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  • December 10, 2021 2:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Back in January, ClassACT produced the Zoom Forum, “When the Stage Goes Dark: Performing Arts in Covid Time.” The arts not only give us joy, but also help us understand the world we live in. The work explored here is by Linda Bond, an artist whose work explores some of the hard stuff in American history. Linda is married to our classmate Rick Brotman, an artist and a central member of the ClassACT team, and, as you will see, Rick collaborated with Linda on some of this work. Our classmate Andrea Kirsh, art critic and historian, explores Linda’s work in the commentary below and in her review of Linda's current exhibition at Drexel University. Rick has created a beautiful accompanying video of that exhibition - please take a look below.


    Andrea Kirsh writes:

    I knew Rick Brotman from our mutual work for ClassACT HR73, but we only met at the 2019 symposium at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs that ClassACT HR73 organized in connection with its Benazir Bhutto Leadership Program. Rick, a professional videographer, was covering the event. There I also met Rick’s wife, Linda Bond, and discovered she was an artist whose work addressed U.S. activities and policies in the Middle East and a variety of social justice themes. She has worked on several projects involving video and the web in collaboration with Rick, one with women in Afghanistan.

    My own interests in art are broad, but I have a strong interest in artists who address current social and political topics with work that is largely outside of the art market. Such work is rarely covered by commercial art publications which depend on advertising, so to show and circulate their work artists must find small, not-for profit and artist-run spaces, public libraries with exhibition programs, sympathetic community organizations, university galleries and museums which are not beholden to board members, and non-profit publications .

    Since 2006 I’ve been writing criticism for Artblog, a Philadelphia-based web publication committed to covering the breadth of art produced in Philadelphia and elsewhere, with no consideration for its marketability. It covers work exhibited in coffee shops, in artists’ homes which function as occasional galleries, in artist-run spaces, in public or commercial spaces lent to artists for special projects and in the various circumstances which enterprising artists find to exhibit their work to the public, as well as the more conventional galleries, art centers and museums. There is a lot of art being produced that deserves attention. I consider it my service to the field to broaden the range of artwork that receives critical attention as well as to bring some art historical perspective to work being shown, since few art writers have studied art history nor have most artists, even those who teach.

    I was excited to learn that Linda had two upcoming projects in Philadelphia: a large survey of twenty years of her work at the gallery at Drexel University, a showing which I reviewed for Artblog, and an installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic site that addresses the history of criminal justice reform and current questions of equity in the criminal justice system.

    Eastern State has commissioned artists to produce work for its grounds since 1995, selecting those whose proposals address the organization’s themes. Linda sited her piece, Deadly Weapons, in one of the small penitentiary cells whose walls had remnants of peeling plaster and paint. At first glance the cell had been brightened with reflective silver flooring and both the spare cot in its center and the wall behind were covered with textiles in the bright colors of Mexican festival decorations. Bond used beauty as a seduction to tell viewers the story of immigrants from South and Central America detained at the U.S. Southern border who are taken into custody and have their shoelaces removed so they cannot run away and the laces can’t be used as “deadly weapons.” Placed in detention with only Mylar blankets for warmth, they are released into Mexico to await hearings and their shoelaces are not returned. As a result, they sometimes make new shoelaces out of strips of the Mylar which Bond had woven with shoelaces to make her cover for the cot. She had used more shoelaces as a makeshift curtain at the back wall. That wrenching twist, when the seduction of her materials and technique is confronted with the grimness of her subject, is characteristic of Bond’s method. Like all the best art of a political nature, hers raises questions but doesn’t provide answers. And like the best political artworks, her questions are impossible to ignore.

    Linda’s work at Drexel will be showing through February 20th, 2022, and her installation at Eastern State Penitentiary will be open through the spring. 

    Rick has also produced the following video about the 20- year retrospective at Drexel.

    Link to video: Errors and Omissions - Linda Bond 

  • December 10, 2021 2:03 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    ClassACT is dedicated to “achieving change together.” While our efforts often focus on national and global changes, the connections made through ClassACT create ripple effects that result in positive change for individual lives. We are delighted to share another such example. Our classmate Jeremy Bluhm lives in Sydney, Australia and has attended some of ClassACT HR73’s virtual events. When the tailor on Jeremy’s street, Reza Nikan, asked for help, Jeremy thought of ClassACT. Reza, who is “a wonderful Hazara man who has lived in Australia for about 15 years,” asked for help for his aunt, Hanifa (52), and cousin, Sabera (24). In October, Hanifa and Sabera were able to escape from Afghanistan to Islamabad, Pakistan, with a goal of resettlement in the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Reza reported that they landed in a foreign country as unaccompanied women and felt very vulnerable and afraid.

