National concerns over racial justice lead to campus introspection, discussion, research, and action

They are short, stark sentences, seared into the public consciousness in recent months: Hands up, don’t shoot. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.

The killings of unarmed black men by white police officers last summer—the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, captured on video, in Staten Island, N.Y.—and the grand jury decisions against indictments in those cases sparked shock and outrage that led to massive protests across the country, including here at Harvard.

Students, faculty, and staff from across the University took to the streets to march, held rallies and vigils, and staged “die-ins” in solidarity with Brown’s and Garner’s families, and  to protest the use of military-level force by U.S. law enforcement against citizens and its disproportionate deployment in communities of color. The protests decried centuries of unpunished violence against African-Americans, as part of the growing social movement Black Lives Matter.

Brown’s and Garner’s deaths also have prompted widespread soul-searching, raising questions in every corner of the University about how Harvard can lead the way forward, using tools like the law, government and policymaking, public health, education, and religion to root out the systemic inequities that have fueled and thrived on racism and racial injustice in America.

At Harvard Law School (HLS), that question has been felt acutely, prompting an array of personal and public efforts, including panels, talks, conferences, seminars, in-class discussions, and faculty opinion pieces in recent months. In December, Dean Martha Minow convened a School-wide meeting for students, faculty, and staff to discuss the grand jury decisions.

“The nation has witnessed lethal violence against unarmed individuals who are members of visible minorities, and there is a widespread perception that procedures meant to secure legal accountability aren’t working,” Minow told the Gazette in a statement last month about why these incidents have resonated so deeply at HLS. “The ideal of equal justice under law animates our law school and informs our daily work. Many of us here feel a special responsibility to push for change.”

For some in the law school community, that change includes a re-evaluation of what students should be learning.

“As I’m about to graduate, I can say with total certainty that as a student at Harvard Law School, it’s incredibly easy to avoid ever having to think about racial injustice; it’s incredibly easy to avoid ever having to talk about, in your classroom, issues of social injustice or broader power inequality,” said Jacob Reisberg, a third-year student, during a Feb. 13 symposium, “Law School or Justice School: Connecting the Dots Between Harvard and Ferguson,” which featured Minow and a panel of distinguished scholars on race and the law. “What can we do as an institution to make these discussions part of the mandatory curriculum?”

Panelist Jon Hanson, the Alfred Smart Professor of Law at HLS, called this a “historic moment” for legal education.

“We really need to reinvent our burdens of proof, reinvent what our presumptions are. Legal education ought to be in part about interrogating those and in part about educating our students in what those are. But also how they’re reacting to those and how their own psychology” contributes to inequities that pervade the criminal justice system, said Hanson, who teaches the Systemic Justice course and leads the Justice Lab project, a new effort to get students to start working through intractable societal ills using the law. “If we’re going to do it with any administration, at any moment, this is the one.”

Noting that such major changes require broad consensus, Minow recommended students consider working in one of 26 HLS-affiliated legal clinics to gain vital, real-world skills while making a difference in the lives of people who need help. She also acknowledged that students have a right to demand more.

“The heart of a law school is about preparing people for a system that exists and critiquing that system,” Minow said of the “law school paradox”: needing to teach students how to succeed within a flawed structure, yet wanting to make sure students understand and critique those flaws, and perhaps one day fix them. “If we do not prepare you for the existing system, we are not helping you do what you want to do. If we prepare you only for the existing system, we’re not doing what is our obligation.”

Those involved say that the dialogue among HLS students, faculty, and administrators is clearing the air for those who felt that their concerns about racial justice were not being heard or taken seriously enough last semester.

“I think in that silence, it motivated students to be even more active, to have more protests, to have more die-ins. Since then, it’s been received, and we’ve begun to have more events and discussions where faculty members and the administration are participating,” said Lakeisha Williams, a second-year HLS student who oversees publicity for the Harvard Black Law Students Association’s annual spring conference, held Feb. 27 and 28. The conference focused on how “Black Lives Matter.”

“Just in talking with my peers, a lot of them have applauded our administration and our faculty members in really engaging us in dialogue and giving us concrete guidance for things that we can do at our level,” Williams said. “And then I have other peers who feel as if it’s just a conversation and that we need more.”

