In response to the thoughtful and candid article posted by Michael Shammas, I would like to contribute to a debate which I have been hesitant to partake in for fear that I might be wrong—and that someone, somewhere was bound to disagree with me.
I’ve found myself in an interesting place as a black, female, first-generation law student in the middle of the so-called “Postergate” controversy. There’s much that I am still processing in regards to the flurry of activity from the last few days, but there are a few things I know, and wish to share:
I support Reclaim HLS and the spirit of its mission. This first year of law school has been difficult for me, and while I hate to admit my weaknesses, particularly in such a public way, I don’t have any doubt that some of the difficulties I have experienced in disambiguating traditional legal reasoning have everything to do with being a first-generation law student with relatively little connection to anything blatantly legal (despite my undoubtedly privileged education in other regards). I’m not alone in this feeling, and it is experiential disparities like these that Reclaim is trying to address, amongst other issues. Moreover, this effort is not only supportive of students of color, but of students from various marginalized populations, although there obviously tends to be much overlap between the two.
Law schools have made great strides in answering calls to make their populations more diverse statistically speaking across many facets of diversity, but they have not done nearly enough to make sure that sufficient support systems are in place to deal with these demographic changes; nor that legal curricula have appropriately evolved to draw connections between legal thought and the historical context through which the law has been used.
Although I do not support every single decision Reclaim has made in the midst of Postergate (particularly with respect to the controversial claiming of jurisdiction over the lounge), I truly, deeply understand them. I understand them as the decisions made when a group reaches a boiling point when change isn’t happening fast enough. I understand them as the actions of students who have effectively been told by society to just put our heads down, work hard, and assimilate for as long as we can remember in order to make it to ivory towers like Harvard Law. I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth, but despite certain decisions which have been made in light of their administrative roles, I would imagine that, through being well-versed with the historical context of education in this country, Dean Minow and Dean Sells at minimum understand Reclaim’s actions too.
I haven’t attended as many Reclaim events as I’ve wanted to, but I can attest that the ones that I have attended were truly empowering — they embraced sharing stories of vulnerability, considered pedagogical approaches to subvert classic power structures, educated, and provided just a touch of supplemental humanity that many of us come to feel is missing from the spirit of the law and in classrooms, at times. In this way, I think Reclaim has played a crucially important role in transforming the law school community I’ve encountered since last fall, and I hate to see the group villainized and all of these transformative moments erased in the wake of a specific set of actions.
In the same vein, this reasoning I use in defense of Reclaim might simultaneously serve as a defense of the professors who chastised Reclaim for effectively reducing the eminent career of Dean Minow to moments of subjectively inadequate response (in action, if not in intent). We are all complicated humans, and I hope that the future achievements of my entire career are not one day supplanted by the moments in which I have not done enough.
Thus, despite supporting and understanding the work of Reclaim, I also understand how its actions, understandable as they may be, are legitimately seen as disruptive in an environment like Harvard Law; an environment where a majority made it to where they are by following the rules to a tee, by holding “order” in high regard, and and by keeping a safe distance from contexts in which it’s okay — perhaps even encouraged — not to be “civil.” I understand that to a large portion of the community, everything that Reclaim represents is utterly foreign — and to be fair, that’s because what Reclaim represents is utterly foreign to the law school tradition, and deliberately intends to be so.
However, I find convincing Shammas’s analysis that free speech is something of a red herring for a deeper issue here. While free speech is undeniably important, comments like the following show just what kind of pure vitriol Reclaim is protecting itself from when free speech has no bounds in an educational environment: “My plenary committee held a democratic vote on what to do with the post-graduation resumes of repulsive little fascists, with a 100% return for ‘wipe our asses with them.’” (Comment from Ken White, Partner at Brown White & Osborn LLP and HLS alum in response to this article)
Did Bill Barlow’s original Trump posters rise to this level of cruelty? Debatable. But I think this was the threat, real or imagined, that Reclaim was met with when they encountered the original posters in Belinda Hall. Was it right of them to see the posters as such an affront? Again, debatable. We speak so much about subjective and objective standards in the law, but I don’t believe we consider these issues enough in personal interactions like the ones we’ve seen pan out over the last few days. I think it’s an easy conclusion that repressing the free speech of dissenting voices in an educational community is objectively wrong. However, I think that if we’re ignoring the very real, lived experiences of students and the power structures in which they’ve operated that led to such an event being perceived as an affront, then we’re desperately missing the point.
