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Cambridge City Council to Sponsor Diversity Discussions In Response to Viral Video of Harvard Employee

Mayor Marc McGovern
Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern, inaugurated this January, sits in his office.

The Cambridge City Council plans to sponsor “community conversations” focused on diversity in response to a viral video that depicted a Harvard employee asking a neighbor with a biracial daughter if she lived in affordable housing.

The conversations will center around “community values” and will allow residents to discuss “interactions that are rooted in privilege, classism, and racism,” Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern wrote in a Facebook post Monday. Cambridge City Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui will lead the conversations.

In his post, McGovern wrote that Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Executive Director Theresa A. Lund’s actions in the short video are “an example of classism and racism.” The video shows Lund telling her neighbor Alyson Laliberte that she and her daughter are making too much noise. Lund proceeds to ask Laliberte where she lives in “one of the affordable units” or “one of the Harvard units.”

“Racism and classism is not just something that happens ‘somewhere else’,” McGovern wrote. “The truth is that even here in Cambridge, we have much work to do.”

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On Thursday night, HII director Michael J. VanRooyen announced in a Facebook post that Lund was on leave “effective immediately.” He wrote the organization “does not condone” what Lund said to Laliberte in the video.

In her Facebook post, Laliberte called Lund “another Permit Patty,” alluding to a recent set of incidents in which white adults have confronted or called the police on black children performing ordinary activities. The video has received more than 1 million views and drawn widespread censure online.

Lund has apologized publicly, writing on Facebook that her conduct was “inappropriate and wrong.” Lund also apologized to Laliberte and her daughter in person, per her Facebook post.

In an interview, McGovern said he knows the diversity conversations will not fix everything.

“This is not something that we’re going to have four or five conversations and all of a sudden Cambridge is going to be a utopia of a place,” he said. “This takes an incredible amount of time but we’re not going to ignore it.”

Siddiqui said the community conversations are in part meant specifically to reduce the frequency of incidents like the exchange between Lund and Laliberte.

“Our goal is to shift people’s mindsets and to think, ‘This is the impact you have when you make a statement like that and when you ask a question like that,’” she said. “This is something that happens. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to a lot of folks on a daily basis. People who don’t face this regularly don’t know it happens.”

Siddiqui and McGovern have not decided on the number or format of the fall 2018 conversations, both said, but will do so in coming weeks. McGovern said some of his preliminary ideas include town hall meetings, panels, and expert speakers. Siddiqui said her office plans to release more information about the discussions in a few days.

It will be key to “bring the universities in” to the conversations, McGovern said. He said the forums could help Harvard grapple with the question of how to educate its employees, who are sometimes “in a very different position” from local residents.

Harvard spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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