion," Reclaim Harvard Law School, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
[5]  "Timeline of Student Activism for Diversity and Inclusion," Reclaim Harvard Law School, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
[6] Jamiles Lartey, "Harvard 'black tape' vandalism brings law school's controversial past to fore," The Guardian, November 21, 2015, accessed December 16, 2016,
[7]   "Timeline of Student Activism for Diversity and Inclusion," Reclaim Harvard Law School, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
[8]  "Reclaim Harvard Law Demands," Reclaim Harvard Law School, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
[9]  “Law School Students Protest Minow’s response to Demands,” The Harvard Crimson, 2015, accessed December 16, 2016,
[10] “These messages explain why some Harvard Law students are protesting,” Boston News, 2015, accessed December 16, 2016,
[11] “Reclaim HLS Activists Occupy Student Lounge,” The Harvard Law Record, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
[12] Marlen Thaten, "Reclaim Harvard Law, please stop destroying yourself," The Harvard Law Record, April 02, 2016, , accessed December 17, 2016,
[13] Ethan Zuckerman, "Cute Cats to the Rescue?," in From Voice to Influence, ed. Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 143.



Individual Reflection [Michaela]

Michaela: First of all, I am very grateful to have done this project because as a Harvard student I hope to be more aware of social justice movements happening on this campus.  I spend so much time thinking about the larger political picture and issues on a national level, but sometimes I neglect to really understand what is already happening in my own backyard.  And honestly, in a class where we have been discussing how we can get from voice to change, I think a key part of that can be starting local. It seems like a much more effective method to get involved with movements already happening in my community than to just be overwhelmed by the enormity of problems in the world. So I am thankful that this project gave me a chance to explore a movement that is currently having a tangible impact on Harvard’s campus.

Secondly, one of the key takeaways that I am leaving with from this case is the importance of the YPP question “Why does it matter to me?” When we interviewed Mark and asked him about some of the institutional problems he sees at Harvard and why the movement is important to him, he had immediate and clear responses that wove together his personal experiences, the experiences of fellow students, and trends across law schools in general. It was clear that he knew why he was involved and that he had clear and specific hopes for change. Especially in a movement that required so much personal risk and ongoing sacrifice of the students involved, I believe this personal passion and focused drive was key to the movement’s success.  Moving forward, I am curious as to whether the movement will be able to continue to sustain its momentum as it branches out to a wider scope of causes.  The danger to me seems to be that the movement could lose some of its ability to sustain membership over long periods of time once its members are no longer working towards a specific end that they feel passionately about.  However, perhaps by broadening its scope the movement will be able to attract more allies and others who would not otherwise have had the personal motivation to join.

One idea presented in the course that stood out to me this semester and which seems pertinent to this case is the idea of rooted cosmopolitanism and equitable self interest.  In this case, I think these ideas relate to the questions “How do I make it about more than myself?” and “How do you handle the downside of crowds?” According to Parham and Allen, “A rooted cosmopolitan understands the value of community and what he acquires from membership in a community; consequently, he expands his own understanding of self-interest to include preservation of the community from which he takes those benefits."[14] Equitable self-interest and rooted cosmopolitanism center around the idea that individuals’ interests are bound up in the interests of one another and of the community as a whole.  Hurting each other only hurts themselves and damages the community.  I wonder whether such a concept may be important when thinking about how movements such as Reclaim can most effectively engage a wide swath of students and respond to opposition. A part of me thinks perhaps it might be worth it for students to emphasize that when they are fighting for justice on campus, they are not just doing it to improve their own lives but to improve the community and learning environment as a whole.  When some students are marginalized and cannot comfortably share their voice in the classroom, that takes away from everyone’s opportunity to learn from diverse perspectives. The other part of me thinks that this is already obvious - surely opponents such as Barlowe realize that Reclaim’s goals are ultimately in their own self-interest as well? But perhaps not, or else they would not fight so adamantly to dismantle the movement. If movements could somehow help establish an understanding of the idea of equitable self interest, perhaps when others disagreed with them they would do so in a more nuanced way rather than trying to take down the whole movement.

However, I am still left unsettled about how movements such as Reclaim should handle the downside of crowds. Is it really the responsibility of marginalized students to help white students understand why the movement benefits them too? I don’t think so - it’s definitely not their responsibility. It seems so unfair for these students to have to spend time and energy almost coddling and educating the opposition, though perhaps that is necessary for advancing the movement? I’m not sure, it’s still something I’m wrestling with.

One aspect of this case that I wish we had gotten a chance to explore more is how it fits into the national context. In Reclaim’s official description of their movement, they refer to the fact that they are part of a larger “national call for racial equality in education.” Indeed, there have been similar movements at many other colleges and universities over the past few years, from Yale to the University of Missouri. I wonder how the structure and impact of those movements is similar to and different from that of Reclaim.

