Leading the Way Toward Racial Healing

April 29, 2015
HDS students Melissa Bartholomew and Rachel Foran
HDS students Melissa Bartholomew and Rachel Foran / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Melissa Bartholomew, MDiv '15, and Rachel Foran, MTS '15, are the co-chairs of the HDS Racial Justice & Healing Initiative, a group of HDS students committed to cross-disciplinary dialogue, scholarship, and training in order to address personal and systemic racism.

HDS communications recently caught up with Melissa and Rachel to learn more about the initiative and their efforts to ensure conversations and engagement on racial healing and justice have an enduring place at HDS.

HDS: Where do things stand with regard to the status of the Racial Justice and Healing Initiative? Is the idea that the "Initiative" will become a "Center"?

Melissa & Rachel: We registered the HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative as an official HDS student group in January 2015. The long-term vision is to establish a Center for Racial Justice and Healing at HDS.

Dean David Hempton and his administration have demonstrated consistent support for our efforts, and they have also been clear about the challenges of a center model. Our vision for a center reflects our collective response to the urgent need to cultivate racial justice and healing in our time, as well as to provide a foundation for generations to come. We are "dreaming big" and acting now to address the pressing moral crisis of racism.

The focus of our group this year has been primarily on the development of the "Programmatic Description and Objectives," as well as on organizing the forum we held to formally present this document to Dean Hempton and the HDS community on March 25. Next year, the group will be able to devote its time to the types of programming outlined in the proposal, such as workshops, events, and possibly a conference.

The tragic events in Baltimore underscore the urgency of this work. Racial justice and healing must become a national priority.

HDS: Do you feel your voices and concerns have been heard by the HDS administration? If so, how has the School supported your efforts?

Melissa & Rachel: Yes, Dean Hempton and his administration, as well as many faculty and staff, have been active supporters since the beginning. When we were mobilizing students in the fall to participate in Black Lives Matter marches and protests, we were always joined by several deans, faculty, and staff at HDS healing circles as well as the marches we participated in.

Beyond "showing up," the administration, and especially those in HDS Student Life, have been more than willing to meet, collaborate, and help us shape the direction of our work on campus. We have also been in discussion with the HDS Diversity and Inclusion Committee about how we can join their efforts. We are so grateful for the commitment of our administration to engage with us in this important work.

HDS: One of the areas that you've spoken about is ensuring that the work you do is sustainable and leads to transformation. How can you make certain that what you're doing, and the effort you're making, will have a lasting impact?

Melissa & Rachel: We seek to accomplish this by keeping the long view and striving toward the creation of a permanent center. The Programmatic Description and Objectives for the center reflects a comprehensive plan for infusing the work of racial justice and healing throughout the Divinity School. Through this center, we are seeking institutional change that can extend beyond the tenure of any particular student, staff, or faculty. While we work toward a center, the student group will continue moving forward. Many of the current members are first-year students who will be continuing the work next year. The leadership team is already taking shape, and we have had many students express interest in joining the group.

We will also be forming an alumni council that will serve as the organizing body for the center. There will be two student liaisons on this council. It will focus on the work of developing the center so that the student group can focus on programming and activities. The goal of the student group is to do work that reflects the work of the center. To that end, there will be programming that supports all members of the HDS community in developing the capacity to address racism and race-related issues within and beyond HDS and Harvard University. In addition, there will be programs that engage communities outside of HDS, including the rest of Harvard University and outside of Harvard.

HDS: Could you talk about some of the events, forums, and discussions that your group has been a part of? Does it seem like there's been growing support for the cause?

Melissa: We first began mobilizing around this vision for a center last fall. The HDS Harambee student group held an event in October featuring Professor Kaia Stern, who talked about her work involving transformative justice and mass incarceration.

It was a small gathering of students who were interested in discussing race-related matters. At the end of the talk, the conversation shifted to discussing ideas for how we could work together as students to meaningfully address systemic and interpersonal racism. I articulated an idea for a center as a way to institutionalize the focus of racial justice and healing. The idea emerged from a sense of urgency that everyone in the room, and others within our HDS community, also shared.

Rachel and I met for the first time at that meeting and began initial discussions about the work almost immediately. A few weeks later, we convened a committee of students who were interested in leading this effort alongside us. Since then, we, alongside our committee members Rod Owens, Shrestha Singh, Jesse Rothman, Kirsten Lovett, Karlene Griffiths Sekou, Sonia David, Liz Aeschlimann, Adriel Borshansky, Olivia Hamilton, Chris Alburger, Grace Liu, Alexa Kutler, and Casper ter Kuile have all been working on building our collective vision, and we are committed to continue the work on campus into next year. We are a group of students from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and we each bring our unique gifts and perspectives to this effort.

