This is a copy of a letter addressed to President Rick Commons, published with permission of Sophie Mancall-Bitel.
Dear Mr. Commons:
We are Harvard-Westlake alumni and current students. We write to respectfully insist that Harvard-Westlake (i) craft a comprehensive Middle and Upper School curricula plan addressing systemic racism and police brutality; (ii) release that plan to the Harvard-Westlake community for comment and discussion; and (iii) encourage its peer schools to do the same.
As you are no doubt aware, major protests have broken out across the country — including in Los Angeles — in the wake of a policeman’s videotaped murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The American people are heartbroken and angry at the loss of another Black life at the hands of police, and they are speaking up.
Conversations and education about endemic racism (i.e., the racist policies that have shaped and continue to shape this country) must not only take place in the streets of L.A. Elite educational institutions including Harvard-Westlake have a responsibility to examine the roles that privilege and bias play within its walls. This is all the more true because Harvard-Westlake is a school, and one that starts teaching students as young as eleven. You have the power and responsibility to broaden your students’ understanding of the world. And you must. You take pride in grooming the next generation of leaders, and those leaders must understand how far we are from, and how we must fight for, racial equity.
We cherish our Harvard-Westlake education and the values we learned and examined while we were students. Harvard-Westlake has historically been a predominantly white institution. While we were students there, this fact was rarely, if ever, discussed. We were not encouraged to examine or question our own role in supporting structural racism or the ways in which the majority of the student body benefited from it.
The world has changed since the alumni among us were Harvard-Westlake students. In the intervening years, the American populace has mourned the unnecessary deaths of too many people of color, often after bearing witness to police brutality via videos circulated on social media. The phrase “white privilege” has entered the vernacular. More and more Americans have realized that the time for a serious reckoning with the nation’s racial reality has long since come. There is no excuse for places like Harvard-Westlake not to participate in that reckoning and take a leadership role in making positive change.
Accordingly, we believe it is necessary for Harvard-Westlake to create a comprehensive plan for addressing these issues at both the Middle School and the Upper School. The May 29, 2020 virtual meeting with students, faculty, and staff to discuss the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd was a first step, but it was not enough. We note that only 150 people participated — hardly the entire community. Harvard-Westlake must make a plan to incorporate discussions of systemic racism and privilege into its ongoing curricula. It must ensure that these conversations are not optional, which could lead to students of color once again bearing the burden of having these difficult discussions while white students opt out. The school must undertake these discussions with a self-critical eye, fostering conversations about how Harvard-Westlake itself, and elite institutions like it, perpetuate racist policies — even if it does not intend to do so.
We also believe that Harvard-Westlake should release this plan to its community — including faculty, staff, alumni, and parents — so that the community can hold Harvard-Westlake accountable. We encourage you to formalize this engagement by forming an Advisory Board composed of faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders. Any plan to address these issues can only be made stronger by inviting as diverse a group as possible to comment on it, now and into the future.Finally, Harvard-Westlake must recognize its role as a community leader and encourage its peer schools to create their own plans for addressing these issues within their own walls. Harvard-Westlake has a history of coordinating with peer schools, most recently regarding the decision to close the school in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no reason not to do so here.
We know firsthand the innumerable ways a Harvard-Westlake education benefits any student who walks through the school’s gates. But, without serious self-reflection on the part of the school and its largely white and privileged student body, Harvard-Westlake is also doing its students a grave disservice.
Sophie Mancall-Bitel ’07
Nikila Sri-Kumar ’07
*Other signatures were omitted in this copy of the letter.