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Article: The Space Between Truth & Repair: A Conversation with Dr. Sara Bleich on the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Initiative

Old drawing depicting four buildings at the center.

Plan of Harvard College, drawn in 1784 by the student Joshua Green, shows the main student buildings on campus—Holden Chapel, Hollis Hall, Harvard Hall (III), and Massachusetts Hall—all of which were built in the era when enslaved people worked on the campus and still stand today. HUV 2181 Folder 4, Harvard University Archives

The Space Between Truth & Repair: A Conversation with Dr. Sara Bleich on the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery Initiative

Author: Courtney Howard

Our success lies in prioritizing the individuals we aim to benefit, rather than centering Harvard in the work.

This interview is included in the Harvard Kennedy School’s 2023 Issue of the Anti-Racism Policy Journal.

Sara Bleich, the inaugural Vice Provost for Special Projects at Harvard University, leads the implementation phase of the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery (H&LS) Initiative. This role marks her return to Harvard after serving in key positions in the Biden Administration, including Director of Nutrition Security and Health Equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), as well as Senior Advisor for COVID-19 in the Office of the Secretary at USDA. When discussing similarities between Harvard and Washington, DC, Sara describes, “Like Harvard, everything in DC turns on relationships. To get things done, you have to work through people, not around people, and you have to really generate buy-in.” Using the recommendations included in the Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery as “a north star,” Sara and her team are paving the path forward on University-wide reparative efforts.

Courtney Howard, Mid-Career Master in Public Administration ’23, Co-Editor in Chief of ARPJ, and member of the H&LS Initiative, sat down with Sara to talk about her work. In their discussion, Sara, a Harvard graduate (PhD, Health Policy), shared how the report has both impacted and motivated her. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Courtney: How did you feel when Harvard revealed its findings in the Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery last spring?

Sara: I think it was said best by a colleague here at Harvard, “for some people, they read the report, and they said, ‘water is wet.’ And for some people, it was a huge surprise.” My reaction to the report was “water is wet” in the sense that, of course, Harvard has a legacy of slavery because this institution is almost 400 years old. But what was impressive to me was that Harvard wasn’t just doing an intellectual exercise; instead, leadership was saying, let’s take these very difficult truths and put our own resources behind reparative work. It makes me proud to call this my graduate home and to work on this initiative because it is not only an opportunity for Harvard to do good, but also a chance for Harvard to create an example of how to do this work well–and then hopefully inspire many other universities and colleges to do the same. That has the potential to create very positive ripple effects for communities that have been historically disadvantaged.

CH: What steps do you think are necessary to ensure the reparative process goes beyond symbolism and effectively builds trust?

SB: We have to be humble. We have to listen and take the time to hear concerns, be honest about what is possible, and not promise things that can’t happen. We must also take the time to earn that trust, to let folks know we’re serious, and to generally bring them along on the arc that this initiative is taking us. Establishing buy-in and trust will take time, but ultimately, it will accelerate our progress.

CH: Are there any key stakeholder communities that should have a more central role in the H&LS Initiative moving forward?

SB: Yes, engaging with the perspectives of communities directly or indirectly affected by slavery is crucial in this context as well as collaborating with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions. There is immense potential and unexplored opportunities in these areas. 

Our success lies in prioritizing the individuals we aim to benefit, rather than centering Harvard in the work. While it is essential to engage with faculty, staff, students, leadership, and alumni, we must also dedicate time to connect with individuals beyond the Harvard community, including Cambridge and Boston. Within these groups, it is crucial to identify key individuals and generate their trust and willingness to collaborate. Building these relationships may be challenging, as some individuals might approach our initiative with a healthy amount of cynicism due to past experiences or doubts about our intentions and genuine commitment. I am confident that by earning people’s trust, we can unleash creativity and achieve meaningful progress. 

CH: Has the lack of diversity among the student body, faculty, and leadership at Harvard influenced your experience at the institution?

SB: When it comes to diversity, Harvard has excelled in some areas but less so in others. The selection of Dean Gay to become the 30th President of Harvard is historic. There is also increasing diversity among senior leadership around the University. However, there is still significant work to be done in diversifying faculty. For example, I know some departments have no tenured Black faculty members and I believe that may also be the case for some schools. Consequently, our student body is more diverse than our faculty, leading to tensions related to language, culture, teaching, and pedagogy. 

In terms of how this has influenced my experience, it has made me deliberate about making space and time for Black and Brown faculty and students who want to connect. I am fortunate to have had a very positive experience here at Harvard, but that is not the case for everyone. So, I try to do my small part to build community and hopefully enrich the experiences of others. 

CH: After the report was published last spring, classmates from all over the world shared articles in different languages. Do you feel the pressure of being in the spotlight as Harvard sets the standard for this type of reparative work?

SB: Doing this work at an elite institution like Harvard naturally attracts attention, and when we act, people observe us closely. It certainly creates pressure, but it’s good pressure. There are over 60 colleges and universities around the United States and beyond that are engaging in similar inquiries and examining their historical connections to slavery. Here at Harvard, we are fortunate to have both committed financial resources to do this reparative work (which is not common) and strong support from top leadership. This will help us chart a path forward that can hopefully serve as an example to others.

CH: Speaking of resources, you’ve mentioned this is an outward-facing initiative in a lot of ways. What, then, are you doing for the Harvard community?

SB: That’s correct. The vast majority of the $100 million endowed investment from the University is not meant to benefit Harvard. That said, this legacy of slavery belongs to everyone at Harvard, so we are investing time in educating folks across the University about where we’ve been, where we’re going, what we’re trying to achieve, and how they can get involved. We hope that arming our faculty, staff, students, and alumni with this knowledge encourages them to integrate social justice into their future work. 

CH: Last words for readers?

SB: My core message to readers is that often the most important things to do are not the easiest. But they often matter most. And this work matters. I encourage readers to consider both small and large actions they can take to help address the needs of historically underserved individuals. Think comprehensively about how you can contribute, even in small ways, to promote progress in this area. We will all reap the benefits of a stronger, healthier, and more empowered community.

And to current students, I want to emphasize that having a degree from this institution is a significant privilege, regardless of wealth or connections. A Harvard degree brings great opportunities for success. I have every confidence that you will do well but also hope that you try to do good knowing the legacy of slavery at Harvard. And remember that you can make a difference through small actions, whether in the private or public sector, since they all add up to something bigger. So, please lean in!