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‘Black Girls Matter’ Event Addresses the Protection of Black Women at Harvard

My Class is Across the Yard
Snow blankets Harvard Yard.

The Association of Black Harvard Women held a discussion Thursday to address sexual assault and its impact on black women in the wake of the release of “Surviving R. Kelly” and news that Harvard Law School professor Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. will serve on Harvey Weinstein’s legal team.

More than 50 students packed into Ticknor Lounge for the event, called “Black Girls Matter,” and some were forced to find seats on the floor as the room filled with attendees. Law School student Katherine Mateo moderated the discussion, the contents of which were off the record to the press.

In an email publicizing the event, organizers wrote they believe it is “imperative” to discuss how issues of sexual assault specifically affect black women.

"In the wake of 'Surviving R. Kelly' and most recently, the report that the Winthrop House Dean—a Black man—has joined the defense of Harvey Weinstein, we think it is imperative to come together and discuss sexual assault, abuse and harassment as they impact Black women," the invitation read.

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The documentary series "Surviving R. Kelly," released in early January, publicized years of abuse allegations against the R&B singer.

ABHW President Kacey E. Gill ’20 said the group wanted to give black Harvard affiliates a space to participate in an “empowering and candid discussion” about issues of sexual misconduct.

She added that one of ABHW’s goals in holding the event was to prompt a conversation about creating resources for sexual assault that are “specifically designed and executed for black women.”

“This event was intended to be a forum for discussion primarily but also a really empowering and candid discussion within the black community about sexual assault, sexual abuse, and some really significant stories that have been going on in the past few years, past few months, past few weeks,” Gill said.

After the event, several students said they are dissatisfied with Sullivan’s choice to represent Weinstein, a Hollywood film producer facing several charges of rape and sexual assault.

The day after news broke that Sullivan, a Winthrop House faculty dean, had joined Weinstein’s legal team in his Manhattan sexual abuse case, Sullivan sent an email to Winthrop residents defending his decision. His email focused on the importance of representing the “unpopular defendant.”

Attendee Ata D. Amponsah ’19 said in an interview after the event that he was “appalled” after first hearing the news and that he believes the case may affect Sullivan’s role as a faculty dean.

“When students are sexually assaulted or have to come to you, they need to feel a level of comfort in order to come to you,” Amponsah said. “You ought to be an advocate for them to the administration given your position. He shouldn’t have taken on that case.”

Sullivan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

The discussion also touched on stereotypes black women at Harvard face and how they can shape their experiences on campus, according to attendee Samantha C. W. O’Sullivan ’22.

“Someone made a comment about how black girls’ sexuality specifically can often really contribute to their reputation on campus, and it can often sort of color their experience really negatively,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve definitely seen and experienced being a black woman on campus, feeling invalidated and having to question all the aspects of life I participate in.”

Gill said after the event that she believes Harvard does not provide enough resources specifically for black women and that the University faces issues in diversity among its faculty and deans.

“I feel like black women contribute a ton to this community in all different spheres. It’s like, we literally pour out our hearts and our minds and our souls and invest in this campus and this university and we get very little of that back,” Gill said. “I want more representation and I want Harvard to take more active steps to support survivors because that matters.”

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

—Staff writer Jenna X. Bao can be reached at jenna.bao@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JennaBao.

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