Indeed, the wall of “silenced” and “privileged” voices created by Reclaim, seen by some as de facto segregation of speech, cannot be said to be an entirely mythical reflection of the law school environment in which we operate; I know I can personally attest to such a dynamic being present in numerous parts of my law school experience so far. Of course, the danger of such portrayals is that they obscure some element of the reality that we are all privileged in some way or another by all having the truly exceptional privilege of calling Harvard Law School our home. Ultimately, “silence” and “privilege” thereby become a matter of perspective and degree, and are labels that arguably don’t always get us as far as we wish in our efforts to move forward, which I think — I sincerely hope— remains the shared goal.
There are many things I don’t know going forward, and many things I think can be endlessly debated back and forth between aspiring legal minds. Furthermore, I don’t know how it’s best for an introverted student like me to effectuate the most meaningful engagement with this community in the aftermath of these events (typing furiously on my laptop in the midst of this April snowstorm being the best way I know how right now).
But one thing that is very clear to me, is that conflicts like so-called Postergate arise in environments where not enough is being done to create spaces for this type of debate to happen directly, regularly, openly, and sustainably. Although the administration has been very responsive to creating these spaces in the wake of particular incidents and targeted movements, I think what we are witnessing is an unspoken signaling that mere responsive action is insufficient.
I am not a stranger to tensions like these playing out. For two years before coming to HLS, I worked in the administration of the Dalton School in New York, which I also attended from 1st grade to 12th grade. One of my greatest honors was seeing how my school was able to transform from taking a reactive approach to issues of equity as they arose, to leading a pedagogical and administrative overhaul that crafted a regime to proactively deal with such issues.
During my first year, two scandals emerged which you can read about in the New York Times and the New Yorker. The administration responded by creating opportunities for students, parents, and teachers alike to voice their concerns. However the next year, the leadership of the school decided to take a new approach which primarily required the full faculty and staff to go through mandatory trainings with a professional Equity and Diversity consultant before and throughout the school year; created a space for school sponsored faculty/staff affinity meetings; created a regularly assembling “Equity Council” consisting of faculty, staff, and administrators; and required students to participate in a full day colloquium on Race and Equity.
The first year was rough, and raw, and emotional, and imperfect; it was far from seamless, and there were numerous moments of ideological tension. But it was also honest, productive, and generated as many breakthroughs as it did questions on how to move forward.
Many students customarily regarded as “privileged” due to their representation by the dominant culture for the first time grappled with the notions of deliberate social structures that have ultimately predestined many of their opportunities thus far in life. Students customarily regarded as “marginalized” had a unique opportunity to share the realities of their lived experiences with fellow students who were previously ignorant of such disparities, merely due to a lack of structured opportunities to engage in this way.
Faculty were able to engage with each other to determine how pedagogical approaches—both within departments and across disciplines—could be coordinated to enhance connectivity with the diverse range of students on the receiving end of their instruction. And individual faculty members were, both, forced to consider how notions of race and privilege have played into their own lived experiences, and challenged to redesign their curricula content to more directly engage students with related issues of equity. Finally, within affinity spaces that were at times facilitated by an external consultant, staff members were empowered to communicate the support they desired to pursue leadership roles and achieve greater mobility in the school ranks.
Through creating this expansive array of opportunities across institutional constituents, Dalton ultimately effectuated a new regime that sent the firm message that equity and education could not be treated in isolation moving forward. This shift created some of the most meaningful conversations and moments of connection that I’ve experienced in my adult life.
If there’s anything I want to see from Harvard Law during my time here, it’s that the administration truly embrace the challenge before them, head on, like my former school did. But not merely through symbolic actions such as creating an isolated position within DOS; rather through creating a genuine coalition of faculty, staff, administrators, and external consultants who will rise to the occasion and determine how this school ought best serve the interests of the demographic of students that now represent the Harvard Law name. This coalition could be a permanent structure with rotating leadership, signaling the law school’s revamped commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. It could seek to evaluate areas for pedagogical, curriculum-based, and extracurricular modifications and innovation, integrating feedback from groups like Reclaim and individual students alike; and could determine the appropriate steps to take, timelines to create, and sub-structures to put in motion, to enact change. Further, this coalition need not start by aiming shots in the dark, for there surely exists no shortage of professional consultants specializing in shaping institutional culture, who will know exactly where to begin (perhaps our very own Executive Education team could help serve this purpose).
For goodness sake, I know it’s not easy; however, we students have entrusted our education in the care of this institution, and are paying a lot of money for it, so I think this commitment is the least we deserve. Perhaps demands cannot be answered overnight, nor by ultimatum, but it seems entirely reasonable for a coalition on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to be established within a fairly short time frame. I may be wrong, and I know I’m just one voice of many, but I genuinely believe this commitment will do justice (no pun intended) to HLS’ mission of “educating leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society” (the link to which is curiously — and perhaps symbolically— broken at the time of this article).
Tyra Walker is a 1L.