Racism harms health

Like HLS, students at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health felt the sting of the Brown and Garner cases, and have urged the School to play a larger role not only in engaging in public discourse about racial violence, but in instigating change on and off campus.

School officials held a widely attended “town hall” for the Harvard Chan School community in December, while Dean Julio Frenk issued a statement acknowledging the controversy and recommitting to scholarly research that identifies and reduces disparities that lead to health inequities. Frenk will host another town hall in March to update students and provide feedback.

“In public health, there’s a strong orientation toward social justice. And, of course, violence and health are intimately connected,” said Meredith Rosenthal, Ph.D. ’98, a professor of health economics and policy and associate dean for diversity. “There were two major streams of work that the students asked us to commit to. One was to position the School — and they are really looking for the University to position itself this way — in a way to support social change … by organizing intellectual, scientific contributions that can really support evidence-based change.”

Last month, the School held a forum, “Race, Criminal Justice, and Health,” featuring faculty from Harvard Chan School, HLS, and Harvard Medical School(HMS), to examine how disparate treatment under the law and in the criminal justice system can affect health and the role race plays in a host of environmental factors that lead to poor health.

“It’s been documented that racism itself harms health. If you are an individual in a racial minority, the effect of racism on a whole lot of health outcomes directly has been documented. Our faculty, including David Williams, Nancy Krieger, and Laura Kubzansky, have done work in this area,” said Rosenthal.

“But racism has much broader and deeper effects … on income, on educational opportunities, other opportunities, and all of those socioeconomic consequences are extremely important for health. Your ability to thrive depends a lot on your socioeconomic context,” she said. “In public health, we know that these social determinants of health contribute so much more to health than medical care and health insurance, the things that we often think about.”

Internally, Rosenthal said students have asked the administration to examine its policies and outcomes regarding student, staff, and faculty diversity and to explain what it’s doing to improve the climate for and recruitment of under-represented minorities. As a first step, the Harvard Chan School just published a 35-page report that documents those efforts as a starting point to suggest ways to increase awareness and a sense of inclusion for students from minority backgrounds who may feel marginalized.

The School, in the midst of curriculum reform, is considering future training for students, staff, and faculty around issues of privilege so that people work more effectively in diverse contexts, and will add “cultural competence” to its requirements for a master’s degree in public health. The details of that process are expected in a report next fall. “We’re trying to define what that will mean and how students will get it,” said Rosenthal.

Students’ intensity, unity

Lisa M. Coleman, the University’s chief diversity officer, works closely with student groups and administrators year-round, but since the protests began she and her team, as well as other diversity officers across campus, have been busy serving as facilitators and gathering information about events and student-led initiatives taking place across Harvard.

Coleman, who took the post in 2010, said she has never seen Harvard students respond to news events with such sustained intensity and broad unity, and was not expecting the protests to encompass such a far-reaching slate of issues.

“We, meaning administrators, did not understand” initially the broad ripple effects the Ferguson and Staten Island cases would spawn, she said, although further dialogue helped clarify the students’ concerns. “The other thing that became very clear to us was that this was a conversation about learning.”

Coleman said students are “concerned because what it sparked in them is the issue about ‘what matters,’ and what matters to them right now is: Are they getting … [the] education to be able to deal with difference and, thus, help to work on global issues?” One other development, she added, is that “It’s not only disenfranchised students who are leading the efforts. This is a collective effort engaging students from all backgrounds.”

Coleman said students across Harvard have expressed concerns about race and ethnicity, as well as gender and LGBTQ issues, with particular attention paid to the recruitment and retention of students, the diversity of faculty and staff — including those within the senior administration at each School― the importance of instruction and training, and the ways in which the University educates the community about difference so the burden of managing diversity issues doesn’t fall on students alone.

So far, there has been a robust, open discussion between students and administrators over short- and long-term priorities, Coleman said. “It will be important to continue the momentum, and it remains crucial to communicate all that we are doing across our many Schools,” she said.

Justice and healing

Students and faculty at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) were energized early on by the Ferguson protests. Led by the Rev. Jonathan Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, about a dozen students, including Melissa Bartholomew, M.Div. ’16, drove to Missouri in August to lend their support and their voices to the outcry.

