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Cornel West ’74 and Marianne Williamson Discuss Social Justice at Sanders Theatre Award Ceremony

Cornel R. West ’74 addresses Harvard affiliates and Cambridge residents at the 2023 Department of Peace Social Impact MVP Awards Ceremony at Sanders Theatre.
Cornel R. West ’74 addresses Harvard affiliates and Cambridge residents at the 2023 Department of Peace Social Impact MVP Awards Ceremony at Sanders Theatre. By Frank S. Zhou
By Rysa Tahilramani, Crimson Staff Writer

The Department of Peace held its inaugural Cultural Impact Award ceremony Saturday, hosting philosopher and former Harvard professor Cornel R. West ’74 and presidential candidate Marianne D. Williamson at a two-hour long event at Sanders Theatre.

The Department of Peace is a social justice organization that aims to bring together activists and leaders to discuss topics including politics, culture, academics, and the environment. The group is not affiliated with Harvard.

In addition to Williamson and West, the ceremony featured sportswriter Peter Gammons and Bernard Franklin, the managing director of nonprofit Uncornered and a former fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. Soul band MFSB also gave a performance during the event.

West has long had a contentious relationship with Harvard and has left the University twice: first, in 2002, after a high-profile dispute with former President Lawrence H. Summers, and for the second time in 2021 after Harvard allegedly denied his request to be considered for tenure.

After his second departure, he returned to Union Theological Seminary, where he is currently serving as professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice.

During his remarks Saturday, West described the long-running tradition and importance of music to Black history and the role that it has played in helping fight injustice. Music has enabled Black people to “stay in contact with their dignity, their humanity, their sense of perseverance,” West said.

“Black music is the greatest artistic breakthrough in the most barbaric of recorded times and the 20th century. No other century has generated such levels of barbarity and bestiality of 150 million of our fellow human beings dead in the name of some ideology,” he added.

West emphasized the importance of listening to all voices, especially those from marginalized groups.

“I come from a tradition that says a condition of truth is to allow those suffering to speak. If you’re not hearing the voices of the least of these, you’re not going to be truthful,” West said. “You’re going to have a lot of mendacious formulations.”

Williamson, who staged an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, launched her campaign for the 2024 race in March. Williamson, an author and spiritual leader, came to prominence as a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, leading to her reputation as Winfrey’s “spiritual advisor.”

In her speech Saturday, Williamson said the U.S. is “not a peaceful society because we are a violent society.”

“The reason we don’t have peace in the United States is because we do not have justice. We do not have criminal justice. We do not have racial justice. We do not have environmental justice and we do not have economic justice,” Williamson said.

Williamson said the existence of poverty is one example of injustice in the U.S.

“Poverty is an expression of violent economic policies when 39 percent of Americans in the richest country in the world are now skipping meals in order to pay their rent,” Williamson said.

Williamson pointed to four methods of establishing peace. These included expanding economic opportunities for women, increasing educational opportunities for children, ameliorating violence against women, and eliminating unnecessary human suffering.

“You can have all these wonderful conversations where we talk about the importance of peace, but we as a generation need to do more than say what we already know,” Williamson said. “We need to do something about it.”

—Staff writer Rysa Tahilramani can be reached at

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