Systemic racism is deeply intertwined with the history of the United States and many countries around the world. The teaching and research that occur at universities can help by increasing understanding about how racism affects society and developing and disseminating ideas about how to fight racism. Moreover, schools of public policy such as Harvard Kennedy School can play a unique role in advancing knowledge about how policy has been historically influenced by race and how to address systemic racism.

In recent years, Harvard Kennedy School has significantly strengthened its activities related to race and policy, hiring many new faculty members who study aspects of race and policy; increasing course offerings and requirements related to race and policy; providing fellowships for students who intend to serve underserved communities of color; and building a more diverse and inclusive internal community; among a host of other efforts.

This essay summarizes four aspects of the Kennedy School’s activities related to race and public policy and leadership:

Many of these activities are also described on the Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism pages on the School’s website.


Research and outreach

Among the Kennedy School’s distinguished faculty members are historians, sociologists, economists, and others who conduct research on race and policy.

The historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at the Kennedy School and author of the award-winning book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He conducts research and educates Harvard students on the historical underpinnings of racism, teaching a core course for Master in Public Policy (MPP) students called “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power” and an elective course titled “Race, Inequality, and American Democracy.” As the faculty director of the Kennedy School’s Institutional Antiracism and Accountability (IARA) project, Muhammad and other scholars research and teach about systemic inequity, curate resources, and provide programming throughout the year.

Other Kennedy School faculty members have explored the case for reparations, examining the generational harm that the descendants of slaves have suffered. Faculty members Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice, and Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, will publish a research paper on this topic in a special spring issue on reparations of the Journal of the Social Sciences.

In addition, faculty members have examined the role of the media in prompting racial violence. Desmond Ang, an assistant professor of public policy and an applied economist, examines the intersection of race, government, and media, including studying the effect of the racist movie The Birth of a Nation, screened across the country from 1915 to 1919. His working paper on this topic demonstrates an increase in race-based violence, such as lynching and riots, following screenings of the movie.

Kennedy School faculty members have also brought their expertise to Harvard-wide initiatives to examine the role of racism in the university’s own history. This year, the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, appointed by President Larry Bacow, released a substantial report on the ways in which Harvard’s history has been entwined with the history of slavery. Among the committee members who authored the report are the Kennedy School’s Maya Sen, professor of public policy, and William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus. Sen is the author of Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics and the director of the Kennedy School’s Stone Program in Wealth Distribution, Inequality, and Social Policy. Wilson—one of the country’s most renowned scholars of race and social inequality—is affiliated with the Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, is the author of several influential, award-winning books, and is a MacArthur “genius grant” winner.        

The legacy of slavery and history of racism in this country and others have imprinted themselves into social conditions today, causing multi-generational harm and creating institutional inequities. Social policy experts at the Kennedy School explore these implications in many areas—from criminal justice to education to health policy to bias in technology and more.

Criminal justice and policing represent an important topic of study. Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and faculty director of the School’s Wiener Center for Social Policy, studies urban policy, criminal justice, and the role of race and poverty. She is the author of Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism among the Black Poor and the faculty director of the Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. She recently won a grant from Arnold Ventures to undertake a two-year project studying how recent shifts toward presumptive nonprosecution of misdemeanor offenses affect racial disparities in penal system outcomes. Other faculty members who study policing include Desmond Ang, also affiliated with the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, who has researched the effect of police violence on adolescents’ mental health and well-being. Ang has found that Black and Hispanic high schoolers suffer significant negative outcomes when police killings take place in their neighborhoods. Another program affiliate, Assistant Professor of Public Policy Yanilda María González, studies race and policing in Latin America and comparative contexts.

Economic development is at the heart of a number of projects at the Kennedy School, and some of these intersect with questions of race and ethnicity. For example, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development conducts research and works with Native leaders and their communities to help support growth. Joseph Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy Emeritus, is codirector of the project.

Members of the faculty also examine the intersection of race and health policy. Professor of Public Policy Marcella Alsan, for example, won a MacArthur “genius grant” last year for her work on health inequalities. An applied microeconomist and a physician, Alsan recently studied health inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she has partnered with Harvard Law School Professor Crystal Yang to investigate the pandemic’s impact in prisons and jails. Alsan studies both current disparities in health outcomes and historical ones, including the impact of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on Black men between 1932 and 1972.

