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More than 50 Harvard affiliates gathered in Boylston Hall on Saturday for an inaugural organizing summit on ethnic studies, hosted by members of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.
The summit continues a decades-long push led by students, faculty, and alumni for the creation of an ethnic studies department at Harvard. This year, the movement organized an ethnic studies advocacy week and protested at an ice cream social hosted by Harvard President Claudine Gay.
Organizers said they hoped the summit will re-energize ethnic studies organizing on campus.
Rebecca S. Zhang ’26, one of the lead organizers of the summit, said the goal was to develop long-term strategies and concrete goals for organizing.
“The fight for ethnic studies at Harvard has been going on for so long — it’s been going on for over 51 years,” Zhang said. “But I think that because there’s been little long-term strategy created between these years, administration is very easily able to just out-wait a student — wait for them to graduate — and I think that was something that we really wanted to address by creating a long-term strategy.”
In 2009, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences began offering ethnic studies as a secondary field — renamed in 2012 to Ethnicity, Migration, Rights — and in 2017, the History and Literature concentration introduced an ethnic studies track.
However, the University still lacks a degree-granting ethnic studies department.
Co-lead organizer Zoha A. Ibrahim ’26 said the decision to “reform HESC” came after the fall of affirmative action this past summer.
“Ethnic studies was something that we felt could carry forward the momentum around diversity activism on campus,” Ibrahim said.
The summit featured an ethnic studies teach-in followed by a faculty and alumni mixer, a faculty-student strategy room, and affinity spaces, concluding with a “next steps” strategy room.
The teach-in featured HESC founder Juhwan Seo ’17, who gave a brief history of the coalition and its origins. Zhang and Ibrahim, who hosted the teach-in, then defined the scope of ethnic studies and described the movement at Harvard.
During the faculty-student strategy room, students and affiliates joined four Harvard EMR professors to brainstorm ways to implement an ethnic studies department.
Organizer Emma H. Lu ’26 said the strategy room allowed faculty and students to discuss their goals in the same space.
“Whenever we talk to administration about ethnic studies, they say, ‘Oh, well, we would have to look at faculty first’” she said.
The College did not respond to request for comment.
In past interviews with The Crimson, Gay has supported the creation of an ethnic studies department, while deferring to faculty members to decide how to build a program.
“From the beginning, I’ve underscored the importance of starting by building faculty, getting people here, building that critical mass, and then asking those faculty to come together to envision the best structure for their work,” she said in an April 2022 interview. “I have not been shy about saying that my hope is that there will be an undergraduate concentration, and I think the interest is there.”
To attendee Jessica Wang ’26, having an official ethnic studies program on campus means more than just showing appreciation for cultures and identities.
“This is especially important to me on a personal level, but also on a community level, I feel we have a deep responsibility to the past,” Wang said.
Emma E. Chan ’26 also supported the establishment of a department.
“It’s so important not just for those who identify as ethnic minorities but also for everyone to create a better future,” Chan said.
“I’m hoping that we raised awareness today and also fostered a bit of solidarity between different groups,” she added.
In terms of next steps, the attendees of the final strategy session planned to expand HESC into an official student organization and to form partnerships with Harvard faculty and ethnic studies movements at other institutions.
Karen S. Medina-Perez, a student at the Harvard Extension School, said the changes will take time.
“I don’t think it is going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “Everything takes time. But just do something. I hope they listen to us and actually do it.”
Zhang said the coalition intends to hold smaller conferences and bring back the summit in following years as needed.
“I am definitely hopeful,” Zhang said. “We did start strategizing — that was actually probably one of the other highlights of the summit, our strategy room. It was just so cool to hear everyone’s ideas, and I feel like I can really see us doing something important in the next few years.”
—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Camilla Wu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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