Bartholomew and Rachel Foran, M.T.S. ’16, are co-founders of a new student group, HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative, which is drafting a proposal to submit to the School’s administration later this semester outlining ways to ensure that strategies to confront and resolve racial and social injustice have a lasting home at the HDS, “to really make sure our work lives on beyond the students that are here today,” said Bartholomew.

“The blessing and beauty of our work at HDS is that we’re not fighting against our administration. We’re not fighting to get them to hear what we’re trying to say or to realize that these are important issues. They’ve been very clear, through their presence and through their words, that, ‘We get it, and these are important issues and let’s figure out how we can address them as a community’ … which is really, really great,” said Bartholomew.

“So we’ve been really thinking about our capacity as ministers, as scholars, practitioners, [and] intellectuals, and the unique way that we can contribute to this work so that the work we do is sustainable and leads to transformation, because we’re all committed to doing this in a different way and getting different results,” she said.

The issues also have given Bartholomew a fresh sense of purpose.

“I’m an African-American woman. If I didn’t have this as an outlet, if I didn’t have these tangible things to be working on in the midst of these very difficult situations, I’d get depressed, I’d be discouraged,” she said. “But these experiences — working with Rachel and working with all of our students — really invigorates me and gives me hope. And I think other students probably feel the same way and definitely feel great about … while we’re in school, applying what we know and thinking through real-life problems and not waiting until after school to join some organization to try and get things done.”

Critical work to be done

With policy-making, good government, and leadership as core domains of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), the Ferguson case provoked immediate and strong reactions on campus, which continued in the months following Brown’s death.

Jayme Johnson, a mid-career M.P.A. and class representative to the HKS student government, said there was some tension at the School largely because neither the student body nor the administration “knew quite what to do” in their initial responses.

“Last semester was very emotional, [there was] lots of frustration, and what we’ve decided is that we are a policy school and we should be working toward a tangible, constructive response to this,” he said.

Dean David Ellwood and Karen Jackson-Weaver, senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, have been very supportive, he said. “It’s very much a partnership.”

“There is critical work to be done in the areas of racial equality, violence prevention, economic inequity, and in our justice system, and I am confident the members of this community have the knowledge, creativity, and drive to help move our nation forward,” said Ellwood in a Jan. 29 letter to the School. “It is our responsibility and our privilege as part of the HKS community to take on tough issues and to help find solutions for difficult public problems.”

In early February, Ellwood moderated a JFK Jr. Forum event, “Challenges to Democracy: The Future of Policing“, featuring Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and Phillip Goff, a visiting scholar on race and criminal justice.

Several new courses are underway that address topics like leadership and diversity, narrowing the racial achievement gap, and the U.S. criminal justice system. There is also a series of faculty-led discussions on policing. Jackson-Weaver lead a communications workshop, Race and Difficult Conversations, on Feb. 23, while the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy is holding a periodic study group with Michele Norris, a National Public Radio host and a spring fellow, on How Shifts in Race and Cultural Identity Influence Politics, Policy, and Pop Culture, that also began Feb. 23.

Much of the group energy at HKS is directed outward this semester. About 100 students in HKS student government and those interested in criminal justice careers held brainstorming sessions, assisted by HKS faculty, activists, and attorneys from Black Lives Matters, clergy, and experts from other universities, to draft policy ideas that they submitted to the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing in late February. President Obama formed the task force in December to examine how best to reduce crime while building trust and collaboration between law enforcement and citizens. Its first report is expected later this month.

Johnson, an inspector with London’s Metropolitan Police, said the group will offer suggestions across a range of issues and best practices, such as: whether police should be guardians or warriors; whether the right people are being recruited; whether police should investigate themselves; an evaluation of stop-and-frisk tactics; the scarcity of data about police-related deaths; and whether police ought to use nonlethal force more frequently. The group hopes to play a role in formulating the task force’s final report, expected this summer.

“Unlike many movements, there’s often no tangible end,” said Johnson. “But with this, we feel we’ve got a way forward.”

This article was published in the Harvard Gazette on March 4, 2015.