    Upon Jeremy’s request for assistance, we reached out to two of our former Benazir Bhutto Leadership Program fellows, Natasha Jehangir Khan and Nadia Rehman, and one BBLP Associate (and Natasha’s husband), Muhammad Ali, who all live in Islamabad. The three immediately responded and have begun connecting with the women. Natasha and Ali are contacting the Afghan Representative in Islamabad to find out how the women can be helped. In addition, Natasha is helping Sabera, a fledgling dressmaker, connect with vocational training to improve her skills. Nadia is in the process of reaching out to Hanifa and Sabera to offer her assistance as well. Jeremy has been told to reassure Reza that they are living in a “fairly safe” neighborhood and that there are other Afghans living in the area. We are following these ongoing efforts and will provide updates in future communications.

  • December 08, 2021 6:14 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The News on Gerrymandering is Grim 

    The redistricting process is in full swing, and unfortunately, some politicians in both major parties are grossly abusing their power to redraw election district maps. As we highlighted in our primer on gerrymandering, Gerrymandering: Our Democracy At Risk, these trends are growing more extreme. That is partly because the United States Supreme Court has either eliminated or gravely weakened provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that previously helped to prevent egregiously gerrymandered maps in many states.   

    Now, more than ever, it is critical that the Senate pass The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These measures would provide Federal standards to protect key voting rights, in Congressional races, from attacks by state officials and lawmakers.  We urge you to contact your Senators and ask them to support these two crucial proposals. 

    Independent Commissions Work…

    Certain politicians from both major parties are trying to stack the deck in their favor in several states where their party dominates the legislature. In some instances, they are ignoring, or undermining, advisory commissions that were recently created in efforts to reform the map-drawing process. These developments have reinforced our view that independent commissions are the best way to ensure that maps are drawn fairly.  

    Truly independent commissions can succeed because, unlike advisory commissions, they have the power to draw and implement electoral maps—not just recommend them. Even in the best models, such as California’s, politicians don’t appoint the commissioners, who are subject to strong conflict-of-interest rules. Furthermore, the commissioners are evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents. This structure forces Democrats and Republicans to compromise on the maps, so they can get the independent commissioners to approve them. 

    With such safeguards in place, no single party can dictate the maps. Still, we should monitor independent commissions’ deliberations to make sure they produce non-partisan outcomes. 

    But Advisory Commissions Hit Roadblocks in New York

    The problems with two recent reform efforts demonstrate the flaws of advisory commissions and the advantages of independent commissions.  

    In New York, Democrats hold super-majorities in both the state assembly and the state senate. Voters approved the creation of an advisory commission to draw up maps in this redistricting cycle. However, the commission can only make recommendations, and the legislature retains the ultimate power on redistricting decisions. Democrats have essentially ignored the maps proposed by the commission. 

    There were two other major flaws in the structure:

    ·   politicians chose the commissioners

    ·   the commissioners were evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans

    Predictably, the commission deadlocked, so its members issued two sets of maps: one drawn by Republican appointees and another drawn by Democratic members. Both were dead on arrival.

    And Deadlocked in Virginia

    We had been more optimistic about the possible outcome for Virginia’s new advisory commission, but that reform effort has also run into trouble. As in New York’s structure, politicians appoint the commissioners, who are split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats. They were supposed to deliver maps to the state legislature, which can accept or reject them. But the commissioners could not agree on the maps. 

    However, Virginia has a fallback provision that may lead to a less partisan result than New York’s. Since the commissioners did not issue maps (and the legislature did not accept any), the Virginia State Supreme Court is now empowered to redraw the electoral districts. Judges on that court are not elected, and the Court has a history of acting impartially. The court will hire a special master, a non-partisan professional, to create the maps. 

    By contrast, the newly-established independent commissions in Colorado and Michigan seem to be off to a good start. Arizona also has a fairly independent commission, although its safeguards are not as robust as California’s. 

