A Week In, Law School Activists Continue Occupation

As Law School activists continue their occupation of the Caspersen Student Center lounge—along with students from other schools—administrators have publicized a series of efforts to address problems of diversity and inclusion on campus.

Activists have been occupying what they call “Belinda Hall,” in honor of a former slave of the Royall family, since last Monday in an effort to create a space they feel has been denied to minority students there. This weekend, after meeting a group of activists from Reclaim Harvard Law at a public service conference at Yale, 10 Yale Law School and five Occidental College students joined their counterparts’ occupation to support and discuss activism across campuses.

Teach-In at Harvard Law School
Last week, Harvard Law School activists began their occupation of the Caspersen Student Center.

Third-year Law student and Reclaim Harvard Law member Bianca S. Tylek said the group hopes to expand its reach to other students within and beyond the Law School. Students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Medical School, and Brandeis University joined the occupation last week, which entails a series of programs during each day and students sleeping in the hall at night.

“It was great to share some experiences,” Yale law student Adan Martinez said. “There are ways that Harvard is organizing that are inspiring to us. That’s not necessarily about the mechanics of occupation; it’s more about the mechanics of learning from each other, and pushing each other, and engaging in a conversation together about what this is all about and where it’s going.”

Martinez and Katherine E. Demby, who co-chair Yale Law School’s Alliance for Diversity, drew parallels between Reclaim Harvard Law’s efforts and their own activism at Yale last spring, when they helped lead a movement to increase student and faculty diversity at the school.

While student groups at Yale and Harvard presented similar demands, their reaction to administrators’ response at their respective schools is markedly different. Martinez and Demby said they were pleased and grateful at the level of attention Yale administrators accorded students’ concerns, but Harvard activists remain dissatisfied.

Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow responded to student demands last fall by pledging to hire more diverse faculty and creating a committee to reconsider the school’s controversial seal, which features the shield of the slave-owning Royall family.

In a letter to Law School alumni on Feb. 12, Minow announced a series of initiatives the school is undertaking to further address problems of diversity and inclusion at the school. These efforts, which Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells reiterated in a Feb. 17 email to Law School affiliates, include hiring a Director for Community Engagement and Equity, releasing a campus-wide climate survey, improving sexual assault prevention training, launching a mentoring program, and strengthening diversity training at first year orientation programs.

“These ideas have now moved beyond discussion toward concrete plans. They represent the beginning of the work that we must do together,” Sells wrote in the email.

Activists, however, said these actions are not sufficient; in a statement posted on Reclaim Harvard Law’s website Saturday, they wrote that the group’s calls were “met with administrative intransigence.”

Rena T. Karefa-Johnson, a third-year law student and member of Reclaim Harvard Law, said that she thinks recent initiatives outlined by Minow and Sells fail to address the activists’ particular demands.

“I’m excited that this is something that people are thinking about,” Karefa-Johnson said. “[But] I don’t think those specific initiatives are responsive to what this movement is about.”

Sells said that she stands by her work to address problems of diversity and inclusion at the school, emphasizing that change takes time.

“I am disappointed that the students think we aren’t working on these things, because we are,” she said in an interview. “I understand that they have their own vision and plan, but I’m just trying to work with what I think works best for all of us, and not expecting things to happen all at once.”

Sells sat in on several discussions at the occupation—which she said was “really a teach-in”—last week, but Tylek said activists have not engaged in substantive talks with administrators recently, noting they are collaborating as a group before “re-approach[ing] administrators.”

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at claire.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

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