New faculty member Elizabeth Linos, the Emma Bloomberg Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management, leads The People Lab, which is focused on the people and work of the public sector. Among its projects are a collaboration with the Denver Mayor’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation to co-design and evaluate a racial equity challenge for city employees. The challenge aimed to reduce interpersonal bias, increase collaboration among coworkers, and help participants overcome systemic biases to better serve Denver residents. The lab is looking to bring this equity challenge to another large city this year. In addition, it is doing work on what predicts differential turnover by race and gender in some private sector organizations, with a focus on how workplace interactions may impact Black turnover.

The intersection of racial bias and technology is another topic of study at the School. Latanya Sweeney is the faculty director of the School’s Public Interest Technology Lab, the editor in chief of Technology Science, and the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology at the Kennedy School (as well as being a member of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences). A former chief technology officer at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, she has pioneered research on bias built into computer algorithms. For example, her 2013 paper on this topic demonstrated how Google’s ad network had been delivering advertisements that violated the Civil Rights Act. Sweeney teaches “Technology and the Public Interest: From Democracy to Technology and Back” and “Grand Challenges in Technology-Society Clashes,” and students in her lab are engaged in projects focused on protecting people from unintended negative consequences of technology.


Teaching and learning, in the classroom and in the field

The Kennedy School’s teaching and learning take many forms, and all of those forms address race and public policy and leadership.

Degree-program teaching

The Kennedy School offers both degree program students and executive education participants a range of courses and seminars related to race, policy, and inequality, including the required course for MPP students mentioned above, “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power.” Its follow-up course, “Race and Racism in Public Policies, Practices, and Perspectives,” offers three options taught by different Kennedy School faculty members (Sandra Susan Smith: Exploring Institutions and Modes of Racial Domination; Cornell William Brooks: Justice, Advocacy, and You: Race and Crime as a Case Study; and Zoe Marks: International and Intersectional Approaches to Race and Racism).

Experiential learning

In addition to traditional classes, students have opportunities for experiential learning and applied work related to race and policy. Former NAACP President and HKS Professor of Practice Cornell William Brooks leads the Kennedy School’s William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice. The collaborative’s activities include teaching student how to effectively undertake projects with municipal governments and grassroots organizations that advocate for social justice. Students enrolled in Brooks’ course “Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies, and Campaigns” get hands-on work in the field learning how organizations conduct advocacy work.

Students and alumni fellows can also do applied fieldwork related to social justice and policy through the Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab’s (GPL’s) collaborations with local governments, including jurisdictions implementing alternative 911 emergency response services. The GPL’s new Child and Family Wellbeing Accelerator will provide support to state and local jurisdictions developing reforms to help vulnerable families. And the School’s applied field courses, such as Assistant Professor in Public Policy Justin de Benedictis-Kessner’s “Urban Politics Field Lab: Political Representation and Accountability,” also provide Kennedy School students with experiential learning opportunities with a lens on equity issues.

Executive education

Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education offers courses related to race, including “Promoting Racial Equity in the Workplace” and “Strategies for Building and Leading Diverse Organizations,” both of which are led by Lecturer in Public Policy Robert Livingston, a social psychologist and management scholar who recently authored the award-winning business book The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth about Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations. Another executive education program, “Evidence for Equity,” provides policymakers with tools to make rigorous data-driven decisions with a focus on equity. Zoe Marks and Teddy Svoronos, both lecturers in public policy, lead this program.

In addition, the Kennedy School provides custom executive education programming that address racial issues. Custom programs have included “Strategic Leadership for Nonprofit Leaders” for leaders of nonprofits in economically challenged communities; “Power, Innovation and Leadership,” for underrepresented, emerging leaders across business, government, and civil society, including Black and women leaders; “Achieving Excellence,” for organizations whose work focuses on affordable housing and community development; and “Strategic Leadership,” for leaders of nonprofits working toward more inclusive prosperity.

Mayors and other city leaders who participate in the programs of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University (based at the Kennedy School) work with Harvard experts to tackle challenges in their cities, including those related to race and equity. A few examples include countering gun violence in African American communities in Hampton, Virginia; enriching preschool programming in marginalized communities in Pomona, California; combating youth gang violence in Portsmouth, Virginia; and improving equitable service delivery for Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian residents in Fort Collins, Colorado.

