On Friday, Dec. 12, as the temperature dipped into freezing range, a voice rang out. It was rich and clear and cut through the night in waves.
“Hold on, just a little while longer. Everything will be alright,” the voice promised.
A chorus of low hums supported the melody. The voices belonged to the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, a choir created in 1970 as a safe space for black students on campus. The setting was the March on Harvard, which blocked Cambridge streets in protest of the separate non-indictments of white police officers who killed black men last year.
Organizers had invited Kuumba to perform a standard from their set list, “Hold On,” to kick off the protest. After Kuumba finished, applause scattered sparsely through the audience, but most listeners chose to take in the moments after the song in silence.
“The piece is not easy to listen to,” says Haven M. Jones ’15, Kuumba president.“It’s heavy, but it set the mood for the rest of the march—that what we’re doing now will help someone down the line.”
The March on Harvard, which brought together students from schools across Harvard, was a visual manifestation of surging momentum in activism concerned with black identity and rights. Some have termed this recent mobilization the #blacklivesmatter movement. Others, such as Mary F. Brown ’17, call it the second civil rights movement. Still others, such as Sarah F. Cole ’16, see it as a continuation of the struggle for freedom that first began against slavery.
In the past year, students have participated and organized initiatives from the “I, Too, Am Harvard” theater production and photo campaign to a “die-in” on the steps of Memorial Church to a controversial protest at Primal Scream.
Such highly visible demonstrations have forcefully confronted citizens of Harvard and beyond with what it’s like to be young and black in America, while confirming the experiences of those who do know, according to History and Literature lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93. But the purpose of the movement is not only to raise awareness, organizers say. Behind the scenes, aided by the quiet of reflection during summer and winter breaks, supported by newfound activist connections, and encouraged by older mentors, students have transformed how they contribute to the movement.
“A lot of the activism that has existed up to this point has been a values-based fight. What is justice? What is fairness? What is morality?” says Cole, president of the Black Students Association. “But for this movement to be sustainable and productive, we’ll also have to say what it is that we want, tangibly.”
And so that solemn but hopeful performance of “Hold On” by Kuumba not only set the mood for the March on Harvard, but may also predict the mood for the rest of this activist revival. Students involved recognize their unique access to the Harvard name and resources for making substantive change, and they aren’t simply sitting on such a privilege. As activists transition the movement from one of dialogue to policy change, they have also expanded their vision to include communities outside the Yard.
Performing at the March on Harvard is only one of the many ways Kuumba regularly shows support for black student activism. Every year while on tour, Kuumba sets time aside for a tradition, a “tour conversation” in which its members openly discuss issues of race, Kuumba’s mission, and black creativity. It is shocking. It is uncomfortable. There is laughing. There is crying.
In the spring of 2013, a group of freshman friends went to lunch at a diner, preparing themselves for the intense personal discussion of the “conversation.”
“Why are we so shocked to hear the sound of our own voices?” Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16 recalls asking herself throughout the “conversation.”
Paige R. Woods ’16 chaired Kuumba’s Black Arts Festival the next year and suggested that Matsuda-Lawrence create something for the festival. Its theme reminded Woods of Langston Hughes and his poem “I, Too.” Over the summer, Woods excitedly called Matsuda-Lawrence with the news that she had thought of a title for the project: “I, Too, Am Harvard.” And so was born the project that would draw national media attention to black students at Harvard.
Before long, Matsuda-Lawrence would begin the labor-intensive effort to interview 60 students about their experiences as people of color at Harvard. She reached out to other peers for help.
“We were all either roommates or friends, we practically lived with each other, spending all our time planning the play and the publicity and the kick-off,” Matsuda-Lawrence says.
The team expected only Kuumba friends to show up to the play. It was sold out. A photo campaign leading up to the production’s theatrical debut inspired dozens of imitation campaigns around the world, on campuses ranging from Wellesley to Oxford, and instigated national dialogue on what activists have deemed racial micro-aggressions. “I, Too, Am Harvard,” while first conceptualized and made concrete in an arts environment, had become a vehicle for protest.
