Committing to Good, for Good
With recommendations made, Martha Minow leads Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery's implementation stage.
Martha Minow, Harvard Law School’s 300th Anniversary University Professor, served on the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery and was named chair of a six-member body charged with implementing the presidential committee’s recommendations. Still in the early stages, Minow has sought input and counsel from colleges, universities, individuals, and organizations deeply immersed in related work, as well as members of communities that continue to experience slavery’s lingering adverse impacts.
“This is a time for listening and learning, while dedicating ourselves to a different future,” she said.
Since 1981, Minow has taught at Harvard Law School, where her courses include civil procedure, constitutional law, fairness and privacy, family law, international criminal justice, jurisprudence, law and education, nonprofit organizations, and the Public Law Workshop. She served at Harvard Law School as dean between 2009 and 2017 and as the inaugural Morgan and Helen Chu Dean’s Professor. An expert in human rights and advocacy for members of racial and religious minorities and for women, children, and persons with disabilities, Minow also writes about and teaches digital communications, democracy, privatization, military justice, and ethnic and religious conflict.
We asked her how she envisions the committee will approach its first phase of implementation, and the enduring and historically significant legacy the committee will leave behind.
Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery: Can you tell us a bit about the implementation committee? Who are its members, and what is the committee’s mandate?
Martha Minow: Our committee is small—just six of us; our role is to devise recommendations for the University, and to help move the critical work of implementation to action as quickly as possible, but also thoughtfully built to serve as the foundation for enduring efforts. It is a deeply knowledgeable implementation group, aiming to be both effective and nimble. I am honored to serve alongside Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and chair of the Department of Government; Sherri Charleston, Harvard’s chief diversity and inclusion officer; Mariano-Florentino (Tino) Cuéllar, who is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as a member of the Harvard Corporation; Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research; and Meira Levinson, the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard Graduate School of Education (she and I also served on the presidential committee that presented the report and recommendations to President Bacow in April).
We are immersed in listening to many people, gathering ideas, and moving ahead on the task of advising the president and other senior administrators, and developing suggestions for further work -- for funding, and for recruitment of others as partners and participants in the efforts. It is a daunting challenge but also a true honor to help ensure the University and each of our schools can do its part to implement the presidential committee’s recommendations with actions starting this school year and proceeding long after we are gone—indeed, in perpetuity.
H&LS: As a group, the committee has now met twice. How are you approaching this first phase of work?
MM: That is twice as a whole group; we have had many smaller meetings, and we are already hard at work as we focus on the recommendations in the presidential committee’s report and on the terrible and sobering histories it recounts. Each committee member brings invaluable perspective and diverse experiences, which are crucial as we consider recommendations that are intended to have both near-term progress and long-term impact. Central concerns right now are developing a framework with thoughtful but not cumbersome processes and building genuine capacity for the University to sustain ongoing and significant efforts not only to memorialize but also to redress enduring effects of slavery here and beyond our institution. The efforts need to involve schools, initiatives, and community members across Harvard, partnerships and collaborations with institutions and organizations outside of Harvard, and sustained occasions for reflection, assessment, and deeper development. We need to recognize and build on efforts already under way to engage and support descendant communities by leveraging Harvard’s expertise in education and scholarship; we must honor those who were enslaved and those who live with the consequences of slavery through teaching, memorialization, and further knowledge building and sharing both inside and beyond Harvard. The specific call to develop enduring partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities has already involved gathering what are dozens of current collaborations as we explore ways to pilot new ones and also to learn about and build such efforts going forward.
As I meet with the deans of each of Harvard’s schools and explore the steps they are taking and can take, frankly, it has been moving and instructive to learn of the variety of imaginative, searching efforts already under way and to generate new ways that the University can help individual schools with possibilities tied to each recommendation. The leadership teams at each school are already involving students, staff, and faculty in reflecting on the report, in initiatives seeking to increase educational opportunities for descendants of enslaved persons and members of other marginalized groups, and in identifying with a sense of urgency new and relevant work. Many already have established collaborations with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving educational institutions, and now we have a chance to deepen such work and to learn more about what leaders and students in those partnering institutions find valuable. The libraries, the arts, and other parts of Harvard also have so much to offer, and we are learning how their work can advance the commitments reflected in the recommendations.