New case materials and other educational resources

The Kennedy School has grown its teaching materials related to race and policy and has curated a collection of teaching cases on associated topics, the Race and Social Justice Case Collection. The HKS Case Program has developed this collection to provide educators, public leaders, and policymakers with teaching materials on a broad set of themes, including leadership, diversity and inclusion, history and urban politics, criminal justice, and more.

In addition, the teaching materials of the Bloomberg Center include case studies to help cities deal with equity issues and the legacy of racism, including Reckoning with History: Confederate Monuments in American Cities. The center has also developed a free Equitable Economic Development City Leader Guide as an instructional resources for city leaders and their teams.


Supporting emerging leaders through financial aid

Financial aid is the single most powerful tool for attracting superb students of all backgrounds and propelling them into public service. Therefore, the School’s fundraising efforts and budget allocations give prominent attention to financial aid.

The Kennedy School offers specific fellowships to support students who work on issues related to race and policy. The Center for Public Leadership (CPL) is home to a range of student fellowship programs, including the Fellowship for Serving African American Communities and the U.S. Latino Leadership Fellowship. One current recipient of the Fellowship for Serving African American Communities is LaShyra “Lash” Nolen, a dual-degree student at the Kennedy School and Harvard Medical School. Nolen has been named a Forbes “30 Under 30” Leader in Healthcare for her work on health equity and aspires to use her Harvard training as a policy-focused physician advocate in the future. U.S. Latino Leadership Fellows include Juan Saldaña. Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Saldaña is interested in education equity. As an associate director at Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, he worked to more equitably allocate $300 million of private scholarships and to create pathways and products for two million students to afford college.

Kennedy School alumni who have been supported through CPL fellowships frequently continue to work on issues related to race and equity in their careers after graduation. For example, Luisa Peña Lyons MPA 2022, who was a U.S. Latino Leadership Fellow, leads an organization that supports individuals and families who are experiencing financial hardship and is a founding partner of another organization that provides coaching to political candidates at all levels across Massachusetts with a focus on women, people of color, and those of low-income and working-class backgrounds. Kim Dowdell MC/MPA 2015—who during her time at the Kennedy School received a Sheila C. Johnson Fellowship to improve lives in underserved communities, including African American communities—has become a leading architect with a focus on promoting diversity and inclusion in her field.


Internal efforts to create a culture of anti-racism

Complementing the Kennedy School’s public-facing work on race and racism, the School is working also to create a more diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist culture by recruiting more diverse faculty, staff, and students; creating internally focused programming related to diversity and anti-racism; and providing new training and resources for faculty, staff, and students.

Recruitment efforts for faculty have included new processes, including more cluster hiring, to broaden candidate pools. Between 2018 and 2021, Harvard Kennedy School appointed 10 faculty members whose work includes a focus on race and policy. The School is also engaging in broader outreach to build a more diverse candidate pool for staff positions. In addition, the School has developed new student recruitment processes, including partnering with student groups on outreach; refining the application review process, including requiring implicit bias training for readers; revising the financial aid awarding process to give more weight to applicants’ financial need; and increasing the use of unrestricted funds for scholarships for students working for underserved communities.

To help build a sense of belonging and inclusion among the student body, the Kennedy School provides an Orientation Week session for new students on antiracism and allyship; supports student affinity groups and student journals focused on perspectives of underrepresented groups; publishes and shares an annual HKS demographic report to make diversity data available; and nurtures a vibrant and diverse international student community. The Kennedy School’s Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) office provides training and support to faculty for inclusive practices in the classroom and has produced a teaching guide for faculty interested in anti-racist pedagogy.

Staff also have training opportunities related to race, such as the Culture Ambassadors Network, a program for staff to learn how to promote diversity and inclusivity in their centers and departments. The Culture Ambassadors Network recently won a grant from Harvard University to support its development of resources, toolkits, and curricula that can be shared with the broader Harvard community.

Other community-focus efforts related to anti-racism are organized by the School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (ODIB), which is led by Robbin Chapman, the associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging. ODIB runs events, curates a monthly newsletter, and offers resources such as HKS Anti-Racism Fundamentals, an online learning experience for the community to learn about anti-racism and how to take actions to create a more inclusive HKS. The office also organizes and hires Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Associates—students who help HKS implement inclusive strategies.

Banner image: Lynn Heitler, acrylic mobile sculpture, part of the Art at HKS program.

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