Sara Bleich, the University’s inaugural vice provost for special projects, returned to Harvard this week after a two-year stint in the Biden administration to begin leading the implementation of the seven recommendations from the report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. Those efforts build on groundwork laid over the past seven months by an implementation group convened by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor.
Bleich, who worked on issues related to COVID-19, nutrition security, and health equity during her time in Washington, is also director of the social sciences program and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, professor of public health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The Gazette spoke with Bleich about continuing to move the work of the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative forward, engaging the entire Harvard community and beyond, and ensuring the report’s recommendations are implemented in ways that will help repair the lingering adverse effects of educational, economic, and social harms caused by slavery.
GAZETTE: As Harvard’s inaugural vice provost of special projects, you have been charged with leading the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative. What drew you to this role and this work?
BLEICH: This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Harvard isn’t the first University to reckon with and seek to repair inequities caused by its ties to slavery, but the way that we’ve committed to addressing those truths and pursuing restorative justice is historic. The presidential committee chaired by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, gave us the report, along with seven recommendations on how the University can act to remedy the harms that have come from our history of slavery here, and the University’s leadership is deeply committed to implementing them — accepting every recommendation and allocating $100 million to fund their implementation in perpetuity.
I’m proud that Harvard has committed to doing this work because it means so much to me personally. I have my own legacy of slavery and carry a strong desire to give back to communities like the one where my twin sister, brother, and I were born and raised in inner-city Baltimore. As for my own two spirited girls, they deserve a world that is more just and equitable, too. This initiative’s work is one thing that will help get us there.
GAZETTE: Before this role you spent extensive time as a scholar and researcher and working in the federal government. How do those experiences inform this work?
BLEICH: Much of my professional life has been spent at schools of public health, where my research focused on informing policies and approaches that promote food and nutrition security and reduce diet-related diseases, particularly among historically underserved populations. I served in the Biden administration as director of nutrition security and health equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service and as senior adviser for COVID-19 in the USDA Office of the Secretary. Both roles were newly created, and I loved the flexibility and many opportunities for creativity that it brought. As a White House Fellow during the Obama administration, I was a senior policy adviser for USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service and worked on first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.
Those experiences taught me the importance of asking the right questions and then doing something meaningful with the answers. They also underscored the importance of building strong relationships and partnerships to propel and scale the work.
The questions we will need to grapple with to reckon with and repair the inequities caused by Harvard’s legacy of slavery will also be extremely difficult. The answers may be even harder to implement. I look forward to working in and outside of the Harvard community to advance this effort.
GAZETTE: Looking ahead, what are your priorities for the first year?
BLEICH: There are five main buckets of activities we plan to focus on during the next 12 months. They center on building relationships and capacity and on internal and external communications. The first one, which we’ve already started on, is to meet with University leadership to learn about their visions for this work in their own Schools, units, and communities, what their next steps and big ideas are, and how we can support synergies.
From there, we want to create University-wide institutional muscle — infrastructure and collaboration tools — to effectively drive implementation, which has already begun in several areas, and sustain the work. With that muscle, we want to guide implementation activities across the University so we can collectively coordinate, learn from, and amplify them.
As we do these things, we also are prioritizing communicating with the Harvard community so people know what work we’re doing and can get involved. And beyond Harvard, we will continue to strengthen our engagement with descendant communities and deepen meaningful relationships with historically Black colleges and universities that build on long-standing partnerships.
It’s going to be a lot of work, but together we hope these actions ensure smooth implementation of a wide variety of activities, including a few updates I anticipate we’ll be sharing in the coming weeks, and set us up for long-term success.
GAZETTE: You recently led the first meeting with faculty and staff across all of Harvard’s Schools and units who are working on H&LS initiatives. What value do you think this cross-University collaboration will bring?
BLEICH: In mid-January we convened representatives of every Harvard School and unit. This meeting was sparked by the suggestion of several deans to regularly bring together University leaders to talk about work related to the initiative, share best practices and lessons learned, and identify areas of synergy. It was a great first meeting and the start of what will be a bimonthly cadence. I cannot overemphasize how much important work is happening across the University. That gives us a lot to build on as we move our implementation work forward.
GAZETTE: As you embark on the next chapter of the initiative, what are some key takeaways from the research released last year that will inform your work?
BLEICH: The Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery is a momentous document, because of the history it reveals and the foundation it lays for the work ahead. As the committee wrote, our efforts must be “visible, lasting, grounded in a sustained process of engagement, and linked to the nature of the damage done.”
The report is organized around three themes that really jump off the page: The first is direct ties to enslavement — the fact that Harvard leaders, faculty, and staff enslaved more than 70 people that we know of during the 17th and 18th centuries. The second is Harvard’s financial ties. The University and its donors benefited from extensive financial ties to slavery. In fact, five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced goods accounted for more than one-third of all private donations and financial pledges during the first half of the 19th century.
The third theme is in some ways the hardest to reckon with, because it gets to the heart of Harvard as an academic, educational institution. In the 19th and 20th centuries, our faculty and leaders promoted debunked theories of race science and eugenics, ideas that underpinned Jim Crow segregation and fascism, and still support white supremacy today. These are uncomfortable, profoundly difficult truths. But we must, and we will, reckon with them as we undertake the work of repair. We must also draw lessons, including the need to strengthen humility and self-reflection in our research and teaching.
It is important to point out that the report also documents an extraordinary counter-history of resistance, resilience, and excellence at Harvard that began with early Black alumni, who pushed against these ties to slavery and its legacies from the late 19th century through the 20th century.
It’s a report worth reading, and I encourage everyone to do so if they have not already.
GAZETTE: What more can members of the Harvard community do to engage with the initiative? How will you engage staff, faculty, and alums who want to be more informed about the developments in Harvard’s responses to its legacies of slavery?
BLEICH: A core goal of our new website is to provide updates to the Harvard community and beyond about implementation efforts. It will also offer information about proposal deadlines. So, we encourage everyone to periodically visit the website to stay up to date on activities. We also plan to hold meetings, events, and partner with Schools and units to engage the Harvard community.
We encourage people to reach out with ideas or suggestions. Everyone at Harvard has a stake in this work, and we want to hear what the community thinks.