    Both Sides are Gaming the Rules but…

    Democratic lawmakers in Maryland and Illinois, as well as those in New York, are engaged in gerrymandering in this cycle. However, most extreme gerrymandering attempts are being carried out in states dominated by Republican legislatures. That is because Republicans control more state houses than Democrats do and because they are trying to preserve their electoral advantage in battleground states where they are facing adverse demographic shifts. 

    As Nick Corosaniti of the New York Times has observed (GOP Cements Hold On Legislatures in Battleground States),  

    “In Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia, Republican state lawmakers have either created supermajorities capable of overturning a governor’s veto or whittled down competitive districts so significantly that Republicans’ advantage is virtually impenetrable—leaving voters in narrowly divided states powerless to change the leadership of their legislatures.” (Nov. 25, 2021). 

    These are all key battleground states. North Carolina and Georgia voters are fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and Texas is getting close, but extreme gerrymanders have enabled Republicans to dominate those legislatures. Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan, two other hotly contested jurisdictions, have also gerrymandered districts heavily, although the new independent commission in Michigan offers hope for a fairer outcome in this cycle. 

    The Senate Must Pass Voting Rights Acts NOW

    After the Democrats failed last summer to pass the sweeping For the People Act, they introduced a scaled-down bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. This bill contained many of the FTPA’s key measures, but it dropped the requirement for states to establish independent commissions to conduct Federal (not state) elections, and it included other concessions. 

    The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is also before the Senate. 

    This bill would:

    ·   restore federal oversight of states practices to ensure that states do not pass laws that discriminate against voters based on race or political background

    ·   require greater transparency in changes to voting laws and practices

    ·   restore voters’ ability to challenge discriminatory voting practices in court

    These two pieces of legislation present the best way to protect voting rights from abuse by state officials and lawmakers. If enacted, these proposals would make it easier to sue jurisdictions for extreme gerrymandering and help to prevent racial gerrymandering and purging voters from rolls. 

    Time to Create an Exception to the Filibuster

    Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has promised to bring the bills for a vote in the Senate before year-end, and we hope he means it, because time is running short. The 2022 election cycle will soon begin in earnest. 

    At this point, it is clear that no Republican Senator will support either of these measures. Instead, Republicans will filibuster the two bills, arguing that they infringe upon “states’ rights” …while ignoring the abuses the two proposals would stop.  

    We urge you to contact your senators and let them know how important passage of these two bills is for ensuring that our elections remain fair. And if they are Democrats, ask them to carve out an exemption to the filibuster for proposals, like these two measures, that would protect fundamental rights such as voting. 

    Ryan O’Connell ‘73

    Jim Harbison ‘73

  • November 01, 2021 3:42 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Understanding Our Differences, an award winning, nationally recognized program that helps students not only increase their knowledge and understanding of differences among people, but also provides practical skills, is one of ClassACTs Bridge Programs. Please click on the image above to view Rick Brotman '73’s short video that explains in detail about the program and how ClassACT helped it move forward in its growth.

    Click here to watch!

  • October 28, 2021 3:42 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    After a pause due to the pandemic, ClassACT’s Benazir Bhutto Leadership Program fellowship is back! Our 2021/2022 BBLP fellow Zeina Majdalani hails from Lebanon. She is a civil engineer and has spent 10 years working for the Lebanese government in the water and energy sectors. In addition, in 2017 she founded an organization for women engineers and architects. Interested in sustainable practices and policy, she is taking five courses at HKS and MIT. Zeina is grateful for the fellowship and says her goal is to promote “positive change in Lebanon.” Click below to view Rick Brotman '73's four minute video to learn more about Zeina.

    Learn more here!

  • October 15, 2021 2:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    JusticeAid’s mission is simple: Do good through music and the arts

    Rock with Civil Rights and Social Justice Music Icon Mavis Staples

    Oct. 19 @7:20pm ET, Lincoln Theatre, Washington, D.C.

    Photo from

    Click here to purchase tickets

    Join JusticeAid live in concert with Mavis Staples and Amy Helm at the historic Lincoln Theatre on U street on Tuesday evening, October 19th at 7:20pm ET. All proceeds from the show will benefit Neighborhood Defender Service in support of JusticeAid’s 2021 issue: police accountability and community empowerment. It will be a fun evening supporting a pressing social justice cause---a great event to share with family, friends, colleagues or clients. Great seats available at an array of price points.

