HEALTH, RACE, AND CLIMATE: ADDRESSING INTERRELATED CRISES AS OVERSEERS

July 1, 2020

Dear Harvard Alumni,

Eight months ago, we launched our campaign for the Harvard Board of Overseers on a platform of climate action, socially responsible investing, and inclusive governance. Through the winter, our small team worked to build the campaign into a movement of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of alumni committed to supporting our vision. On January 31st, we were proud to hand in almost 5,000 signatures in support of our candidacy, nearly two thousand more than the required number, and we were excited to be officially placed on the Overseers ballot on February 16th. We knew the odds were long, and that it had been over 30 years since the last successful Overseer petition campaign elected Archbishop Desmond Tutu to push Harvard to divest from apartheid. Nonetheless, we had a plan for 2020 and looked forward to the election.

 

Today, the world of February 2020 seems far away.

 

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of deaths around the globe have left us in a new reality. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the incredible bravery of our frontline health and essential workers, as well as the life-threatening consequences of putting politics over science. Our own work during this time has focused on everything from fundraising for small, hard-hit businesses to working to prevent COVID-19 from ravaging the millions of people trapped inside our overcrowded prisons. Both personally and professionally, we’ve seen how COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing inequities in our society while inspiring communities to come together for mutual support.  

 

At Harvard, the University’s COVID-19 response has made the need for recent alumni voices on the Board of Overseers even more imperative. While Harvard’s decision to de-densify campus was the right response to the coronavirus outbreak from a public health standpoint, the University placed many students, especially those who are first-generation, low-income, or international, in extremely difficult situations by providing only a five-day notice to move out. As Overseers, we will work to ensure that in the future, student needs and unique circumstances are a key consideration in these crucial decisions. We will also work to ensure that Harvard can better support low-income and first-generation students --- not only during exceptional events, but at all times throughout their academic careers.

 

In this past month, we’ve also seen an inspirational uprising against the racism that is deeply entrenched in our economic, social, and legal systems. The murder of George Floyd has catalyzed global protests aimed at dismantling oppressive policing and systems of institutionalized racism. As we noted in our candidate statement a few months ago, we believe that Harvard University should not invest in companies that profit from the prison-industrial complex, an industry whose activities inflict disproportionate harm on low-income Black and Brown communities nationwide and are “deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable.” We also reiterate our support for the immediate creation of an Ethnic Studies Department and concentration to provide Harvard, its students, and its faculty a dedicated forum for the critical examination of how race and ethnicity has shaped our history and continues to shape the world around us. We will advocate for these changes on the Board, but we recognize that there is much more to be done and so are committed to working during and after the election to design and support policies to ensure Harvard is at the forefront of equitable education.

 

One thing that has not changed since we launched our campaign is the existential threat posed by the climate crisis. This past May was the hottest on record, and 2020 is easily expected to be one of the five hottest years in recorded history according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, the combined pressure from student activists, faculty votes, and Harvard Forward to take greater action on climate change has driven the University to make some changes, announcing on Earth Day that they aim to offset the endowment’s emissions by 2050. And while this is a step in the right direction, it lacks the urgency and specificity we need to preserve our planet and protect our communities. To begin, Harvard must join Oxford, Brown, Cornell, and Georgetown by committing to completely and swiftly divest our endowment from fossil fuels. 

 

But more needs to be done. The protests of the past several weeks have highlighted the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and elevated the voices of those working at the intersection of environmental justice and racial justice. Further, the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored some of the same issues that we must address to fight climate change – the power of misinformation, the danger of emphasizing politics over science, and the failure to invest in the short term to avoid long-term damage and upheaval. It is critical that the University act now not just to divest our endowment but also to provide greater support for climate-focused research and education across schools and disciplines.

 

On July 1st, voting will begin for the Board of Overseers via mail and online ballots. We remain dedicated to the goals that inspired us to run in the first place: the need for strong climate action, increased transparency and accountability in the endowment, and representation of recent alumni on the Board to ensure all voices are heard. The events of the past several months have shown the urgency of these issues and the need for the University to embrace greater transparency and equity in its endowment and operations. 

 

We ask for your support this summer, and we look forward to proudly representing all alumni on the Board.

 

The Harvard Forward Five,

John Beatty, College '11

Lisa Bi Huang, HKS '19

Margaret "Midge" Purce, College '17

Thea Sebastian, College '08, HLS '16

Jayson Toweh, HSPH '19

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