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If You Really Want to Make a Change, Start Organizing

By Josh D. Willcox, Contributing Opinion Writer
Josh D. Wilcox ’24 is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House. ​​​​​​​

Dear first-years,

As you begin your first few weeks at Harvard, you will undoubtedly hear hollow speeches from our administration. They will tell you that the next four years of your lives will be a transformative experience and that you’ll all go on to be world-changers. These speeches usually end with a call to live up to our motto, Veritas, to search for “the truth.” That is, of course, as long as this truth doesn’t upset the status quo.

Because when truth demands change, it is swept under the carpet — and Harvard is no exception.

What the administration is not going to tell you is that Harvard is designed to maintain the status quo when it comes to social change and justice. They prefer incremental but inconsequential reforms that let you give yourself a pat on the back. You will distract yourself with snobbish discussions in dining halls about political and social theory so you never end up confronting the real question: Am I actually bringing this world closer to freedom and justice? Is our institution, an infamous pipeline to finance and consulting, genuinely helping?

Some people at Harvard will argue that they don’t know much about politics. Others will tell you that they don’t get involved because they don’t want to upset anyone. Then there's the cherry on top of social ignorance: “It’s too controversial.” As Harvard students, we are already immensely privileged, but these hesitant excuses to remove ourselves highlight a deafening indifference to the reality we live in. Marginalized and targeted communities around the world do not have the choice to be ignorant of politics: They are born into politics and must endure it on a near daily basis.

The cold reality is that in order to change oppressive and systemically violent systems, you have to upset powerful institutions. Why? Because these institutions, Harvard included, have benefitted and still benefit economically and politically from the subjugation of others. If you really start to push, Harvard knows there are real stakes on the line: its money and power.

Apologies for bursting the everyone-hold-hands-in-harmony bubble, but the poisonous narrative of “respect everyone’s opinions” breeds political passivity. I can already hear apologists beg marginalized groups to stop being angry and relax — to call for everyone to be friends and love one another.

But the reality is that administrations who claim to fearlessly pursue truth only promote stale dialogues. Student activists argue that the prison-industrial complex maintains a systemically violent, racist state and demands divestment. The administration gets up and says that Harvard should not use its endowment to “achieve political ends, or particular ends.” (I, for one, think it should be blatantly obvious that making money from private prisons is already political.)

Then, the moderator thanks everyone for sharing. Everyone goes home. Nothing changes.

Student activists demand divestment from the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine and the imposition of an apartheid regime there. The complicit administration repeats their spineless position that endorsing “individual or particular positions on these issues do not encourage debate; they actually quash it,” despite bragging about alumni who put their lives on the line for the sole purpose of social change.

The moderator thanks everyone for sharing. Everyone goes home. The apartheid regime stands untouched.

Unlike our discussions in seminar classes, groups living under the boot of oppressive regimes do not have the luxury of listening to the other side, forgetting about it, then going back to their daily lives. Opinions have consequences in the real world, so let’s stop fooling ourselves by insisting that “respecting everyone’s opinions” is a virtuous position to take — it rings hollow.

No Harvard administration has ever been the driving force for real change and social justice. The real force comes from grassroots organizations. They are the ones who push the administration and cause discomfort until it finally heeds the call for justice. By all means, Harvard’s sweet-talk tries hard to convince us otherwise. The facade is crystal clean and well-manicured — no doubt the result of a very clever marketing team — but the inside is more sinister. We hear our deans talk of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and we think to ourselves, “Wow these people really must be the pioneers of progressivism!” But I don’t buy it and you shouldn’t either. How can an administration talk about inclusion and justice when they refuse to publicly commit to divest from private prisons and have investments in companies complicit in Israel’s apartheid regime?

So what should you do? Find the divest groups on campus (Palestine Solidarity Committee, Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Stop Harvard Land Grabs) and start organizing. Push the people around you by talking about real issues. Elevate the voices on campus who are calling for justice. Put your feet on the ground when they organize a protest. Disrupt. Keep making noise until it grabs people’s attention. Make people uncomfortable until they can no longer turn a blind eye. Frankly, that’s the only way that change has or will ever come about.

I’m not going to pretend that Harvard’s multiple divest campaigns would solve the world’s problems if they succeeded, but as the Crimson Editorial Board has said before regarding prison divestment, “The question is not where to stop, but rather where to begin”. Do you really want to look back when you’re older and think to yourself that you stayed silent while others spoke up?

Teach yourself how to speak up, because Harvard won’t. If you really want to make a change, start organizing.

Josh D. Wilcox ’24 is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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