"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.