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Harvard Students Are Teaching Harvard How to Be Anti-Racist

And therein lies the problem.

An archival black-and-white aerial photograph of a concrete building with a sloped roof
The percentage of black architects in America hasn’t changed since the date when this photograph of the Graduate School of Design was taken in 1971.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

The institutional racism in higher education is a story as old as time, and students at Harvard University are fed up with waiting for change.

This week, members of the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD issued “Notes on Credibility,” a list of 13 demands aimed at the Graduate School of Design’s administration for how the school must institutionalize anti-racism.

In other words, Harvard students are teaching Harvard University how to be anti-racist — and the onus should not be on them.

“This statement is not about us, it is about you and your credibility as an institution,” the students write. “As Black members of this community, we have maintained silence this past week – both as an act of self-care and because we feel there is no need to publicly share our grief, trauma, or exhaustion. We do not owe you our experiences, ideas on how to organize, or a listening session on how it feels to be at an institution that does not proactively address systems of injustice in its curriculum, classrooms, or social experiences.”

The 13 actions listed in the statement address issues around curriculum, funding, and staffing at the Graduate School of Design:

1. Restructure all courses at the GSD to include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices

2. Hire more Black faculty, staff, and administration

3. Strategy for implementing anti-racist efforts from department chairs

4. Advancement and acknowledgement of faculty promoting justice in the profession

5. Inclusion of BIPOC guest speakers in GSD courses

6. Response to racist remarks issued by the Architecture Department Chair

7. Transparency of selection criteria for awards and honors

8. Access to tools and resources that support academic and professional growth

9. Outreach and engagement with Black communities

10. Financial accountability, transparency, and most importantly support

11. Frameworks and training to understand the specific racial context of America

12. Proactively cultivate a strong network of Black professionals, alumni and students

13. Authorization for AASU & AfricaGSD to donate the remainder of unused allocated funds for the emergency spring semester to select Black organizations outside of the GSD

A GSD spokesperson told Curbed that Dean Sarah Whiting has been in touch with student leaders of the AASU and AfricaGSD about “Notes on Credibility,” and issued the following statement:

“This vital call to institutionalize anti-racism coincides with conversations that have been taking place among GSD faculty and leadership on the range of ways we must address concerns that have long been present and are now glaringly unacceptable. What is clear is that in order to bring about real, institutional change, the GSD’s response and actions cannot come from leadership working alone, but can only arise in close concert with Black student leaders and the many other members of our community whose voices and perspectives have been diminished, if not, as in many cases, overlooked entirely.”

The Harvard Graduate School of Design is regarded as a top architecture school in the United States. Many of the foremost black architects are alumni of the institution: Toni Griffin, an urban planner and founder of the Just City Lab, and J. Max Bond Jr., a vocal activist for diversity and inclusion in architecture and the lead architect of the museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Black in Design Conference, which is student organized, draws speakers and attendees from all around the world and is perhaps the most relevant program for design today. Students also created the African American Design Nexus, which aims to be a comprehensive website showcasing the work of black architects and designers. Meanwhile, the chair of the Department of Architecture said that one of the GSD’s strengths is its Eurocentrism, which has (rightfully) rankled students of color.

As the authors of “Notes on Credibility” state:

The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) cannot claim academic excellence while maintaining silence. Your silence is complicit in anti-Blackness. The Black in Design conference, a student-initiated and led effort, has been appropriated for recruitment, misrepresenting and obscuring larger institutional inequities that continuously go unaddressed at the GSD. Tokenizing Black faculty and students and our work as proof of anti-racist efforts is the institutional equivalent of stating, “I’m not racist, I have Black friends.”

Addressing architecture’s whiteness is a long-standing problem that hasn’t gotten any better: Only 2 percent of architects identify as black, a number that hasn’t changed since the 1960s. The so-called pipeline has been a focus of activists fighting for more diversity and inclusion in the profession. Universities are part of this, and they haven’t done enough to meaningfully address the issues. Last year, an activist and graduate from the Tulane School of Architecture created a similar list of demands for structural change.

How good of an education can Harvard provide when the best and brightest students have no confidence in its administration?