    *Proof of vaccination, and masking will be required consistent with DC policy.

    Author Talk: Kristin Henning, The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth

    A JusticeAid Facebook Live event Oct. 19 @5:00pm ET 

    Photo from

    Tune in at 5:00pm ET on JusticeAid’s Facebook Live page for an important conversation on the intersection of race, adolescence and policing with Kris Henning, author of The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. Professor Henning serves as the Blume Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law, and was previously the Lead Attorney of the Juvenile Unit at the D.C. Public Defender Service. For additional information, go to JusticeAid’s Facebook page.

    Professor Henning will be in conversation with Angela J. Davis, Distinguished Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law. Professor Davis is an expert in criminal law and procedure, with a specific focus on prosecutorial power and racism in the criminal justice system. Professor Davis previously served as director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, where she began as a staff attorney representing indigent juveniles and adults.

  • September 29, 2021 2:41 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    Monday, October 25th, 7:00 - 8:30 PM EDT

    Human impact on the planet is being compared to the meteor that struck Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs – we have truly entered the Anthropocene. A changing climate acts first and foremost through the water cycle, which together with human demands are putting unprecedented stress on the reliable availability of water. Its amounts, timing, and quality for humans, other species, and ecosystems have been severely disrupted. Extreme weather events in the summer of 2021 alone run the gamut from wildfires in Siberia and the American West, to unprecedented rainfall events and floods in Germany, China, and the U.S. Gulf Coast, to sea snot (marine mucilage) in the Sea of Marmara off the coast of Turkey. These and other events impact water availability, quality, quantity, and timeliness around the world.

    We bring together a panel of experts, moderated by Erum Sattar, Program Lead of the Sustainable Water Management Program (SWM) at Tufts University, and including Andy Sawyer ’73, Assistant Chief Counsel of the California State Water Resources Control Board, Jeff Hébert, President of HR&A, Kelsey Leonard, water scientist, legal scholar, policy expert, writer, and enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation, and William Moomaw, Emeritus Professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, to discuss these disparate and interrelated problems. Together, we aim to attain greater understanding of the immense challenges to global and local water security and to begin to chart future actions.


  • June 18, 2021 4:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)



    By Ron Dieckmann

    Ron Dieckmann '73 in Peru

    Two ’73 Harvard doctors are bringing their nonprofit healthcare groups together for a physician training and software giveaway this summer in the country of Haiti. Dr. Ron Dieckmann and his California-based KidsCareEverywhere organization has joined forces through ClassACT with Dr. Dan Scoppetta and Grand Anse Surgery Project for the first-time exercise in the city of Jeremie, where the project is based. The project will be completely virtual and conducted with Zoom technology.

    Ron and Dan met through the ClassACT healthcare group and have been planning the joint project since January 2021. “Ron and his team have been extraordinary,” says Dan. In Haiti close to 100 individuals were identified as participants in a project that would provide an educational tool of great utility. To me it is having a ‘library on your cellphone’ providing accurate, thorough, practical information about medical management.”

    KidsCareEverywhere, a public charity founded by Ron in 2006, has provided free medical software and software training to physicians in 23 countries on three continents: Africa, Asia and South America. KidsCareEverywhere’s mission is generously supported by EBSCO Health (Ipswich, MA), which donates powerful, up-to-date medical software called DynaMed for distribution in under-resourced countries. The software is primarily used as a mobile app on smart phones and has been extensively used by physicians worldwide for patient-care decision-making, education and teaching.

    Dan Scoppetta '73 in Haiti with a fellow doctor

    Dan’s nonprofit group, Grand Anse Surgery, began in 2016 at the invitation of the Grand Anse Women’s Health Program. The Grand Anse Surgery Project (GASP) then started periodic visits to Haiti to provide breast surgery and to help build an in-country surgical program in Jeremie. The surgical mission quickly expanded to include thyroid surgery and hernia surgery. A third nonprofit group that works with Dan in Jeremie, the Grand Anse Health Development Association, is also an active partner in the summer training exercise.

    The Haiti program will be the first completely virtual training for KidsCareEverywhere. “This virtual model is what we will be primarily using going forward,” Ron envisioned. “With so many barriers facing us now for on-the-ground conventional training, I am extremely pleased to have the chance to collaborate with Dan in Haiti and develop this new, inexpensive approach to our worldwide mission.”

