Student activists at Harvard Law School had a busy fall mounting a campaign that put increasing pressure on administrators to improve race relations within the school. They publicly pressured the college to change its seal, which was modeled on the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder, demanded answers after someone placed pieces of black tape over the portraits of black professors, and issued a list of demands to make Harvard Law a more diverse and inclusive community.
Then came time for final exams. Then winter break. The movement slowed.
“Student activists are humans like everyone else and also like to go see families for their holidays,” said Bianca Tylek, a member of the student group, Reclaim Harvard Law. “One month of non-stop activist work is taxing both physically and emotionally, and winter break provides a nice opportunity for kids to re-energize. But when we got back, we had to figure out how to both reinvigorate the campus and ourselves.”
Harvard Law School was one of more than 120 colleges across the U.S. that held anti-racism demonstrations in the form of marches, rallies and sit-ins this past fall. The movements were rocketed forward by a watershed protest at the University of Missouri that led to resignations of the school’s president and chancellor. At least 79 colleges released extensive lists of demands for administrators aimed at improving campus race relations.
Despite the momentum and widespread media attention, some students had a hard time picking up where they left off once they returned for the spring semester.
“When social causes and social issues are so related to your being and your culture, it’s really hard to not give your all to be an activist for them,” said Simone Alyse, a Berklee College of Music student who helped organize a city-wide demonstration last November. “But you have to do planning, scheduling, organizing, and meetings, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to be successful in school.”
Still, just because the movement wasn’t as visible didn’t mean there wasn’t action on campus. Rather than hold demonstrations to raise awareness, students planned meetings with administrators and held panels to better educate themselves and their peers.
“Because we aren’t as loud this semester, a lot of people might think it was just a phase,” said Rinne-Julie Fruster, an organizer from Lasell College, in Newton. “We are having meetings with certain administrators, but that’s not a good story for the media, that ‘Oh, we had a really good meeting today.'”
At Harvard Law, students opted to maintain public pressure rather than private parlays with administrators. Toting air mattresses and sleeping bags, Harvard Law students gathered one February night in “Belinda Hall,” a student center lounge they christened for the former slave of Law School benefactors. The occupation was initially planned as a one-night demonstration to allow members of “Reclaim Harvard Law” to gather to better inform their own movement. It ended up lasting weeks.
“We weren’t there to pressure the institution to change anything,” Tylek said. “Rather saying to the administration, ‘Can you please do this?’ We were going to establish an unwavering presence to make ourselves known, but also to demonstrate what the movement was all about and what these demands actually looked like in real life.”
The movement has been successful. Two weeks after Reclaim began its occupation, the Law School recommended that the college remove its official seal. The crest quickly disappeared from social media accounts, campus buildings and merchandise in the school’s apparel store, but the occupation didn’t end.
“A symbol is very important to an institution and what that institution relays to the outside world, but it in and of itself does not solve racism at Harvard,” Tylek said. “We stayed at Belinda for the reason we were there in the first place: To engage the community.”
Now, the student activists are facing yet another interruption to their movements — summer break. But Alyse said the group who took part in last fall’s demonstration will meet this summer to discuss further action, and find ways to involve younger students to ensure the movement doesn’t die out.
“Look at what happened at Boston Latin,” Alyse said. “It’s not just the colleges, it’s all the schools. We’re trying to be mentors and help them through this process. Boston is a little more progressive than most places, but we have voices that need to be heard. That’s something that, even with breaks and new students coming in, is not going to change.”