Each spring, Harvard Kennedy School students organize a series of student-led conferences. These conferences focus on issues that are timely, relatable, and of substance. And they’re also opportunities for our students to listen to, learn from, and speak with thought leaders from across fields and sectors.
The annual Black Policy Conference, held this year on Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, facilitates an open exchange of ideas around current issues affecting Black communities globally.
The theme for this year’s Black Policy Conference was “A Modern-Day Green Book.” Conference Co-Chair Brandon McGhee MPP 2023 explains the origin of the theme.
“The Green Book was used in the 1900s as a tool to ensure that Black Americans could travel safely throughout the country. It listed the gas stations, grocery stores, and hotels that Black travelers could go and ensure that they would be safe from ‘sundown towns,’ or places that had heightened anti-Black racism.
We chose the ‘Modern Day Green Book’ theme to focus on the safe spaces within the policy, government, and activist arenas that enable those who are interested in advancing policies that benefit and center the Black community to thrive and build networks with each other.”
The conference kicked off with a Jubilee Celebration on Friday evening.
“We were able to bring in musicians, DJs, spoken word poets, and clergy members from across the local Boston area. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (who is now a faculty member at HKS) was one of our featured speakers at the event. The celebration centered and anchored Black joy and is an event I’ll look back on for the rest of my life,” reflects McGhee.
Saturday’s programming featured a variety of sessions and panels on key topics affecting Black communities, starting with a panel on reparations. Conference Co-Chair Mena Prince MPP 2023 says that attendees enjoyed hearing a variety of perspectives on the subject.
“Our conference attendees enjoyed getting to hear from those doing the work and those who are behind the scenes making policy. The speakers engaged in a conversation about how to go about reparations, and they discussed how these policies are playing out, whether they are helping, and ways to do better,” says Prince.
There was also a case study session featuring community leaders from Buffalo, New York discussing the aftermath of the 2022 mass shooting in the city and how they crafted policies to prevent future tragedies.
“A lot of times, unfortunately, mass killings get a lot of attention initially but then lose steam. It was interesting to focus on what happens in the aftermath of the 24-hour news cycle in the places that have experienced these atrocities and then how underserved communities continue to work to make sure that the community is safe,” reflects Prince. “It was good to hear how in this specific case, leaders were able to take this tragedy and create sustainable change.”
The day ended with a keynote address from Cheri Beasley, the first African American woman Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and a former candidate for the U.S. Senate. Beasley highlighted various ways to engage within the political arena to make long-lasting change.
Both McGhee and Prince agree that planning the Black Policy Conference has enhanced their HKS experiences. McGhee explains:
“I can’t imagine my HKS experience without the Black Policy Conference. It’s been such an incredible experience that has allowed us to development management and logistics skills and explore leadership.
There were so many things we were able to bring to this conference that are complementary and supplementary to the HKS experience. HKS offers some great courses in race and racism led by Professors Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Cornell William Brooks, and others, but this conference allowed us to dive into these topics deeper. We were able to engage in in-depth conversations with diverse communities and allies from around the globe who are passionate about these issues.
It’s rare to be able to bring together all kinds of people—HKS students, Black alumni, professionals, policymakers, and activists—and provide a space for networking, building community, and learning about new issues. Being able to bring this this conference to life at HKS is something we’re both very grateful for.”
Corban Swain Photography