When I first started working at Harvard Law School, I had 13 stops. That’s how long it took to get from Ashmont Station, near my childhood home in Dorchester, to Harvard Square, where I had just accepted a job as a program assistant. Thirteen stops I had to convince myself that I belonged at the law school and that I had a place among the elite. Even today, a year later, I stop outside Wasserstein every morning, take a couple of deep breaths, and prepare to leave a part of myself on Massachusetts Avenue.
It’s my job as a staff member to serve the HLS community. I serve students their food, I process affidavit letters for alums, and I book professors’ rooms for meetings. But just because I serve does not make me a servant. Many people at HLS understand this. But in an institution that has a strong caste system, with very few people of color at the top, it is inevitable that some individuals treat staff as the “other.”
I’ve been described as an affirmative action hire before—that comes with the territory of being Latina in America. But I never thought I’d hear this comment at an elite institution like Harvard Law School, let alone on my second week of work. I never thought I’d hear a student tell me I speak well, coming from Dorchester with a Latina background. This rhetoric of racism is not unique. The narratives I hear from staff of color at the law school about these kinds of micro aggressions are paralyzing, and need to be addressed.
As little support as the students of color get at this school, staff of color get even less. The law school has an opportunity to embrace the movement and empower its community. Establish an office of diversity and inclusion, as well as other institutional changes aimed at curtailing organizational hierarchy and injustice against students, staff and faculty. Make a sustained commitment to the recruitment, retention, promotion, and professional development of staff of color at all levels, particularly in senior management. Implement measures to ensure staff of color are respected and supported in their work, including required cultural competency training for all.
The privilege I have as an administrator in the Human Rights Program allows me to speak out and not fear reprisal. I can organize and attend meetings because my community not only supports and encourages this work, but trusts that I will get my work done. Other staff do not have that kind of freedom.
It has been an honor to take a place in this growing movement at HLS. Relationships are building in all corners of the school. Staff of color are meeting for “family dinner,” a place to find fellowship and work towards empowering each other. Staff and students are coming together, energized, collaborative, and committed to creating a better climate. Allies across the law school offer support and valuable skills in times where it can feel overwhelming for people of color.
I invite you—staff, students, administrators, senior management, Dean Minow–to join us.
Gabriela Gonzalez Follett is a program assistant with Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program.