Melissa & Rachel: Our first event was a School-wide brainstorming session about an idea for a center on November 20, 2014. Over 50 students, faculty, and staff attended that meeting. The level of support was very encouraging. Soon after the session, the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases were delivered, and the work became even more urgent.

Right after the Brown decision, our committee led a session in the chapel of Divinity Hall for members of the HDS community to gather and to sit, cry, pray, sing, and reflect on their feelings about the decision. Soon after, we began mobilizing the HDS community to participate in the Black Lives Matter marches and protests, and we collaborated with the cross-Harvard student group coalition that was also engaged in marches.

The HDS community strongly supported these events, even though it was the end of the term and at a very hectic time. The momentum continued after winter break. In February, we helped sponsor a University-wide event featuring Tef Poe, a hip-hop artist and community organizer from St. Louis, Missouri, which HDS students enthusiastically supported.

Last month, over 50 students, faculty, and staff attended our School-wide forum at which we presented and discussed our center proposal. Many students in attendance indicated that they want to join the group next year. Most recently, our group co-sponsored an event featuring the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays Movement, which was open to the public.

Support for the vision of the center is continuing to grow within the student body. One way that we have been able to measure student support is through a recent School-wide student vote on the center through which we found that 86 percent of voting students support the creation of an HDS Center for Racial Justice and Healing.  

HDS: You've written that your goal is to equip students, scholars, and practitioners of religion to lead racial justice and healing efforts. How do you plan to do that?

Melissa & Rachel: The mission of our center is to engage in this work by means of cross-disciplinary dialogue, scholarship, and training designed to address personal and systemic racism through strategies rooted in love. In pursuit of our mission and goal, we're focusing our efforts on six main objectives. The details of these objectives, and the strategic activities they include, are described in our proposal, which we invite everyone to read.

As a short summary, we plan to accomplish our goal through providing trainings, workshops, and events for faculty, staff, students, and community members on racism and race-related issues inside and outside the classroom. Additionally, we seek to enhance the HDS academic engagement with issues of race and racism by increasing course offerings, fostering scholarship, and encouraging transformative research at the intersection of religion, racial justice, and healing. We also plan to provide healing spaces for difficult conversations about race, with a particular emphasis on providing safe spaces for students, faculty, and staff of color to address challenges stemming from racism.

We have already begun experiencing the benefit of a healing space. Visiting professor Jennifer S. Leath, along with one of the members of our group, Rod Owens, MDiv '17, designed a reading group, named "Racial Justice in Relief: Movement Texts & Strategies." Ten of us meet weekly and together we examine the histories and strategies of racial justice organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SNCC and the Black Panther Party. We look at how their work developed to transform structures in the pursuit of racial justice. More than just a space to examine racial justice strategies, this reading group is also a place for healing. Our group has cultivated an environment, rooted in love, in which all of us can be vulnerable and humble. We want to continue creating these kinds of transformative spaces at HDS.

Finally, we plan to serve as a platform for mobilizing students to be involved in the Boston-area community, partly by providing opportunities for community members and students to build skills, connections, and strategies for collective action.

HDS: Why is it important that the center be housed here at HDS rather than, say, either of you establishing an independent center outside of Harvard?

Melissa & Rachel: In our proposal, we lay out four reasons why Harvard Divinity School is powerfully positioned to cultivate these notions of racial justice and healing.

First, HDS convenes unique, wide-reaching scholars and practitioners across faiths and academic disciplines who are committed to addressing complex social problems. Second, our location within Harvard University provides the opportunity to magnify our impact and will serve as a model for other similar efforts nationwide. Third, HDS fosters diverse and complex ways of knowing and being, which in turn allows for more nuanced engagement with social problems. Fourth, HDS is committed to nurturing its community members holistically, which will allow the center to address the healing of hearts and minds, along with pursuing racial justice.

In addition, we believe that HDS in particular, and Harvard in general, has a responsibility to train the next generation of "change-agents" and "world leaders" to engage difficult conversations and actions regarding race and racism.

Finally, and most directly, we love HDS and we want it to be the most thoughtful, proactive, healing, and just institution it can be. We know that the center will be a powerful asset for HDS students, faculty, and the administration.

—by Jonathan Beasley