Arriving at Harvard Kennedy School this summer as assistant professor of public policy was something of a homecoming for Yanilda González. She had been a post-doctoral fellow at the School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation from 2014 to 2016—and is again based at the Ash Center. She earned an array of academic awards dating back to her undergraduate days at New York University, including a Fulbright Fellowship, and then at Princeton while getting her master’s and doctoral degrees. She taught at the University of Chicago for four years before coming to HKS. González has built deep experience in the field on the way to becoming an expert in policing and human rights in Latin America. She worked as a researcher for the New York Civil Liberties Union, and then for a series of human rights organizations in Argentina, seeing the human rights challenges firsthand. Born in the Dominican Republic, she grew up in Queens in New York City and works comfortably in Spanish and Portuguese. Her field research on police reform takes her to Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere across Latin America. That work shaped her research into what she calls authoritarian police in democracies—with challenges resonating in the United States as well as to the south.
Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?
My research and teaching focus primarily on police violence and police reform in Latin America, examining questions such as the relationship between policing and democracy, the structural power of the police to block reforms, and how policing reflects and reproduces societal hierarchies along race, class, and other modes of inequality. My forthcoming book, Authoritarian Police in Democracy: Contested Security in Latin America, examines how democratic politics may actually reproduce authoritarian police, due to how social inequality along race, class, and geography leads to fragmented societal demands over policing, and how these patterns of contestation then lead politicians to conclude that police reforms would not be electorally advantageous. My next book project focuses on the mobilization of family members of victims of police violence in Latin America, and the extent to which they are able to achieve social, political, and institutional change. Obviously current events in the United States have put these questions at the top of the national public agenda, from the return of “law and order” discourses that favor violent and unaccountable policing and societal contestation over what policing in communities ought to look like, to the structural power of police forces and their ability to shape political agendas.
Q: What prompted you to pursue the kind of academic study and outreach work that you have chosen to focus on?
I moved to the United States when I was 7, to New York City. We didn’t have cable in our house so my sisters and I watched the local news on a regular basis. One of the features of the local news in New York in the 1990s were recurring stories about police violence. So I grew up watching news stories of egregious cases of police, mostly against Black people, and seeing advocates and family members fighting for justice for their loved ones. Years later, while working at the New York Civil Liberties Union, I was asked to participate in organizing meetings for an annual rally to remember the victims of police violence, and had an opportunity to engage with a couple of parents of victims and observe how they continued to be mistreated by the state. For me these experiences stand out as formative moments in shaping the focus of my work on police violence.
Q: What do you want students of public policy to take away from your teaching?
I teach a course called “Policing, Citizenship, and Inequality in Comparative Perspective,” which asks students to engage with the central challenges that policing poses for democratic societies by situating policing in structural, historical, and comparative context, as well as by engaging with key actors involved in shaping or directly affected by police. The course seeks to challenge students to examine this issue in its full complexity, looking at the problem from multiple angles. We examine the relationships between police and politicians, the expanding role of police in society and how this shapes the police’s structural power, the social and political factors that favor discriminatory and violent policing, the effect of inequality on policing and how policing reproduces unequal citizenship, and the obstacles to police reform. This course takes on many common tropes and discourses about policing, while creating an open and inclusive space for students to ask important questions—all in the interest of making all of us more effective advocates for change on one of the most pressing issues in societies around the world.
Q: How has COVID-19 changed your work?
The pandemic has essentially made the core of my research impossible, as the sort of extended international travel required for my field research is off the table for the time being. I was in Brazil conducting field research earlier this year as COVID-19 began to spread around the world, came back to the United States for what was supposed to be a short trip, and then the world went on lockdown and I never got to go back —my suitcase is still in Brazil. It’s been difficult to be far away from the folks I work with in the field, as so many of the communities I work with are struggling. I’ve remained connected with them via WhatsApp, but all research is on hold at the moment. The pandemic, or more accurately, the state’s response to the pandemic, has added new research questions to my agenda. I have now begun collecting some data on police violence in the enforcement of lockdown measures, since it’s been deeply troubling to see a number of egregious police killings—including that of Anderson Arboleda in Colombia and Giovanni López in Mexico. Agents of the state took the lives of young citizens, ostensibly while enforcing measures intended to save lives.
Q: How do you plan on connecting with your students and the HKS community while we remain remote?
This is certainly a tough time to begin my appointment and join a new community. One way I’ll look to engage is through a discussion series I’m convening with the Ash Center, the Wiener Center’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and the Center for Public Leadership, called “What Justice Looks Like.” The series brings together activists from communities in Latin America and the United States who have been directly affected by police violence and mass incarceration. I hope this will be of interest to students so that we can continue to engage with voices that have traditionally been excluded from spaces of power.
Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart