Yesterday, when we converged on Harvard’s campus to protest the end of DACA—when we listened to stories of pain and resistance; when we snapped our support; when we linked our arms, and chanted together, several hundred strong—one person was missing.
That person was Gabriela Gonzalez Follett, who never missed a fight for the rights of other people in her three years with us, first as Program Assistant, and later Program Coordinator. She left HLS last Friday, headed to teach English to children in a small Spanish town.
We could say that Gabriela was superb at her job, and it would be true. She organized nearly 100 events in her three years at the Human Rights Program, including conferences on everything from the role of African women in the post-2015 Development Agenda to climate change displacement and human rights. She became a master of managing the moving parts: speakers flying in from around the globe, last-minute technical breakdowns, calming the community’s fraying nerves.
On a daily basis, she supported the ever-changing needs of several clinical instructors; the staff of the Academic program; the Visiting Fellows; and hundreds of students seeking guidance on everything from the fellowship process to clerkship letters.
But now that Gabriela has officially left HRP, her job performance is not what many of us will remember.
We will remember her power.
Like so many great stories, Gabriela’s has an arc. By her own telling, she came to Harvard Law School intimidated, feeling less than the sum of her considerable parts. But she pushed past that feeling, followed her curiosity, and sat in on clinical seminars, collecting all the knowledge she could.
Then, when a crisis point came—the non-indictment of a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri—Gabriela quickly rose to meet the need. She reached out to students of color—not just as a friendly face in the office, but as a friend. In public and in private, on the job and off, she showed up in ways that went late into the night, and made others feel less alone.
One of those students, Keaton Allen-Gessesse, JD ’16, returned the favor nearly a year later, when the community gathered yet again to discuss racial equity on campus, in the aftermath of someone—or some people—defacing the portraits of black professors. In her comments, Keaton used her privilege as a student to raise concerns about the treatment of staff of color, a community that had gone overlooked in the discussion to that point.
Gabriela, inspired, rose to represent. She spoke about her own experience as a woman of color on campus—about the stereotypes that flew around her, and at her, and about the differences in the way she saw staff or color treated. When she finished speaking, she had become a leader in what became Reclaim Harvard Law School, a movement of students and staff pushing for institutional change and racial equity in education.
Gabriela spent the next several months strengthening the ties between students of color and staff of color while working tirelessly for the movement overall. At nights and on weekends, she sat through hours-long meetings, helping to substantively shape the content of the movement’s demands and manifesto. She hosted workshops; led art-actions; wrote an Op-Ed; coordinated critical email lists; spoke at community forums. She organized “family dinners” for staff of color. She slept overnight with the students in Belinda Hall, the student lounge the movement renamed in honor of Belinda Sutton, a former slave of HLS benefactor Isaac Royall.
And so it was that, less than two years into her time at HLS, Gabriela received the ultimate honor from HLS students: their Suzanne L. Richardson Staff Appreciation Award. (See video of her speech below.)
Gabriela would continue to support the Reclaim movement in ways small and large, right up until the day she left HLS. But it is hard to shake the power of her image on Class Day, rising to speak, and draping the traditional cloth from her mother’s homeland over the dais before she began—a woman completely at home, and entirely her own.
Thank you for the inspiration, Gabbie—and for the many gifts you brought to our door.
For more on the decades-old racial justice movement at HLS, see this timeline. For selected coverage of the recent movement, including Op-Eds by students, staff and faculty, see here.