Finally, throughout this course I have been very intrigued by the role of gatekeepers in media.  In many cases that we have examined during the course, including the Trayvon Martin case, national media coverage has been a key aspect of their impact. For Reclaim, while they did not seek out national coverage, such coverage came to them because of Harvard’s name and was helpful in putting pressure on the university.  That makes me wonder - if traditional media outlets are gatekeepers, is Harvard’s name a key to the kingdom? Does prestige always offer a fast track past the gatekeepers, or what was it about this case in particular that drew national attention?

14  Angel Parham and Danielle Allen, "Achieving Rooted Cosmopolitanism," in From Voice to Influence (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 259.


Individual Reflection [Kailash]

Kailash: I came into the class hoping to study citizenship particularly in a political sphere. I’ve always been interested in politics, and I think the way we think about how we interact with our political system - through the media, with our Representatives, and each other - is rapidly changing with new technologies. As a result, I wanted to explore digital political activism at Harvard; how did students at Harvard, or organizations such as Harvard College Republicans or Harvard College Democrats, use digital tools to reach the student body and build support for their candidate(s)? That changed when Michaela, Gaby and I became a group. We decided to explore racial justice in youth movements. And to be quite honest, I wasn’t sure if this was the right idea; I knew that movements like Reclaim HLS had done good work, but I thought it would be hard to find the substantial information required for a case study. Would we be able to complete our assigned case study, and would it be interesting enough for me to do?

The short answer is, yes, it would be quite interesting and we would be able to complete our case study. But to do so would require some difficult leg work. As Chaebong consistently told us, “Don’t worry. You guys are getting real research experience. This is what researchers struggle with daily.” We initially started out with a plan to look at three movements - the larger Black Lives Matter Movement, a smaller racial justice movement in Chicago led by four girls, and Reclaim HLS. Our idea was that we could compare the three movements and see where each was successful and where each could have expanded its work or corrected its actions. Needless to say, it proved hard to get in contact with any of these organizations. The larger Black Lives Matter movement, not wanting to run into the leadership problems of past civil rights movements, does not have a specific media contact. So pretty quickly, we realized it would not be feasible to stick to BLM if we couldn’t get to one specific person. Michaela had attended a few rallies organized by the Chicago racial justice movement, and she reached out to them through Twitter, email, and Facebook - we suspect, though, that they might had trouble responding because they were four school-aged girls busy with academic life. So at the end, we were left with Reclaim HLS. Fortunately, we thought, it might be easy to get access to Reclaim because of our location - we were at Harvard College and there were many organizers nearby at the Law School. After we had trouble reaching out to Reclaim through social media and email, Professor Allen kindly put us in touch with an mentee of hers, who will refer to as Donna. Turns out, though, Donna was just about to have a baby! So, quite understandably, it was hard to meet or keep in contact with Donna. Luckily, Donna connected us with Mark. Mark was very gracious, and he spent an hour and a half with us discussing Reclaim HLS. As one of the leaders of the movement, Mark had devoted a large part of his law school career to the cause, many times at the expense of his grades and his career prospects. I was profoundly impressed with Mark, and it made me think of Irma Thomas’ universally true line, “Good things don’t come easy.” The things we want in life are often the ones we have to struggle hardest for - and that’s what makes them worth it.

When putting together our case study, I thought back again and again to efficacy. What does this movement teach us that can be useful for other movements? I’m a practical person; I’ve seen a lot of movements centered around college campuses, but rarely do they succeed at achieving change on the scale of Reclaim HLS. By removing the seal, strengthening diversity training programs, and opening up more spaces to students of color, Reclaim fundamental changed the trajectory of Harvard Law School and any student’s experience at Harvard Law. And the lessons I learned, although I didn’t expect it, tie back into what I initially wanted to learn coming into this project about politics - how do certain political messages reach an audience and others don’t? Any movement, whether it be racial justice or politics or veganism, needs to have a simple message that reaches to heart. As much as humans want to think with their minds, we often use our gut to make decisions - not the best choice, but the one we feel most comfortable with. A movement needs to be able to touch a person’s gut to get their full investment and participation. And it needs to have an actionable plan for change filled with detailed planning. Once again, “good things don’t come easy.”

More relevant to the class and its structure, I want to thank Chaebong and Professor Allen for giving us most of the semester to work on this project. Making this a semester-long project rather than just a final project allowed us to flesh out our ideas and go through an organic research process, rather than a forced one. Speaking from experience, we ran, stumbled, got up, and then ran again - and that was the beauty of this project. It didn’t come easy, but the lessons we’re taking away from the case study are ones that I will carry into the future and ones that I know will make an impact on future movements.

Individual Reflection [Gaby]

Gaby: I came into this project with a lot of questions. Most of them birthed from where I grew up and lived--a largely Latino community, with very little intermingling between races. My school was fairly segregated, students in the AP/IB classes (most of them white) placed in separate hallways, as if all students couldn’t enjoy the same school. This frustrated me. But I went along, truly unaware of the experiences of minority students in my hometown, and more broadly throughout the country. With this case, I wanted to understand, if only a slightly better, the experiences of minority students, in particular of black students in educational institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement added to my curiosity--how students responded, what (if any) backlash had been experienced, faculty response, and so forth. Exploring something close to home, Harvard, was especially eye-opening. I knew early on that I wanted to explore racial or cultural issues. We don’t often recognize the “movements” that happen right next door to us. Having the opportunity to do through our Reclaim Harvard case study was a rewarding experience.

