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Harvard social justice event to commemorate William Monroe Trotter

Trotter called for full civil rights for Black Americans and challenged the opinions of leaders like Booker T. Washington, who accepted segregation in order to gain equal access to education and business ownership for Black people. For those acts of advocacy, Cornell William Brooks dedicated his "think and do" tank to Trotter.

In 1901, Boston civil rights advocate William Monroe Trotter founded The Guardian newspaper, which challenged the foremost voices of the civil rights movement of the time.

He called for full civil rights for Black Americans and challenged the opinions of leaders like Booker T. Washington, who accepted segregation in order to gain equal access to education and business ownership for Black people.

“The Boston Guardian was Black Twitter before there was Black Twitter,” said Cornell William Brooks, a past president and chief executive of the NAACP and faculty director and Hauser Professor at Harvard. He also leads the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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Now, 150 years after Trotter’s birth, the Trotter Collaborative is hosting a two-day event to introduce attendees to Trotter’s legacy and provide an opportunity to explore social justice work today.

The event, “Reimagining Our Radical Roots,” will take place on April 7 and 8 both in person and virtually. It is open to the public.

Brooks was inspired by the activism of Trotter, another alumnus of Harvard, and gave the Trotter Collaborative his namesake to inspire a new generation of students and “young practitioners of democracy.”

“Here we have a son of Boston, a son of Harvard, contemporary of W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the Niagara Movement, the most famous descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and he was under-sung, underappreciated,” Brooks said.

Brooks described the Trotter Collaborative as a “think and do tank,” meaning the academic side of his student’s work accompanies on the ground field work and real life practice.

The collaborative has worked on projects like reimagining and creating a blueprint for policing in Birmingham, Ala., and worked in New Jersey with Governor Phil Murphy to devise race-equitable responses to COVID-19.

It is composed of students from Harvard’s Kennedy School, the divinity school, and medical school, and also has students from Tufts, Wharton, and the Boston Theological Institute.

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According to Brooks, the social justice movements seen today are largely operating without the benefit of law firms or think tanks or communication firms, or in other words, without analytic support.

Field work is essential to the mission of the Trotter Collaborative, and its mission is to bridge the gap between academia and the practice of social justice work.

“The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice is a think and do tank in a sense that it leverages the analytic capital of Harvard to help grassroots organizations and policy makers across the US,” he said.

He says the people on the frontlines of activism are “among the most courageous and the least resourced,” and the goal of the Trotter Collaborative is to lend their resources to the public through events like the one taking place this April.

During the event, the main issues for discussion will be voting rights, climate change, and reparations.

The first day, April 7, will be a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Trotter’s birth held at the JFK Jr. Forum with a keynote talk by Dr. Keisha N. Blain, followed by an intergenerational panel discussion with members of the Trotter family.

The second day, April 8, will educate on the “policy what and how,” according to Brooks, with testimonies and lectures from experts on the frontlines of these issues. Other speakers will give insight into how to enact policy and get grassroots movements into motion.

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Speakers will include LaTosha Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, Danyelle Honoré, a Juvenile Justice Congressional Fellow and member of US House of Representatives, and Samantha Tweedy of the Black Economic Alliance Foundation.

One of the main goals of the programming during the event is to open up the work the collaborative has been doing to the public, and hopefully give the necessary tools to people trying to effect change.

“When you get great research and scholarship out of the confines of a peer reviewed journal and you put it into the hands of people, they are able to turn it into effective policy,” Brooks said. “We have to get this analytic capital out and translate it, popularize it, and put it into practice.”

He hopes to continue the event in the future and create an ongoing series and a “global classroom for citizen activism” so the research the collaborative does can aid the people on the frontlines.

To register for this event, visit trotter.hks.harvard.edu.


Grace Gilson can be reached at grace.gilson@globe.com.