Harvard Grad Student Shares Tips for Planning Impactful Protests

Clare Canavan is helping to lead protests against a Harvard professor accused of sexual misconduct. Here's what she has learned.

Published September 22, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Harvard Grad Student Shares Tips for Planning Impactful Protests
Photo by Vanessa Leroy / Bloomberg / Getty Images

  • Anthropology professor John Comaroff was first accused of sexual misconduct in 2020 and placed on administrative leave.
  • Comaroff's administrative leave is over, and he is teaching a class this fall.
  • Clare Canavan helped lead walkouts and protests against his return.

When graduate student Clare Canavan and her peers first learned that professor John Comaroff would be returning to a Harvard classroom this fall, they immediately felt disappointed.

The professor, who has taught anthropology and African-American studies to graduate students at the university, was accused of sexually harassing several students in 2020. After a year on both paid and unpaid administrative leave — and with a lawsuit against both him and the university ongoing — Comaroff's class appeared in the course catalog in June.

As one of four co-chairs of the Harvard Graduate Students Union's Feminist Working Group, Canavan said she and the group had to take a stand.

"The Feminist Working Group has been organizing around this case, Title IX reform, and harassment and discrimination protections at Harvard for years now, so it just felt natural … to do something about this," she told BestColleges.

The group discussed what actions should be taken all summer, theorizing what would send the biggest message to Comaroff, the Harvard administration, and survivors.

"[We wanted to show] survivors that we stand with them, and we won't put up with conditions that make them feel continuously unsafe on campus," she said.

The group staged a class walkout, which was captured on video and garnered thousands of views and likes on Twitter.

In the video, Canavan is seen declaring that she does not want to be taught by "someone who has still not accounted for or made amends for their sexual misconduct" and tells her classmates that if they feel similarly, they can join her in walking out.

As she recounts the experience, she remembers it being emotional and powerful, but also a strange moment.

"It was the first time I, and … a lot of us who participated … had seen him in person [since the accusations]," she said. "[But] knowing that my friends and fellow organizers were sitting there with me and were right by my side waiting to walk out with me felt so empowering and grounding."

When planning the walkout, she knew it was important to make her statement at the very start of class. And pairing the walkout with a rally and further protests made it all feel more powerful.

Despite the lack of response from the Harvard administration at this point, Canavan still believes these efforts have been a success since they garnered significant new interest and support of the Feminist Working Group's on-campus mission.

For Canavan and the rest of the group, planning successful protests and rallies have become second nature. They've organized tons of rallies in the past, so they are used to having a list of all the things that need to be done in order to bring one to life.

"The biggest thing is getting the word out," she said.

Canavan suggests getting as many people involved as possible. Spread the word through social media posts, flyers, by word of mouth and contact other on- and off-campus networks that might have similar demands, she said.

In addition to letting the community know the time and place, she recommends communicating the context of why it is important and what the group is asking for.

Of course, a successful protest would not be possible without all "the little logistical puzzle pieces" falling into place, Canavan said. Here's what she recommends students keep in mind if they find themselves planning a protest:

  • Pick a time and place to hold your protest or rally that is open enough where interested parties can easily participate and curious onlookers can obtain more information.
  • Make sure to alert campus and local police about your plans, and seek permissions from all relevant campus administrations to assure that your protest can legally take place.
  • Gather supplies like posters, speakers, and megaphones that you can provide to protesters who may not have access to their own.

Canavan encourages students to continue standing up against identity- and power-based discrimination and harassment that she said are "rampant on college campuses."

"It's so important to stand up and keep asking for the things that we need and deserve for all forms of discrimination and harassment we are seeing on campus," she said.