One burning question I had in this class and through this project was: what is political? Can we define it? How do we separate the social from political. Our findings in this study proved to be extremely helpful in addressing this issue. My argument thus far had been the social is political and vice versa. Mark’s definition was an affirmation and addition to that. What he described was that social inequalities and issues are interwoven with political institutions. As such, identity becomes political. However, does this apply to all movements? Those unrelated to issues of identity or prejudice? I figured that yes, Mark’s definition still does apply. There’s always some way to connect social movements to political institutions. The idea of institutions being built on social issues is a particularly powerful one.

While preparing for the presentation, I was struck by the process of Reclaim HLS and their unusually quick response to the seal issue. They embodied the question: how do we get from voice to change? They spoke up in light of terribly rooted injustices and put thought into action. Throughout the course, we discussed KONY 2012 and DREAMers, wondering how they developed networks, what did each step consist of. Reclaim HLS provided those steps. I learned that no movement comes easily. Achieving change involves struggle and sacrifice. It also requires some level of efficacy and unity. The latter I add in light of the opposition faced by Reclaim. Students. Essentially, movements like these are ground-up. Studying this case also made me aware of the difficulty in maintaining a spirit of action. Moving forward requires a rehashing of the YPP Action Framework questions. For example,  returning to the question, “why does it matter to me” as a source of encouragement. Consistently processing through, “how do we make it easy and engaging” so that your movement or organization can better respond to innovating technology, opposition, or growing numbers. In reality, the YPP questions are the plan and the action.

This class and case study fostered several questions about the future of activism, in the age of digital media. In particular, how does the question “does raising voices count as political action” apply to online activism? In class, we discussed this through several frameworks and cases. There is no standard answer and difficult to approach. Part of me still wants to say that online activism is not political action, because it fails to actually go from voice to action. But I’ve left this course with a more optimistic view. Online activism is a crucial component. Does it change everything? Probably not. But it is a powerful catalyst for many social movements.

In the, person-to-person organization remains the most crucial component, whatever that may look like. Some organizations do ground outreach or contact their political representatives. Others focus on education, with hopes that knowledge of an issue will inspire change, much like the KONY case.

Finally, there are a few issues I wish we had explored. The most important, to me, being how Reclaim HLS engages with other student organizations and movements, like the Labor Union and HUDS strikes. Is there a specific motivation or collaboration expected? Do students reach out personally or as a group? Simply put, I wanted to better understand how movements built networks of supporters, or allies. In our case, we talked a lot about finding allies in the student body; however, very rarely about finding allies in other movements. If this was not a particularly important concern for Reclaim HLS organizers, I would want to know why. Overall, this case truly pushed us to better understand research and the interview process. Above all, it helped us understand the ground-up work, what keeps people going, and the impact of raising voices.


Speaking to Mark and researching the beginnings of Reclaim Harvard Law School proved to be a rewarding experience. We certainly gained a lot respect for the organizers, who put countless hours into achieving tangible change, and for the movement itself. We first sought to explore three themes; sacrifice, efficacy, and self protection. In doing so, we learned about the strategies used by Reclaim HLS and of the issues of self protection and sacrifice that are overwhelmingly present at a school like Harvard. The YPP Action Framework questions were helpful in parsing out our interview into specific steps and actions, providing a sort of guide for future campus movements.

We are very grateful for the opportunity to study this case and for the guidance and support from Chaebong and Professor Allen. This course and this case study opened our eyes to how activism, on campuses and beyond, is changing. While the question, “how can we respond to this change” remains unanswered, we are hopeful of what we learned here.

Work Cited

An, Jim. “Reclaim HLS Activists Occupy Student Lounge.” The Harvard Law Record. February 22, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Duehren, Andrew. “Law School Students Protest Minow’s response to Demands.” The Harvard Crimson. December 9, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Lartey, Jamiles. "Harvard 'black tape' vandalism brings law school's controversial past to fore." The Guardian. November 21, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Parham, Angel, and Danielle Allen. "Achieving Rooted Cosmopolitanism." In From Voice to Influence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Slane, Kevin. “These messages explain why some Harvard Law students are protesting.” Boston News. December 9, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Thaten, Marlen. "Reclaim Harvard Law, please stop destroying yourself." The Harvard Law Record. April 02, 2016. Accessed December 17, 2016.

Zuckerman, Ethan. "Cute Cats to the Rescue?" In From Voice to Influence, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

"Timeline of Student Activism for Diversity and Inclusion." Reclaim Harvard Law School. 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

"We Reclaim Harvard Law Because..." Reclaim Harvard Law. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Presentation Slides