Three months ago, as the summer before my last year of law school was winding down, I received a call from the administration asking me to speak on behalf of the student body at a gala commemorating the launch of the Campaign for the Third Century. They encouraged me to accept the engagement, explaining that I would have a powerful platform to tell a compelling story. I agreed. Just a few weeks ago, after months of preparation, I delivered my testimonial in front of 600 Harvard Law School alumni.
Still nervous about how I would be received, I stood on that platform and recounted some of my darkest memories. How my parents immigrated to the United States. How I was lost in special education classrooms for years before the advent of ESL. How I became the target of sexual violence at the age of 11. How, a year later, I found myself in alcohol counseling, and, by 13 years old, I was expelled from school. I spoke about my boyfriend who was murdered over just a few hundred dollars when I was 15. I explained how my parents could not afford to send me on the senior class trip to Disney World, but instead, congratulated me on my graduation by melting down my mother’s jewelry to make me a class ring.
After telling my story, I praised the law school and specific faculty members for their continual support over the past three years. To my surprise, the alumni took to their feet with tears in their eyes, standing up to applaud in what felt like a thunderous demonstration of support not just for me, but also for the marginalized groups I represent.
The night ended with Dean Martha Minow making the ask: $305 million.
To the extent that my story motivated our alumni to open their wallets, I now ask that they close them and stop donating.
Over the last few days, the Harvard Law School community has been trying to heal from the pain inflicted by the public defacement of black faculty portraits. In response to which, the administration has shown little support.
To be clear, this is not the first, or even a rare, instance of racism in our community. But after presenting a glorified image of this institution, I now feel implicated in the administration’s ongoing failure to address it.
I am taking back the podium to contextualize my remarks. Behind the individual support I have personally received here, lies an institution that continues to promulgate the racist ideals on which it was founded.
I stand in solidarity with my black classmates to defend their presence at Harvard Law School; perhaps selfishly holding on to them in large part because there are even fewer Latino students like me on campus. Looking back, I feel that the administration simply made me a minority marionette and asked me to perform. I held my hand out with a smile like a good little colored girl. When I delivered my speech, I delivered myself. I shared every emotion from joy to grief and hope to anger.
I was used. But so were the alumni. The administration tugged on their heart strings, dangled my story in front of them like bait — asking the alumni to buy into my success, but failing to do so themselves. I watched as some wiped tears from their faces while others just let them roll. That evening, they marketed to our alumni the same image that they marketed to us through brochures of smiling black and brown faces.
Stories of success shade the truth — that for every one of me that makes it on that stage there are thousands more that never even dream of stepping foot onto our campus. And for the few that do, the road is not easy. We are met with doubts about our intellectual capacities while simultaneously being expected to educate our peers on the struggles facing minorities, immigrants, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
I have always been annoyed by the exploitative nature of university applications and fund-raising. But I have played along because not to is to forfeit opportunity. I have to come to those who have and beg to be let in. How many of those who came before us are willing to admit they played a role in the marginalization of the black and brown community at Harvard Law School, even if just through complacency?
Now is their chance to take a public stand and change the course we take into our third century.
I ask our alumni to use the power of the purse to bring change to the school. Do not let us go into the third century propagating the same hate that our institution has over the last two hundred years.
I ask that they withhold contributions until change is enacted or, more specifically, make contributions contingent on the following: that the administration appoint a dean of diversity and inclusion who reports directly to the dean of Harvard Law School; that the administration establish an independent task force with a budget to address the curriculum and general teaching practices that fail to account for minority history and perspectives; and that the administration remove the Royall family crest, which pays homage to the institution of slavery, from the Harvard Law School seal.
In the meantime, I hope they consider making contributions to the groups on campus trying to bring about these reforms, including the Black Law Students Association, Students for Inclusion, Royall Must Fall, and other affinity groups.
I will never forget the way our alumni stood up for me the night of the gala. I am asking for their support again, but I am closing my hand because this time it will not cost a thing.
So, my dear Harvard Law School alumni, will you stand up for me now? Or was I just dancing for you?Bianca Tylek is a third-year student at Harvard Law School and a recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.