When I interview Jonathan S. Roberts ’17, we sit on the floor, cross-legged. The space buzzes with the dull hum of lunch hour: dress shoes and sensible heels tap past us, in and out of the building. The lobby of 124 Mount Auburn St.—an office building for University employees—may seem like an odd choice for Roberts’s favorite spot on campus, but it’s a meaningful one.
“Being in here right now, I still feel a lot of the energy,” Roberts says. He’s referring to the last time he sat in this spot: About a month ago, Roberts and more than 100 supporters packed this same lobby for seven hours, cheering and singing in solidarity with Harvard’s dining workers.
“It was one of the few moments in my entire time here where I felt like there was so much student support around something that I truly care about,” Roberts says. “Looking at our workloads and the ways that we work within academics and within social spaces it’s very difficult to get some… sense of unity.”
For Roberts, an organizer with Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement, activism extends from picket lines to the classroom. He’s pursuing a special concentration in organizational behavior, which means he studies the nuts and bolts of social movements: how activist groups maintain membership, and how protest work transforms its participants, both individually and collectively.
“For me, it’s about more than just creating a movement,” Roberts says. “It’s about sustaining a movement.”
Harvard’s activism scene certainly differs from others that Roberts has observed. He spent the summer in Santiago, Chile, researching a student-led movement for education reform that began more than 15 years ago.
At the first rally he attended in Chile, Roberts found himself running from water cannons. With eyes burning from tear gas, he watched thousands of protesters dashing through the streets. At that moment, Roberts realized this experience would mean more than “just a research project.”
Since his return to the Northern Hemisphere, Roberts, like most Harvard students, has been busy. He’s writing a thesis and spent three weeks in October organizing with SLAM during the HUDS strike. Before this semester, Roberts had participated in labor activism occasionally, but this time, he knew that he needed to be on the picket lines consistently. He found the strike particularly powerful, not only because of the outcome, but because the movement “centered on the workers and their experiences.”
“I think what was really important about this campaign was trying to show the narratives of members of our communities who are, to me, family members,” Roberts says. “Isabel and Mike and Derek and everyone else in Winthrop are just people who made my Harvard experience so sustainable, because they showed me love that’s sometimes hard to come by here.”
When he’s not marching, sitting in, or walking out, Roberts tutors at the Harvard College Writing Center, supervises at Y2Y homeless shelter, and welcomes freshmen to campus through the Freshmen Urban Program. For the first three years of college, he devoted his weekends to traveling with the Mock Trial team. These days, he’s trying his hand at creative writing and hip-hop dance.
Roberts hails from Southern California and has two parents, a sister, and a remarkably energetic 93-year-old grandmother. After graduation, he hopes to write a narrative family history, starting with his grandmother’s experiences as a black nurse in the deep South under Jim Crow segregation.
“There are so many people I look back to,” he says about his family. “And I have to keep going, I have to move forward, because I can’t waste their energy and their time.”
Starting in the fall of 2019, Roberts will attend Harvard Law School. With Donald Trump taking office in January, he plans to immerse himself in two years of full-time activism and organizing.
“If there were ever an opportunity to act in the political atmosphere, now is the time,” he says. “But social change is never something that happens because ‘now is the time,’ it happens because we’ve made the time and we carved out that little corner for ourselves, and that’s what’s going to keep me going.”