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Engulfed in what Martin Luther King Jr. described as “the fierce urgency of now”, the year 2020 lived up to its numerical metaphor — providing unprecedentedly clear insights into the enormity of the issues bequeathed by the previous generation for today’s young generations to solve. And indeed, around the world in 2021, positive youth of all ages are responding “Si se puede!” to the challenge of creating a more just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable world.
A fast-growing group of young graduates organized only 14 months ago, Harvard Forward, has already achieved landmark success in galvanizing support for greater representation of committed young alumni in the highest governing body of their university. Their central goal is more inclusive governance that will increase university action to find solutions to racial and social injustice as well as the increasingly critical issue of climate change now facing young people everywhere.
Last August, with an emphasis on the need for the University to divest itself of its investments in fossil fuels and increase sustainability research and education, Harvard Forward-endorsed candidates, with enthusiastic alumni support, won three of the five open seats on the University’s Board of Overseers.
For this class of ’61 student of history, whose years now almost quadruple the age of the most recent Harvard alums, the call of Harvard Forward is not unprecedented. The goal of achieving a socially-progressive Board of Overseers evokes the long history of courageous Harvard students and graduates of the past who were committed to addressing and solving the urgent issues of their times that threatened the survival and advancement of the highest potential of humankind.
Many alumni can remember the courageous anti-apartheid movement and insurgent Board of Overseers campaign in the 1980s summoning the support of ethical giants like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But that tradition stretches far further back into Harvard’s history, perhaps epitomized by a galaxy of courageous 19th century alumni — both famous and forgotten. Their commitment to creating a more just human society helped achieve historic advances towards that goal
Perhaps most similar to the current issues of Harvard’s own ethical and social advancement is the example of Harvard students, faculty, alumni, and administrators in the autumn of 1921 challenging the growing university policy of housing segregation. Sparked by the initial challenge to that racial injustice by African and Native American student Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. ’21 (my father), their cause attracted the support of Harvard luminaries including elite Board of Overseers member and President of the NAACP Moorfield Storey and Black civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois.
They published articles in the press and created petitions and polls that gathered signatures from alumni nationwide. Though undoubtedly highly varied in their 1920s personal values, Harvard students and alumni united to hold Harvard to its highest ideals and set the University on a more accurate path towards a brighter human future. In April 1923, after sustained alumni pressure, the Board of Overseers voted unanimously to overturn the policy of excluding Black students from the freshman dorms.
That inspiring response of Harvard students, alumni, faculty, and governance members nearly a century ago revealed that Harvardians of all ages would put aside their personal predilections and vote strongly for the University to end its budding policy of banning incoming Black students from the lavishly constructed freshman dormitories. Those dormitories, specifically designed to create long-lasting student bonds, are now one of the richest and most multicultural aspects of the Harvard experience.
Today, exactly 100 years from the spark of that remarkable event, the Harvard Board of Overseers’ 2021 election offers the opportunity for us to continue this history. Thanks to the remarkably impressive slate of Harvard Forward-endorsed candidates who represent a much-needed increase in ethnic, racial, and gender diversity, and whose individual perspectives promise much-needed focus for positive action on today’s major urgent issues: the urgent slowdown of devastating climate change and equally needed increased economic equality and social justice for long excluded and marginalized people.
To this aging Class of ‘’61 alumnus and student of history then, today’s epic, and sadly largely man-made, global crises are perhaps still most powerfully stated in the immortal and stunningly prescient words of President Abraham Lincoln in his address to Congress in December 1862:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew … We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility”
Spencer C. D. Jourdain ’61 was a History concentrator in Kirkland House.
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