Scholars and Activists Convene at Harvard to Talk Arts, Race, and Justice

Naomi Wadler, Yara S. Shahidi '22, and Professor Robin Bernstein discuss the experiences of black children in the U.S. during a panel titled "Race, Childhood, and Inequality in the Political Realm" at a "Vision and Justice" event Friday. Photo: Amanda Y. Su Naomi Wadler, Yara S. Shahidi '22, and Professor Robin Bernstein discuss the experiences of black children in the U.S. during a panel titled "Race, Childhood, and Inequality in the Political Realm" at a "Vision and Justice" event Friday. Photo: Amanda Y. Su
The Harvard Crimson
April 29, 2019
By Amanda Y. Su

Hundreds of people gathered at Harvard to hear from prominent artists, scholars, and activists from across the nation about the intersection of art, race, and justice Thursday and Friday.

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted the gathering, dubbed “Vision and Justice.” African and African American studies professor Sarah Lewis helped plan the events, which were open to the public, according to the meeting’s website.

“At Harvard we seek to bring the arts and humanities to the center of civic life, to bring them to the hardest questions, including questions of justice,” Dean of the Arts and Humanities Division Robin E. Kelsey said at the event.

Several high-level University administrators — including University President Lawrence S. Bacow and former University President Drew G. Faust — also spoke at the convening.

Prominent national political and artistic figures also spoke — including Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton, Grammy Award-winning music producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane M. Paulus ’88.

Throughout the covening, panelists engaged in a number of events, including “Citizenship and Racial Narratives” and “Race, Technology and Algorithmic Bias.”

During a panel on Friday, Melody C. Barnes, former assistant to the United States president and director of the Obama White House Domestic Policy Council, and Damian Woetzel, president of the Juilliard School, spoke about the White House program Turnaround Arts. Hoping to improve arts education in the country, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities founded Turnaround Arts in 2011 under the leadership of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

“Art and artists weren’t a decorative force. They were a productive part of society to be subsumed and part of the onward struggle that we were all putting our shoulders to,” Woetzel said about the Obama administration’s dedication to bridging the arts and policy.

During a panel titled “Race, Childhood, and Inequality in the Political Realm,” Naomi Wadler and Yara Shahidi ’22 discussed the experiences of black children in the U.S.

Wadler is a 12-year-old activist who gained national recognition for her speech about remembering black women who are victims of gun violence at the National March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. in March 2018. Shahidi is an actress and activist, known for her starring role in the sitcom "Black-ish" and its spin-off series "Grown-ish."

“[For black children], there’s a temporariness to being an adult. You are placed in the category of adult when it’s convenient and can be quickly taken out when you’re then in a position to defend yourself,” Shadidi said about the idea that black children are inappropriately seen as adults and disciplined more harshly.

Bryan A. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said during a Friday panel titled “Mass Incarceration and Visual Narratives” that he supports the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign’s efforts calling on Harvard to divest from the prison industry.

“Does ‘Veritas’ mean we must lead? I think it does,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson concluded the two-day convening with a keynote speech in Sanders Theater. He shared personal stories from his childhood and urged the audience to pursue justice through art and storytelling.

“You don’t have to be the most talented and gifted artist. You don’t have to be the best sculptor. You don’t have to be the best photographer. You may not have the skills of some of the people who have gotten on this stage. You may not or have all of the answers,” he said.

“But if you have a heart and a mind and willingness to change narratives, if you’ve got some hope, if you’ll do some uncomfortable things, you’ll contribute to the justice quotient that we’re trying to create in this country,” he added.

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