  • June 15, 2021 2:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Terrible as the pandemic has been, it also has allowed us to discover Zoom. And like a rose poking out from a slag heap, ClassACT’s Zoom Forums have emerged, with their timely, entertaining and substantive discussions on topics such as health, politics, social justice, the arts and sports. The technology has allowed the Forums to cast a far-flung net, not only in terms of moderators and panelists but also in attracting audiences composed of classmates and interested outside parties.

    ClassACT’s first Zoom Forum featured Jono Quick ’73, on March 23, 2020, and discussed COVID-19 just as it was beginning its rampage through the nation. The most recent, June 10’s presentation, Gerrymandering: Our Democracy at Risk, was the 13th in the series. (It is available for viewing at the webpage provided soon.) That’s a dozen plus one in less than 15 months. For a complete list, take a look at our website here. That would be a dizzying pace for anyone, but it’s especially so for the tiny, all-volunteer, behind-the-scenes band producing them. So, we’d like them to come out from behind the Zoom curtains. Ladies and gentlemen...introducing:

    Executive Producer: Marion Dry '73. The Zoom Forums were the brainchild of Marion, ClassACT Board Co-Chair. She has been the sustaining force through the challenging transformation and rapid expansion of ClassACT’s outreach and educational efforts. Marion’s leadership and her investment of considerable time was critical to building the Forum Team and teamwork was essential to the ability to produce such an extensive Forum series.

    "ClassACT had planned several regional events for summer and fall 2020,” she says. “We wanted to continue to build community, and with the success of the first Forum it seemed a no-brainer to keep at it."

    “What I didn't expect was how meaningful the Forums would become to our audience and to our mission or how much they would expand and diversify our community. The core group working on them reached out to classmates  far and wide, many of whom had had little connection to ClassACT beforehand, to help us with program development and to recruit panelists. Now many of those folks are core contributors to our work. All of us who have worked together on these forums have found a new sense of community and endeavor. It really has been thrilling. I have met and worked with classmates whose names I had never heard before. They are extraordinary people and I am grateful that I can count some of them now as my dear friends. This is the magic of ClassACT as witnessed in the development and production of these Forums.”

    Casting Directors: Donna Brown Guillaume 73 and Therese Steiner ’73. Led by Marion and working with others such as Steve Milliken ’73 (who corralled the panelists for this past March’s Forum on Racism and the Criminal System) and Becky Miller Sykes ’73 (who invited the panelists for the Education forum in November), Donna and Therese—both veteran TV producers—brainstorm topics and then with the help of the ClassACT board and others seek expert moderators and panelists from among classmates and outside experts. Basically, it’s Networking 101. “How do we cast them? It’s largely who you know,” says Donna. “We’ll just start throwing names out there while we are ruminating about the subject matter. People just pitch in if they know someone and that’s their field of expertise.”

    Steve, a former judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and founder of JusticeAid, notes how much care goes into panel-building. For the grouping on Racism and the Criminal System, he recounts, “We needed a D.A.’s voice but we wanted to get a progressive voice [New Orleans’s Jason Williams]. We needed a defender’s voice but I needed it to be somebody who has really pioneered holistic defense as Neighborhood Defenders Service and Rick Jones have done. We needed to have a community organizer’s voice, and that was Gina Clayton- Johnson from Essie Justice Group. And we also wanted to have a police voice…I wanted it to be [Georgetown Law’s] Christy Lopez who has been working with police forces around the country on bystander intervention and other reforms. We took four progressive voices who represent the pillars that constitute the criminal system….So that’s how we approached the composition of that panel and then I went and reached out to people I have known in each of those walks of life.”

    “We have made it a mission to have a woman and a person of color on each panel,” says Therese. “After the first three panels, we really started broadening the scope. We expanded to the Zoom Webinar format, so we can get more people involved. Now the Forums have become something that a lot of people outside of ClassACT and even outside of Harvard have been interested in.”

    “You want expertise, you want representation, you want participation, and you want a broad audience to be listening,” says Donna. “I think that as Ivy Leaguers we sometimes fall into the pattern of just talking to ourselves and each other. That can be very stimulating but I don’t think that necessarily advances the goals of ClassACT. If we’re really trying to achieve change together we really have to talk to people outside the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of ’73.”