Months later, a grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y., decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York police officer who had killed Eric Garner, who was black. The non-indictment in Garner’s case followed a similar incident halfway across the country in Ferguson, Mo., where a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, who had shot and killed the teenage Michael Brown.
Hours after the Staten Island decision, two freshmen at Harvard texted each other about their anger over the decision and desire to react to such anger with something constructive. They wanted to buy surgical masks and hand them out to symbolize what Garner felt as he was held in a chokehold before his death.
In spontaneity, they trekked to Harvard University Health Services in search of the masks; they went to the stock room in the basement. An employee there was so sympathetic to their intentions that he gave the two students the rest of the surgical mask supply, according to one of the students, Robert Rush ’18.
They pair enlisted two more friends for help, one for her artistic background and another for her previous activism experience. They wrote “I Can’t Breathe” on the masks and wore them at a demonstration in Boston the next night. The four students—Rush, Ellery C. Jones ’18, Caroline N. Goldfarb ’18, and Sammy H. Koppelman ’18, an active Crimson magazine editor— continued buying, writing on, and handing out masks for various events throughout the semester. They disseminated more than 700 in total.
“Voice can be very loud and evocative, but there’s unique power in silence,” Rush says of the masks’ symbolism.
This purposeful silencing, this addition to the movement, was not coordinated by a formal organization cemented in activism, but rather by four freshmen who were acquaintances.
“We’re all just friends, the fact that we all cooperated on this was just the luck of fate,” Rush muses.
The “I Can’t Breathe” masks are not the only example of campus activism fostered by a group of friends. Even though affinity groups and other student organizations carve out niches on campus, they do not function in a vacuum. The networks of social ties between students lead to collaboration, not only between students of different groups on campus, but also between students from schools nationwide.
Brown recalls the most personally moving protest she has participated in. The protest ended in front of a local jail, where Brown says she could see all the inmates standing at the windows holding up signs of support.
Transportation to the protest was not organized by a formal organization such as the Association of Black Harvard Women, of which Brown is a member, but rather by Sydney K. Jenkins ’16, Brown’s friend. Jenkins emailed various lists, offering Phillips Brooks House Association vans to bus people into Boston for the protest.
Although official groups provide students formal mechanisms for organizing and publicizing, paneling and protesting, students don’t always choose to use them, partially because organizers say they can be limiting. Cole, BSA president, says it is difficult to broadly represent a group when its membership is so diverse.
“You have to be careful with what you endorse as an organization, because what you endorse reflects on all the individuals of the organization,” Cole says.
And so forgoing the model of traditional top-down organizing from the board of a student group, individual activists on campus formed loose, overlapping networks of friends and resources. Social group by social group, the spirit of activism took hold.
Such social connections have enabled student activists to take action that extends beyond Harvard’s campus. This past October, the team behind “I, Too, Am Harvard” and a coalition of students from various black affinity groups worked together to host Harvard’s inaugural “Blacktivism” conference, a workshop-filled event that brought hundreds of other college students to Harvard’s campus. Programming included talks on how to negotiate for policy change and how to apply social media skills to activism.
At the conference, Harvard students made connections with activists from other campuses. Woods, who co-chaired the conference, exclaims at the Facebook activist network that arose from the conference.
“We all comment on each other’s posts and discussions, and so many projects have sprung up just because of the friends we made during the conference,” she says.
Woods recounts stories of activists who didn’t know they were working on the same projects in different locations before meeting at Harvard.
Earlier this month, Woods also attended Smith College’s Young, Gifted, and Black conference with several other Harvard students. At the summit, Woods reunited with students she first met at the Blacktivism conference last year. She also expanded her own network, meeting activist artists she will bring to Harvard later this month for the Black Arts Festival.
