Through a series of connections, Ratna Gill, first-year MPP student, learned a story that would provide a frame for her study of policy at Harvard Kennedy School. While attending anti-racist training through her first job, she first learned of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year old child from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was brutally lynched, murdered and thrown in the river in 1955. When an alum, Joseph Olchefske MCRP 1984, announced internships at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC), in Tallahatchie MS, she was intrigued, and Olchefske introduced Gill to the director, Patrick Weems. They agreed that exposing HKS students to the ETIC’s work could have a profound impact on the next generation of policy leaders. “I think as policymakers, and as a policy student myself, we’re really good at looking forward at interventions, what are best practices, new policies we can try,” Gill says. But she feels history is a critical tool as well: “I think what we’re poor at is looking back at history and interrogating at the harms that marginalized communities throughout the world and in the United States—particularly Black communities—face.”
And the Center, she thought, is working to tell one very important story that could help ground the way that Americans understand the racial terror that has been central to the story of our country. “I have learned through every anti-racism training I've attended that hearing one story can be more transformative than all the frameworks, metrics, or best practices in the world,” she says. “I thought about the kind of impact that telling this story at scale could have, especially in the United States right now, and that made me really curious about working with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. We as a country need to reckon with some difficult and complex truths about our past and our present, and this story is one place we can start.”
So, Gill focused on telling this one story. Her idea was to conduct a panel discussion at the Kennedy School during Black History Month, highlighting how Emmett Till’s story intersects with the events of today. The result was “Telling Black Stories: What We All Can Do,” an event that, with help from the ETIC, featured an unlikely set of panelists.
Gill had learned how Seattle Seahawks player DK Metcalf, a native of Mississippi, would use his social media presence to tell the story of Emmett Till on Twitter during the month of February. When she reached out to Metcalf, she learned that he had always wanted to meet Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., pastor of Argo Temple Church of God in Christ and Till’s cousin, who has worked closely with ETIC in the past. The reverend has spent his life telling Till’s story and happily signed on. Kevin Merida, a senior vice president and editor in chief of ESPN’s sports blog The Undefeated, was also eager to support the discussion. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, rounded out the panel, which Gill moderated with Eric Rosenbach, a lecturer in public policy at the School and co-director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The support of the Belfer Center and the IARA (Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability) Project team at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy was crucial in putting the event together,” she explains. “It was an honor to have Professor Muhammad join the panel given his deep knowledge of African-American history and his work on dismantling racist institutions,” she adds.
Gill moderated the panel with poise and confidence, interspersing observations from her work on anti-racism with compassionate questions to bring all four panelists into the conversation. “It was very special to have panelists from three different generations who have all been impacted by Emmett’s story in different but striking ways, sharing one space and engaging in conversation with one another.” While Gill shares that she hadn’t moderated an event like this before, she knew that dialogue is central to anti-racist work. “Intersectional conversations around race, gender, and other axes of identity often require informal facilitation to discuss complex issues,” she explains. “I’ve also had the honor of watching many mentors facilitate complex conversations beautifully.” It was also important for Gill, who is Indian-American, to acknowledge that she was a non-Black woman in discussion with four Black men. “I had to name that while I had the privilege to talk about the story of a Black child with four Black men,” she reflected, “panels at HKS don’t usually look like this except during Black History Month. That should change, and we must remember that while it is a privilege to learn firsthand about Black pain, joy, suffering, memory, and liberation directly from some brilliant Black thinkers, we should not have to hear about the Black experience directly from Black people to agree with it or believe it.”
The experience of creating and hosting “Telling Black Stories: What We All Can Do” was not only a privilege, it was also rewarding to Gill. She appreciated the support of her team at IARA and the Belfer Center team as well as her “constant cheerleader,” Rosenbach. “He really trusted me with the design and feel of the event, which says a lot about his empowering approach to supporting student leaders,” Gill says. “I think his encouragement was a great example of how, even if you’re not the ‘expert’ at something (e.g. racial equity), you can pave the way to create spaces for students to learn more about the topic from veterans in the field.”
Gill feels her time at the ETIC and her experience with the panel discussion will be key to being a responsible policymaker in any field. “My work before HKS was around preventing violence against women and children, where, like in any field, it is crucial to apply an intersectional race, gender, and class lens. Reckoning and reconciliation are very important to move forward from any kind of violence,” she notes. “ All too often in policy school, we rely on graphs and regressions to ‘prove’ that harm is occurring. While these frameworks are important, nothing can replace understanding the lived experiences of those facing harm. “Regardless of the work I do in the future, using an anti-racist lens that listens to stories, that looks back as well as forward will be integral to making sure that my work as a policymaker is not perpetuating the harms I hope to undo.”
Banner image: A vigil card detailing the lynching of Emmett Till (1941–1955). Photo by Nathan Howard.
Panel image (left to right) Ratna Gill MPP 2022, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Kevin Merida, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., and DK Metcalf
DK Metcalf image: NFL video "Say Their Stories: Emmett Till as Told by DK Metcalf"