A Welcome, and Welcoming, Protest

As a white student who is not affiliated in any way with Reclaim Harvard Law School, I was surprised and confused by the email sent by the Dean of Students Marcia Sells on Wednesday. In contrast to the views Dean Sells gave a voice to in her email, I have found Belinda Hall to be an incredibly safe and welcoming place over the past few weeks.

The atmosphere in Belinda Hall has never felt more genial and welcoming. While I understand why it may be less conductive to those who need a space to study in quiet, Belinda Hall has always served as gathering place and a community area. The students currently occupying it have just as much right to use the space to meet their needs as do other students. This is especially true since—unlike other places to quietly study—a space for students concerned with diversity and inclusion to gather has not been provided by the HLS administration.

While I understand how some people may feel uncomfortable with the atmosphere in Belinda Hall, I also recognize that this is because Reclaim HLS is dealing with inherently uncomfortable topics. The issues of diversity and inclusion have been minimized in the classrooms and community of HLS. Bringing them to the forefront is uncomfortable for everyone involved, but it is necessary for substantive change to occur. The conversations Reclaim HLS is promoting do not provide “additional opportunities to make progress together towards our shared goals of enhancing diversity and inclusiveness” [emphasis added]—they must be the cornerstone of any such effort to make progress. Furthermore, they are topics that are more painful to the people who have to live with exclusion, racism, bias, and stereotyping every day of their lives than to people like me, who have the ability to walk away from the Hall and ignore it.

I certainly cannot speak for all students at HLS. I cannot speak for all white students at HLS. I cannot even speak for all white allies at HLS. But that is because no person, and no group, can speak for all students. There will always be someone who has a dissenting opinion, who will feel isolated and even unwelcome in any given space because of their dissent. The administration of HLS should recognize this, and should recognize that the school is currently set up to overwhelming give preference to white needs and white comfort. It should not condemn a group that is working to open the zone of comfort to more students because some students may feel left out of that reclaimed space.

The law school is not currently “accessible and welcoming” for everyone. Look at records like “Socratic Shortcomings,” which document some of the isolation and discomfort that members of the HLS community experience throughout the law school. Reclaim HLS is working to expand the welcoming atmosphere that already exists for some students to other students who do not feel welcome here. As one of the students who has been made to feel very welcome and comfortable by the law school, I do not and cannot begrudge my classmates and peers this space, but instead am honored that they are keeping their reclaimed space open as yet another place where I can feel welcome.

While I am grateful that Dean Sells “share[s the] goals of enhancing diversity and inclusiveness,” the language of the Dean’s email seems to prioritize the comfort of a group of students who are already made to feel welcome at the expense of removing one of the few welcoming spaces for students of color. The email’s warning to not disrupt the normal flow of activity and suggestion that students read protest guidelines misses the entire point of a protest, which is to disrupt a community’s patterns in order to make a change. That Reclaim HLS has managed to do so in such an open and welcoming way is a tribute to their consideration for, and involvement in, the HLS community.

Furthermore, even if Reclaim HLS was not as welcoming and open as it is, this kind of response by the HLS administration makes the school itself seem like a much less welcoming place. We see ourselves as a place at the forefront of intellectual rigor, where ideas flow and leaders are made. For that, we must have the right to protest. The idea that we, the student body, might be restricted in our protests because some students find the topics uncomfortable or inconvenient is chilling.

Finally, I take factual issue with one of the complaints mentioned in the Dean’s email—that the occupying students have made the space otherwise unusable. Over the past few weeks, although I have not participated in any of Reclaim HLS’s formal events, I have been constantly using Belinda Hall. I have both dashed through in a frantic hurry and absent-mindedly strolled through in the dark. I have even traversed it a dozen times with my arms loaded with bowls of paint. And I have never had a problem moving about the room. In fact, I have not even noticed any difference at all in my ability to access and navigate the room. Whoever made those complaints has not visited the same Hall I have. Belinda Hall, stripped of its colorful blankets, plentiful snacks, educational (if sometimes horrifying) posters, and enthusiastic ideas, would be a cold and unwelcoming place—and one we’ve already seen.

Sarah Plavcan is a 1L.

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