And on Feb. 19, 15 Harvard students will travel to Yale for the 20th Annual Black Solidarity Conference, which will newly implement “ujima groups” this year. An ujima group is a discussion group of random conference attendees, “deliberately designed to give students the opportunity to make cross-school connections,” according to Nia Froome, a senior at Yale and president of the conference.
These conferences build upon already existent and strong ties between students at elite institutions. Colin H. Marts ’16, president of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum, chuckles as he names his contacts on other campuses. He regularly texts the president of the Black Men’s Union at Yale. He’s close friends with the former president of Brown’s Black Students Union.
“The competitive school network is much more connected than people imagine. It’s just a matter of exploring those options, and we are currently exploring them,” Marts says. Marts is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black, intercollegiate fraternity in the nation. APA boasts luminaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall amongst its alumni. He cites APA as a foundational resource in developing his activist network.
Back in Cambridge, student action has not been restricted to the College. One night in late November of last year, Victoria White-Mason, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, hosted over 50 activists from across the schools of the University in her living room. The goal was to organize the University-wide March on Harvard. The room buzzed with energy.
“Everyone was from different schools and had different goals, different challenges, different perspectives. It was amazing to see all that power harnessed in one room,” White-Mason recalls.
The idea for the March on Harvard first came to White-Mason while she worked in Ferguson with the coordinators of the national “Black Lives Matter” movement for two weeks. She wanted to bring their tactics back to Harvard.
When she did bring those tactics back to Cambridge, a number of schools joined her. Activists from the Graduate School of Design helped out on creative projects while activists from the Graduate School of Education worked on education policy.
“The idea is that every school, every student has something to bring to the movement,” White-Mason says.
Those first inter-school meetings led to the formation of the Harvard Ferguson Action Coalition, which seeks to link up activists across Harvard’s schools. HFAC is still in its early planning stages, but has already served as a platform for making connections between schools. A few Law School students from the coalition attended Primal Scream last semester to support the protesters in case of legal challenge.
Despite moving to collaborate with groups outside Harvard, student activists at the College have not diverted their attention away from Harvard-specific issues, often including demands on the administration.
Last spring, a group of students founded the Diversity Report, which functions as a report card on administrative action, grading administrators on various “assignments” ranging from “The Harvard Foundation Budget” to “Race Relations Tutors Preparation.” The students who founded the Diversity Report, including Cole, said they did so because they felt that although the College admits a diverse class of students every year, it does not invest enough in students of color to help them thrive.
One area that the Diversity Report targeted was Community Conversations, the programming that welcomes freshmen into discussions of differences in background during Opening Days. After students complained that it had been poorly facilitated, Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 assembled a student committee to garner feedback.
“From the feedback, we realized that Community Conversations would be better further in the term, when people feel greater comfort in considering who they are and whether they travel with particular challenges or privileges,” Dingman says.
This semester, faculty will lead a new group of students in rewriting the structure of Community Conversations, according to Dingman.
The Institute of Politics, too, has reformed the structure of its programming to include more dialogue on diversity issues. In spring 2014, a group of students founded the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Initiative, the only program within the IOP that specifically focuses on topics of inclusion and race.
“We had a lot of conversations about how race is portrayed in the IOP, about the lack of diversity at the IOP, and we wanted to make sure we always had a place and home for such conversations,” says Osaremen F. Okolo ’17, who co-chairs the program.
Also at the IOP, the inklings of a policy paper came together when students, including Fadhal A. Moore ’15, Amanda D. Bradley ’15, and Temitope A. Agabalogun ’15, sought to focus on the potential benefits of body cameras and how such cameras could deter police misconduct in light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island. They finished the paper three weeks ago and will proliferate it to different policymaking institutions at the local, state, and national level.
“We just wanted to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way,” Moore says.