As directed by the report, we are taking steps to further the work of identifying the direct descendants of those who were enslaved at Harvard—including people of both African and Native descent—to empower descendants to reclaim their histories. A conference addressing Native communities and Harvard—past, present, and future—is in the works. This and other efforts can draw upon Harvard’s capacity to convene people, enable consequential conversations, and help set agendas for research and action.
A key focus is embedding all this work into the life of this University with visibility and accountability. We can start by being transparent with updates and reporting to our community about the work under way. Ensuring that the efforts continue with assessments, improvements, and new ideas over time—not just over the next year or two—is crucial. This also requires recruiting more individuals who will carry on this work and, indeed, who get up each day thinking: How can we move ahead now and in the years ahead as this work continues? We hope the coming year will include establishing a team of people and a framework to pursue these efforts, to ensure cross-fertilization and sharing across Harvard, and to take stock regularly in search of continual improvements. President Bacow and the Harvard Corporation committed $100 million, and a large portion of those funds is preserved in an endowment to support implementation of the recommendations in perpetuity. This point is critical: our commitment to this work is forever, for good. As directed by the University, the effort does not operate as a grant-making body; as a university, we are committed instead to a long-term process of research and teaching, doing the work here and in collaborations with others.
H&LS: You mention meeting with the deans of all the schools, which is only one part of your efforts to seek input from a range of individuals. Why is consultation so important?
MM: I have already had the chance to talk with leaders of other colleges and universities on similar journeys; with heads of local universities and community colleges; with individuals involved with reparative efforts in local communities; and with researchers knowledgeable about effective strategies for making educational opportunities real for individuals navigating obstacles created by historic patterns. I know this much: there is still so much to learn, both about how to address and redress slavery and its legacies and specifically about how to create and support educational opportunities for those who do not have real, effective access. We must approach this work with humility. The road ahead is long.
I am so grateful for the time and reflectiveness of those at other colleges and universities that have led the way to beginning to address legacies of slavery, and for the wisdom and experiences of community leaders immersed in reparative and political work. These people have already taught us important lessons, and there is still much more for us to learn. For too long, people whose lives have been affected most directly by our nation’s legacy of slavery have not had sustained attention of so many institutions of higher education, which instead have often contributed to the ideas supporting racial hierarchy and even suppression of the truths about slavery and its consequences. This is a time for listening and learning while dedicating ourselves to a different future.
H&LS: You are widely regarded as an expert on human rights and advocacy for minority communities. How does your scholarship inform your approach to this work? Are there certain individuals, examples, teachings from which you are drawing guidance?
MM: I am currently involved in a symposium on the work of Eric K. Yamamoto, a professor of law and social justice who is an expert on issues of historic injustice, human rights violations, and the challenging work of repair and reconciliation—from the American internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese residents during World War II, to Hawai’i churches, to the African American reparations lawsuit for the1921 Tulsa massacre and destruction.
In 2021, he published Healing the Persisting Wounds of Historic Injustice, which tells the stories of a terrible mass killing of 30,000 individuals on the South Korean Island of Jeju and offers insights about reparations, truth commissions, and reconciliation efforts around the globe. The book also provides a rich multidisciplinary framework that has already influenced my thinking about the implementation committee’s work.
Yamamoto argues that reparative work must address the emotional and material needs of both individuals and groups as well as institutional change. Key directives include recognizing wrongs, taking responsibility, and working on reconstruction and repair. He warns about the risk of tepid, partial efforts and attempts to acquire “cheap grace,” to deflect or even subvert efforts for substantial changes. He also cautions about pushback, backlash, and stresses. This is valuable counsel, particularly considering Harvard’s high profile and the unsurprising skepticism with which some people may view this effort.
Most of all, however, I am guided by the examples of and advice from people right here in Massachusetts, across the country, and beyond who have already committed themselves to thoughtful and intensive efforts to address human rights violations, past and present. We are not the first to undertake this work, and we must learn from those who are already doing it.