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News & Ideas

Student brings community-oriented vision to LEJ work

Rebecca Thompson
Courtesy of Rebecca Thompson

When Rebecca Thompson ’22 first got to know Kaia Stern, Radcliffe’s practitioner-in-residence, she was a Harvard College first year working as Stern’s research assistant during the scholar’s fellowship year at the Institute. Thompson so valued her experience that when she heard about the opportunity to participate in the Law, Education, and Justice (LEJ) working groups hosted by Stern a year later, she immediately applied.

During that spring 2020 working group—a noncredit initiative designed for students to engage deeply with important issues—Thompson, Stern, and the other participants focused on gender and punishment. As part of the program, the Harvard students had the opportunity to visit the Nashua Street Jail, in Boston, to learn alongside incarcerated students. Thompson called the visit a “grounding, transformative experience” and all of the Harvard students were eager to return. One week later, however, COVID-19 forced the University to close campus and send students home.

Despite the clear obstacles to creating the kind of safe, open, and productive space required for the working groups within a virtual format, Thompson and Stern were determined to build on the progress they made in the spring. Thompson collaborated with Stern on syllabi for the 2020–2021 Gender, Race, and Punishment group and for a new group on racialized punishment in the United States, called From Plantations to Prisons: A Spotlight on Harvard.

The LEJ program secured a grant to provide tablets to the incarcerated students for the Zoom discussions, and despite the delivery delays and technological issues they faced for the first several weeks of the fall semester, Thompson says that she has been happy with the community the remote group has cultivated. She notes, however, that everyone is keen to return to in-person sessions as soon as it is safe to do so.

The topic and format of each session are largely flexible, with an express focus on meeting participants where they are and building interpersonal relationships. And because the working groups are not currently available for school credit—though Thompson hopes that the incarcerated students will soon be able to earn credit for their participation—discussions can evolve according to student interest. For example, the gender and punishment group planned to spend only one day defining the term “gender” this past fall, but they ultimately spent three weeks on the topic, exploring their questions and confusions together.

Of her overarching goal for the program, Thompson says that she wants each working group to be a “community of care,” with a focus on genuine learning rather than results. “I think, a lot of the time, there is a performative pressure to do something that looks good just because you’re at Harvard,” she says, “but I really want people to be in communities where we take the time to be in tune with each other, put aside all of the academic stuff, and just be in community with people on a human level.”

This semester, Thompson and Stern are turning their attention to conversations a little closer to home. After laying the groundwork on a broader scale during the fall, From Plantations to Prisons: A Spotlight on Harvard is interrogating Harvard’s connections to slavery and racialized punishment in the United States. “I’m hoping that the group can create positive and generative work toward discussing what Harvard’s role is in the prison industrial complex and what the school can do better,” says Thompson.

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