Some student activists see their connection to Harvard not as an opportunity, but rather as an obligation, to make a difference in the world. The Harvard name alone can call national media attention to an event or issue, according to ABHW president Cary A. Williams ’16. Williams sees that name and the access it provides as the primary advantages Harvard students can lend to the broader black activist movement.
“We’re not smarter than anyone else. We shouldn’t be the voice of black youth just because we go to Harvard,” Williams says. “We realize community activists have been doing this work for years. What we offer is the connections to help them move more quickly.”
Activists will also continue to reach out to the broader Cambridge and Boston communities. Three weeks ago, Marts was a speaker on a community panel in Roxbury, Mass., on police brutality and sustainable race dialogue.
“We’re looking to collaborate with more community organizers, to contribute in a way that isn’t solely Harvard-focused,” Marts says.
If the spike in recent activism on campus is indicative of anything of the student body, it is that Harvard students can be more and can do more than they have led on. Many of the contributors to the rise in activism, however, are seniors graduating in less than a semester, leaving behind them a campus accustomed to their leadership. Some of these seniors will pursue a career in advocacy themselves.
“I’ll be teaching next year, and I believe teaching is activism,” Moore says, leaning forward. “I’ll be helping students think critically about their implicit biases.”
For the underclassmen that remain, the departing seniors represent years of close friendship, mentorship, and guidance. After a “tumultuous” year as BMF president, Rodriguez S. Roberts ’15 has the perspective to reflect on leadership sustainability in an organization, calmly laying out his recommendations. Roberts suggests that minority affinity groups continue these patterns of mentorship and reach out to high school students the second they get on campus.
“Mentorship of the younger generations is important,” Roberts says. “In a couple years, the students that were here won’t be. We must pass off the torch onto freshmen, and instruct them to do the same.”
Such a freshman is Nuha Saho ’18, an intern at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. Saho first connected with Harvard student activism when “I, Too, Am Harvard” launched its photo campaign the spring of his senior year in high school. When he stepped onto campus for Visitas, he had one wish: to meet the founders of “I, Too, Am Harvard.”
“Honestly, they convinced me to come to Harvard,” Saho says. “I knew then that it was my time to step up and come here and continue what they’re doing.”
In the coming years, each incoming class may bring a new group of activists as the student movement here grows its national presence.
In alternative spaces of protest such as the arts, Kuumba’s Black Arts Festival, a weeklong celebration of blackness and creativity, expects more than 500 people in attendance this year. The festival begins in late February.
The festival will be unlike any of its past iterations. It will span an entire week instead of just a weekend and spotlight activism with art that presents a social or political message. Woods, who chaired the festival last year, mentored current chair Cherline Bazile ’17 in planning and preparing for this year. Woods connected Bazile with artist activists, including a man who has been going to protests around the nation and documenting them. They will both participate in the festival.
In an effort to reach out to Cambridge at large, Bazile moved the community showcase off-campus to Central Square, so that Cambridge residents “feel more comfortable attending.”
“This semester will be one in which a lot will happen,” Bazile said. “We want to make sure BAF is a part of that, especially in validating art as a means of activism, as something that can cause change.”
Other upcoming opportunities for engagement include the Kennedy School of Government’s Black Policy Conference in April and an activism conference at the Law School that White-Mason says is in the works for April as well.
“We’ve been doing a lot of thinking. And we’ll be acting on those thoughts, soon,” Cole says.
Cole mentioned a new #blacklivesmatter photo campaign. Okolo intimated that “I, Too, Am Harvard” is planning something again. Marts hinted at BMF plans that aren’t yet ready to go public.
It’s said that the eye of the storm is calm. It would be a mistake to interpret relatively quiet winds in the past month as a sign of incoming blue skies. Students are merely regrouping, revising, rethinking how to transform their activism.
“It’s like a death in the family; the grief level is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced, but you can’t let yourself fall apart,” White-Mason says. “To honor the lives of the people we lost, we must press on.”