Words matter, at least according to Harvard’s Undergraduate Council.
On Monday, the Undergraduate Council officially changed the name of what was formerly its HeForShe campaign. The movement, now called “Side by Side,” is modeled after the United Nations' HeForShe campaign, a “solidarity movement for gender equality” that urges men to stand up for women’s rights not simply as passive allies but also as active participants. The UC name change comes in the wake of student and administrative concerns that the “HeForShe” name suggested a binary of men and women, leaving out trans students and others who do not identify either as males or as females.
The UC was right to adapt its program terminology to ensure that every student at the College feels recognized and welcome—the gender equality movement needs full support from all corners of campus, particularly since its ultimate aim strives for inclusivity that promotes overall equality in classes, clubs, and Harvard’s general climate. But actions can mean just as much as, if not more than, words. And though the UC campaign is impressive in its scale and organization, it may fall short when it comes to results. Making organizations go through what seems to be a purely logistical process will not help progress the aims of the campaign; actions are needed. This is a first step, not a final stride.
The Side by Side campaign centers largely on requesting pledges from student groups. These pledges do provide a platform for conversation, but beyond that, there is no guarantee of real change. Many groups may neglect to submit the paragraphs the UC requires, and others who do may never find the time or energy to follow up on their promises. The Side by Side campaign’s success hinges on the good will of the student body—though most groups believe in gender equality in principle, the noblest goals often go unachieved in the daily flood of Harvard students' hectic social, academic, and extracurricular obligations.
The Side by Side campaign, then, needs more teeth to succeed. It needs to seek mandated discussions between Harvard-recognized student groups, freshman orientation trainings, and House-wide conversations. At the very least, it needs to ask groups for updates on their pledges, and to push for progress where it has stalled. And in its ideal form, it needs to bleed into every facet of student life.
Gender equality and inclusivity sit somewhere in the back of many students’ minds, garnering support in theory but not necessarily in practice. Perhaps for some, it might seem like there are other things to worry about, other hot-button issues that race to the forefront of campus discourse (and then quickly recede in favor of something new). There are other, niche movements that inspire some students on a more personal level. The UC’s campaign tries to fix the problem and to rally Harvard behind a unifying goal. They have the words. Now they need to make people listen.
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