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The Kind of Community We Want to Be

In response to recent events on campus, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has asked the question, “What kind of community do we want to be?” We, as members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign and the Fossil Free Divest Harvard Campaign, want Harvard to be a community that has the right relationship with other people and our planet. Both mass incarceration and global climate change reflect a systematic disregard for the wellbeing of our communities and our collective home. We, above all else, are working for a world in which these relationships are healed and balanced — a world in which we are liberated.

We recognize that this vision extends beyond Harvard’s endowment. We have seen the destructive forces of racial and climate injustice first-hand in our hometowns and here in Boston. As members of the Harvard community and of communities beyond these walls, we want a Harvard that advances a more just and sustainable future. We want a Harvard that displays the civic leadership it expects from its students. This is why we are asking the administration to honor our commitment to Veritas by divesting from two industries whose aims undermine the principles for which it claims to stand.

Over the past few weeks, President Bacow has emphasized the importance of civil discourse. We recognize that real engagement between community members is vital for working towards a better future. However, that engagement must be equitable and honest. The efforts of organizers of color to show the urgency of these issues like mass incarceration, which disproportionately affect black and brown communities, seem to have been interpreted by the administration as hostile or aggressive. This framing has consistently been used nationally and historically to silence people of color, and specifically women of color, speaking honestly to the urgency of issues that destroy lives. This means that “civil” discourse is simply impossible for us to achieve on the president's terms. We cannot have real civil discourse if the administration refuses to recognize the reality of the violations against people and communities it is perpetuating and the legitimate challenges to its disparate financial and ethical principles.

As it stands, conversation around Harvard’s endowment can occur only on the terms of those with the power to manage it. Members of the Harvard community, who are not included in the closed-door meetings of the Harvard Corporation and Harvard Management Company, cannot know the realities of Harvard’s investment portfolio. Without any transparency or public accountability, injustice breeds behind those closed doors and Harvard faces no repercussions for profiting off of the exploitation of individuals, communities, and our planet. We have already seen efforts by the administration to keep those doors closed. Recently, Harvard Management Company scrubbed its website of references to divestment. There is no longer any mention of the ethical reasons to divest or any recognition of Harvard’s past decisions to do so from firms doing business with the apartheid South African government and big tobacco. Harvard’s administration is not only refusing to engage in real dialogue, it is actively working to stifle it. The first step towards real engagement, then, is to publicly disclose Harvard’s investment portfolio.

For the time Bacow has been in office, he has ignored our vision of the community we want to be and of the leadership we want Harvard to display. In Fossil Free Divest Harvard’s public forum, he reiterated the same arguments against divestment that have been used since 2012 to justify Harvard’s inertia. Since 2012, the existential threat posed by climate change has only accelerated and over two million incarcerated people have suffered egregious human rights abuses behind bars — abuses off which Harvard continues to profit. Bacow told us that he responds to “reason,” not “pressure.” Yet it seems that even on the plane of “reasonable” discourse he cannot make a substantive contribution to the conversation we are asking to have. If Harvard can engage positively with the fossil fuel and private prison industries to shape a better future as the president contends, where is the evidence of that engagement? If industries predicated on extraction and exploitation can suddenly change their model of business to accommodate our ethical principles, where is the proof?

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At the public forum, Bacow asked, “What happens the day after we divest?” President Bacow, the answer is that — after celebration, of course, as Chemistry professor James G. Anderson suggested at the forum — we keep working. We are not fooled into thinking that divesting Harvard or just one actor, albeit a very economically and politically powerful one, can alleviate the stains of climate and racial injustice on our world. Divestment is just one step forward in the fight to remove these stains. But it is a step that our community can take, and one we have taken before. Disclosure of Harvard’s endowment holdings is a necessary component in beginning meaningful dialogue around what ethical investment truly means.

During Harvard Heat Week and during weekly Abolition Action Assemblies, we are inviting our allies around the world to join us in calling for divestment. Yet our call is for Harvard’s administration to do much more than divest: We are calling for them to join us in realizing our vision for a more just and sustainable world and for a Harvard that is a leader in it.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is an African and African American Studies Concentrator in Eliot House, and is a member of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. Ilana A. Cohen ’22 is a joint concentrator in Philosophy and Social Studies in Pennypacker Hall, and is a member of Divest Harvard.

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