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The Association of Black Harvard Women ‘as a Catalyst’ for Institutional Change at Harvard

EBONY at Harvard

The Association of Black Harvard Women in honored the lives and memories of members of the Black transgender community at a ceremony in Holden Chapel last month.
The Association of Black Harvard Women in honored the lives and memories of members of the Black transgender community at a ceremony in Holden Chapel last month. By Xenia O. Viragh
By Ebony M. Smith, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ebony M. Smith ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Government and African & African American Studies in Eliot House and a Senior Representative for the Association of Black Harvard Women. Her column “EBONY at Harvard” runs biweekly on Mondays.

On Nov. 5, I walked into Holden Chapel greeted by a sea of purple flowers. Beautiful Black and Brown faces filled almost every seat for the fifth Annual Vigil for Black Trans Lives.

This event was created to honor the lives of Black transgender individuals and to call out transphobic violence in society and within institutions. This yearly vigil, curated by the Association of Black Harvard Women, serves as an example of real political action and inclusivity amongst Harvard’s student body.

Harvard needs more of this political action to not only sustain the civic work that student organizations do, but to preserve the indispensable value that diverse students bring to campus — especially in a post-affirmative action world.

The annual vigil has had success in building community and highlighting stifled voices, by allowing student speakers and offices like the Harvard Foundation, Harvard College Queer Students Association, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, and the Harvard College Women’s Center to institutionalize its presence. It should remain marked in Harvard's history as one of the most important events on campus. The annual vigil calls for more civic engagement from all student organizations, and urges us to recognize the power and privilege we hold as Harvard students.

ABHW was founded in 1975 by 65 Black Radcliffe women. Avarita L. Hanson ’75, who was a senior at the College then, called a meeting among the Black women at Radcliffe to discuss how they would stay connected after graduation. From this meeting, the Association of Black Radcliffe Women was born, which has since become a space on campus to celebrate Black women at Harvard and to support them throughout their undergraduate journeys and beyond.

The organization was then revived by students Anne C. Bailey ’86, Gail A. Burton ’86, and Allysunn Walker ’86. These women paved the way for me to join the organization as the Sisterhood Chair in 2021, as the Alumnae Representative in 2022, and as the current Senior Representative. These women were trailblazers and they circumvented the isolation they faced during their own time at Harvard, to make it just a bit easier for future generations.

In 2023, the language of the ABHW Constitution was changed to include Black marginalized genders as a whole.

To make the space more inclusive, the new ABHW Constitution reads:

“Let us act as a catalyst in bringing Black women and other gender marginalized students on Harvard University’s campus together for academic, cultural, political, and social purposes [...] Let us be actively engaged in the larger discourse on gender marginalized issues, particularly those pertaining to Black gender marginalized people, on Harvard University’s campus, nationwide, and worldwide and contribute our energies to these causes.”

“We will also uplift the voices of the Black queer community and engage in unwavering activism by condemning injustices on — and off — campus,” the constitution continues.

This change, although subtle, is vastly salient.

Language is more than just rhetoric or rhythm. At Harvard, it can be a mechanism to restrict or open social spaces on campus.

There is no ABHW without the queer and transgender folk on campus, and this was finally explicitly expressed in 2023. ABHW’s decision to alter their constitution sets the tone for onlooking student organizations and affinity groups to expand their work and start embodying a civic mission. Harvard should extend support to other student organizations, like it does yearly for the Annual Vigil for Black Trans Lives, to help carry this positive trend and allow other student spaces to flourish in their push for more inclusivity and representation.

Unfortunately, transphobia is a nationwide problem that further marginalizes individuals who do not subscribe to heteronormativity. Blackness, when added to the equation, results in a doubly disadvantaged, intersectional struggle. Simultaneously, Harvard has often denied the calls for intersectionality from students, which puts more of a burden on student activists to fill the void created by a lack of institutional policy.

If Harvard is truly committed to fostering a culture of inclusivity, it must codify all notions of diversity. Harvard as an institution can start by seriously considering the creation of a multicultural center, so that students can share a space that celebrates their cultures and identities. On top of that, Harvard should look deeply into the benefits of an Ethnic Studies program that would establish another formal pathway for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship.

Indeed, the Association of Black Harvard Women still has work to do. For student organizations, it is their job to expand the values of inclusivity at every event, but to also actively combat political suppression of their membership. United States Supreme Court decisions that ended race-conscious admissions or allowed companies to discriminate against queer people do not exist in a vacuum. College students are not immune to them, either.

That is why the work that the Association of Black Harvard Women does is so imperative. More importantly, it is why Harvard should dedicate more of its resources to institutionalizing and cementing celebrations of diversity across the campus.

Meanwhile, student organizations at Harvard should look to ABHW not as a complete moniker of success at achieving inclusivity, but as a focal point of where and how to start such intra-group conversations.

Ebony M. Smith ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Government and African & African American Studies in Eliot House and a Senior Representative for the Association of Black Harvard Women. Her column “EBONY at Harvard” runs biweekly on Mondays.

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