Congratulations on your graduation! We have been privileged to work alongside you as your instructors and collaborators over the last several years. We have witnessed firsthand your intelligence, perseverance, and integrity, and we are filled with pride at your accomplishments.
During your time at Harvard, and this year especially, the University has been rocked by several public cases of sexual misconduct. We are among the many who have been affected by these abuses. We write to you today to share some lessons we have learned while struggling to navigate these harms.
We have seen how challenging it can be to merely discuss abuses of power, let alone address them. This can be especially difficult when harm is perpetrated by someone with a responsibility for doing good or the power to determine the fates of others — like a religious leader, professor, coach, doctor, or family member.
It can feel like whole worlds ride on these conflicts — and indeed they often do: Whole selves, families, communities, and institutions may have to be reorganized for the truth of such harm to be acknowledged and addressed. Powerful institutions especially fight being remade in this way, because part of what enables them to survive over time is resistance to public truths that would require their transformation, oversight, or even their obsolescence.
But our worlds are not so brittle that they cannot be remade.
And so our first piece of advice for you concerns how to live with an ordinary and painful truth — that we all know and love people who have done harmful things, and we all know and love people who have been harmed.
Throughout our lives, each of us will have times when we are surprised by the depth of our own mistakes and by the cruelty of the people we love. Each of us will also have times when we are surprised by our own bravery and integrity, and by the bravery and integrity of others. We urge you to embrace such revelations, and not to turn away from the complexities and contradictions they may evince. Confronting these truths will give you humility and compassion as you go forward.
We can all cultivate skills of public truth-telling and accountability that can bring our communities into greater safety and knowledge: Practice talking with real and great specificity about the details of life. Be comfortable challenging others and being challenged. Learn to apologize well when you hurt others, and proactively look for ways to enact repair. Find the people who will tell you the truth and help you grow.
Our second piece of advice is this: When you stand at a juncture at which you have the choice to address harm or ignore it, we encourage you to think and act on broader timescales of humanity and history, rather than on timescales of your own success or failure. What we have learned in our time at Harvard is that you will rarely get to choose which struggles you are a part of, or what happens as a result of engaging with them — but you can do your best to observe carefully and respond with courage.
Those of you graduating will have already seen years of active struggle to address injustices perpetuated within and by the institution that is Harvard University. You have seen the first strikes by unionized student workers in Harvard’s history. Your own advocacy, capping off years of concerted organizing, has resulted in Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels.
Yet Harvard has made no similar commitment regarding its profits from private prisons and prison-serving companies. Harvard has not returned to Tamara Lanier the photos it holds of her enslaved kin Renty and Delia, which are the spoils of theft. Sexual violence remains rampant across our campus. Fifty years after Title IX’s passage sought to protect students from sex discrimination in education, our lawsuit contends that those civil rights — like so many others — remain unfulfilled. We never expected to file a lawsuit during our time in graduate school. But our experiences transformed what our work would have to be.
As you move on to other places and continue to think about the nature of institutions, of influence, and of power, celebrate the transformative work that succeeds. And have the courage to support the work that cannot be successful yet because it is asking for things power and norms will not yet allow. That a change is adamantly resisted by those in power is all the more reason to take notice, to listen carefully, and most of all, to insist on a more fair and just world. As a letter written by our peers states, even when a desired change has not yet come about, “the refusal to give or take scraps is world-making in other ways.”
Remember that your careful everyday work matters, and it will always touch other lives, whether now or in the future world you are building. Remember too that all meaningful work is slow, and you will need plenty of rest, laughter, and shared meals to keep going.
Each of you deserves joy and justice. We can’t wait to see where you find it.
Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava are graduate students in Harvard’s Anthropology Department and plaintiffs of an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University.