Today at Class Day, we had the great honor of watching our colleague Gabriela Gonzalez Follett rise before the Class of 2016 and accept the Suzanne Richardson Staff Appreciation Award. It was a beautiful sight to see, second only to the sound of her voice as she gave a speech that moved many in the audience to tears.
The Suzanne Richardson Staff Award is given each year to a member of the staff who demonstrates commitment to the student experience and concern for students’ lives and work at the Law School. The Class of 2016 selected Gabriela (Gabbie) as the recipient of this year’s award for her work “around the clock to make sure that students are having an optimally enriching educational experience at HLS.”
We’ll bring you the video of Gabbie’s speech on Friday, but wanted to leave you with her powerful words for now. Thank you, Gabbie, on behalf of the Human Rights Program, for making our world stronger, kinder, and infusing it with hope.
Full text of Gabbie’s speech below:
“Imagine: Imagine a small notebook, about the size of your hand. Now imagine yourself clenching the book, the edges frayed from your sweaty palms. You sit in a crowded train, close your eyes, and try to memorize the words scribbled in that small notebook that you clench. They are your code. The third language you are learning. Erudite, pedagogy, macrocosm, amend- if you memorize words like these, no one will find out you are an other. If you study how other people say them, these words will protect you from being perceived as irrelevant, not worthy, like you don’t belong.
Cariña, (sweetheart), you tell yourself, calmate, (breathe). And you take comfort in the sweet melody of Eryka Badu ringing in your ears.
This was my routine, every morning, when I first took a job as a program assistant at Harvard Law School. That small book that you all imagined in your hand was my survival kit at the time, my guide to Harvard Law School.
I grew up just across the river from this law school, in Dorchester, but it was a world away. As a girl, it was a wonderful world, with street Double Dutch, Sunday church gatherings, and scavenging for change with my twin to buy blue slushies at Tedeschi. But over time, I learned to avoid questions that would unveil my upbringing. People tend to shift uncomfortably when you tell them you grew up in Dorchester, a neighborhood some only know for the media’s coverage of its crime.
When I’d tell people what my mom did for a living, there was often an awkward silence that would loom until they’d switch to a topic like the weather. You know when you’re in a clothing store, and you’re finished trying things on, and you hand the clothes you don’t want to the employee working there? That employee was my mom at the Macy’s bra section in Downtown Crossing. I was proud that my mother had that job—that she had found the courage and motivation to apply for work that wasn’t so exhausting. That she no longer had to get down on her knees on the night shift to scrub the floor at Boston Medical Center.
As her daughter, I saw her power, wisdom, and magic every day, but when I would mention my mother’s job to others outside Dorchester, they responded as if I had admitted something embarrassing. Over time, I became timid and silent. It felt as though the way the world saw my mother was perhaps how Harvard Law School saw me — unintelligent by its standard, someone who did not know the right words.
And so, when I was hired at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, I bought a small black book and began to fill it with words.
And then I got caught. A student in this audience today, someone from my hometown neighborhood, heard me using some of those words and asked me: Why are you talking like that? And it got me thinking: Why do I feel ashamed of where I came from? Why do I give these words the power to define my voice? I knew my voice was strong and true; I’d used it in the college admissions process to advocate for students of color from the Bronx. I’d used it to campaign for gender justice at the Women’s Center at the University of Vermont. And I’d used it to speak out here in Boston against the Olympic Games coming to Dorchester and further gentrifying my neighborhood.
But at Harvard Law School, that voice was gone. And I didn’t know how to get it back.
Until one day, when the HLS community had gathered to talk about systemic racism, and another student graduating today, Keaton Allen-Gessesse, stood up to talk. All semester, she’d seen beyond the recommendation letters I was filing and the events I was organizing to ask my opinions on current events and racial justice. She’d encouraged me to post on Socratic Shortcomings, a blog created by students of color to share stories about identity and diversity at HLS. She showed me that my voice mattered. Now there she was, standing up in front of several hundred of her peers and teachers, advocating for staff to be included in discussions and decision-making about how to improve HLS for people of color.
At that moment, I set aside all my fear about showing my true self and stood up to speak without using any of the words in my book. I haven’t looked back since. So I want to take time out to thank those two students right now for inspiring me to use my own voice, and my own words, for what I feel is right.
In Reclaim Harvard Law, the school-wide movement committed to racial justice, I found my people. In that space, I didn’t have to take out my little black book. I brought my true voice. So did everyone else. It was an organic, improvised kind of learning. We read articles, watched plays, heard poetry, and discussed how to apply radical theories to our daily lives. It was beautiful.
It started with struggle, and the struggle continues—but at the heart of it all, it is about love and community, for people on campus now and in years to come.
The magical Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Thank you, Class of 2016—and most specifically, Reclaim Harvard Law—for making me feel like I mattered, beyond my job description. Thank you for challenging me to let go of the assumption I’d made about you all—that you were privileged people who would define my worth by how many of the words I knew (and pronounce correctly) in my little black book.
Those assumptions had been in place for years. And you managed to dismantle them in the space of a semester. If you can do that in a semester, think of what you can do by listening to, and valuing, the voices of everyone around you—the people who don’t know the words in the book. The people who have different kinds of knowledge, knowledge that comes from immigrating from Bogotá to Boston, working the night shift to support four children, and raising those children to stand up on a stage at Harvard Law School and speak in their own true voice. My mother and I never thought that knowledge would be valued. Thank you, Class of 2016, for saying with this award that it is.