Design School Students Criticize Rahm Emanuel’s Visit in Open Letter

Gund Hall
The Graduate School of Design's Gund Hall.
Graduate School of Design students penned a letter last week to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, criticizing his recent policies ahead of his visit to the school on Feb. 20.

The event, sponsored by the Graduate School of Design, the Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, will be moderated by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Graduate School of Design.

The Harvard Urban Planning Organization and the GSD African American Student Union endorsed the open letter, which more than 30 students and Design School affiliates signed. The letter takes issue with the event’s description, which claims Chicago was “a great place to live, work, and play.”

“This erases how destructive Emanuel’s policies have been to Black and Brown residents of Chicago and to the City of Chicago as a whole,” students wrote in the letter. “As future and current designers, urban planners, policy-makers, organizers, and educators, we cannot disregard the people who are in danger because of Rahm Emanuel’s administration.”

Mayu Takeda, the co-president of the Harvard Urban Planning Organization, said the event did not extend the conversation far enough.


“We felt like we needed to have that kind of critical conversation that went beyond giving him this praise of making it a more livable, workable place to be because that is the description of the event,” Takeda said. “We felt that was not in line with what a lot of the students thought and what even a lot of people thought.”

In their letter, the students mention Emanuel’s 2013 decision to close 50 public schools in Chicago and four high schools in Englewood, a predominantly black neighborhood. The City of Chicago has since announced that only three Englewood high schools will close.

Students also criticized Emanuel’s decision to construct a new police academy, calling the choice an “egregious use of public funds” for a police department “notorious for its systematic brutality against Black residents of Chicago.”

Students also asserted that Chicago was “less affordable” than in the years previous to Emanuel's tenure.

Eric Williams, a signatory on the letter and a Loeb fellow at the GSD, grew up in Chicago and said the issues brought up in the letter are valid.

“There’s tons of cranes and investment in downtown Chicago, but we know the south and west sides of Chicago are not getting the same type of attention,” Williams said. “I think the things people are bringing up are very legitimate because we see these things playing out in the city right now.”

Marcus A. W. Mello, a co-president of the GSD African American Student Union, said design students were uniquely positioned to opine on these issues.

“I don’t think a lot of his policies have been favorable for the most-vulnerable constituents in Chicago,” Mello said. “I think that it’s important for us, especially as design students for a powerful and privileged institution like Harvard, to hold our politicians and our leaders to policies that promote equity and that really invest in the people that need it the most.”

The event’s sponsors did not immediately respond to request for comment.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez


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