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Exploring Campus Activism

HGSE hosts student activists from Harvard Law School and Brandeis University for a conversation about higher education, protest, and a movement for change.

What responsibility do universities have to protest racial discrimination and embody a more inclusive, culturally-competent society? Last Thursday, a panel of student activists from Harvard Law School (HLS) and the Heller School for Social Policy and Management (Heller) at Brandeis University gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss that question and describe the recent the movements for inclusion on their respective campuses. The conversation was sponsored by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative and moderated by Professor Julie Reuben.

All five of the student panelists have been actively involved in recent protests at their schools: An act of vandalism aimed at HLS faculty of color spurred demands to create a diversity and inclusion office, and the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri inspired a 12-day sit-in at Brandeis with demands to improve the treatment of black students on campus.

While these recent movements received national attention, all students noted that they had witnessed discriminatory remarks and actions throughout their time at school, and were cognizant of objections made to these types of prejudice before they matriculated.

In her introduction to the panel, Reuben noted this longevity of student activism. “Students have been protesting as long as there have been colleges and universities,” she remarked. “Perhaps we are in one of those moments when student protests will have a profound impact on education.”

In their discussion, the students challenged professors and universities to think about their power and role as educators. “White power diffuses power among many institutional lines, and higher ed has a special place among that,” commented A.J. Clayborne, a third-year student at HLS. He explained not only that the makeup of universities reflects larger institutional divides among race and class, but also that schools can choose to either uphold or contest these norms through pedagogy and curriculum.

Derecka Purnell, a second-year student, commented on the immense amount of influence that HLS faculty, in particular, have in training the next generation’s top lawyers and legal scholars. If another black child is unjustly killed by a police officer, and the police officer is not found guilty, “I hope the prosecutor was not in an HLS classroom,” she said.

All five students articulated radical changes necessary for the future of higher education — but they also shared the belief that such change is possible. “When I’m asking you to be quiet and listen, I’m also asking myself to be quiet and listen,” said Christian Perry, a second-year student at Heller. “I’m not asking white people to do anything that I’m not doing myself.”

Rima Chaudry, also a second-year student at Heller, elaborated on this idea that change will come from people. “Policy may not be the solution, but having radical thinkers in the policy world” might be, she said. These students are committed to becoming those radical thinkers — and inspiring others to do the same.


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