    Producers: Sarah Ulerick ’73 and Sara Greenberg ’73Andrea Kirsh 73, Jacki Swearingen 73 and Marion Dry 73 (Executive Producer). Without these five, the Forums would not have happened. When the pandemic hit, Marion reached out to what was then the ClassACT Event Group and asked them to pivot from producing in-person regional events to producing Zoom Forums. They jumped in with both feet and we should now really call them, along with videographer and designer Rick Brotman 73, and production crew members Diana Lobontiu and Katie Marinello, the ClassACT HR73 Forum Production Company! They have demanded excellence of themselves and their product and the Forums keep getting better and better.

    Staff Production Crew: Diana Lobontiu and Katie Marinello. Diana, ClassACT’s dauntless executive assistant, sweats the details. She’s the person who, with the assistance of Sarah, Sara, Andrea, Jacki, and Marion, is in charge of making sure the show sticks to the script and follows the minute-by-minute schedules known as “run of show” that are a godsend to the moderator. (As a former moderator, believe me, I know.) She also guarantees that everyone has the information he or she needs. That includes posting panelists’ bios and relevant links in the Chat area.

    Diana shows up in so many places, including moderating each Forum’s Chat discussion, that at first I thought there must be two of her. And then I found out that in a way, there are! She has a twin sister, Ioana, whom she has involved in the process. “We did the first few [Forums] without a checklist,” says Diana. “Then last summer we all got together and made a checklist. We have an elaborate system. My twin sister emails us with reminders twice each week.”

    (Says Donna Brown Guillaume: “The fact it plays as well as it does—all praises to Diana.”)

    As time went on, a process emerged. “We figured out that we had to standardize things,” says Katie, who is the maestro of ClassACT’s social media initiatives and live-tweets each Forum. “We should be playing from the same playbook. What information are we gathering from the panelists? Let’s put that in one document. What do our runs-of-show look like? Do the panelists need to see the runs-of-show? And the other thing is that the checklist is only as good as the people who use it.”

    With so many safeguards, what could go wrong? “Several things have already happened,” says Diana. “I lost control of the host command and couldn’t turn a panelist’s video on so he just didn’t go on. I recorded a whole panel but my computer shut down so we lost the whole thing.”

    Videographer and Designer: Rick Brotman ’73. In addition to overseeing the Forums’ visual presentation, veteran video guru Rick creates a pre-show “teaser” designed to bring folks into the tent, then edits the show afterward for later viewing.

    Says Therese, “Rick has helped professionalize our look and have an afterlife for people’s comments on the website.”

    “This feels like the same thing I’ve always done,” Rick says of the Forums. “It’s just that everyone’s dialing in rather than walking into a ballroom.” He sees his job as an exercise in brand-building, “to give people a sense of what this thing is about. What’s the emotional tug of this? What’s the thing that makes us us?

    “I always felt that what I was doing in editing was leaving the breadcrumbs. The video is much clearer, much cleaner than the actual event. We’ve got damned good people doing damned good content….When I go back in and realize the nuances of what people are doing, it’s really good content and helps me think about the issue in a much better way.”

    Rick lauds the choice of Forum subjects. “The fact that this has all been topical, present and immediate has just been really important,” he says. “What’s really been lovely about ClassACT is that we put into practice the thing we have learned, which is, how are you connected to people and how are you connecting, and what kind of conversation can come from that. The fact that [the Forums] have resonated with people has just been really rewarding.”

    Rewarding it has been, and it’s getting more so all the time. So take a bow, folks.

  • May 11, 2021 3:59 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    By Jacki Swearingen '73

    In this year of insurrection, gerrymandering threatens to weaken democracy even further by the voter inequity and polarization it spawns. Gerrymandering buttresses a congressional system in which getting anything done is next to impossible. In state legislatures gerrymandering bolsters primaries where lawmakers flaunt dangerous conspiracy theories. As for individual citizens, a growing number feel their votes count for nothing.

    “We think the problem is worse than we expected,” said Ryan O’Connell ’73, one of three Class ACT members who have just produced Gerrymandering: Our Democracy at Risk, a primer on redistricting reform. “It is a real threat to democracy. People’s votes don’t get equal weight.”

    Gerrymandering too often remains hidden in back rooms where political operatives find ways to enhance their party’s political clout at the expense of voters. “Gerrymandering occurs when the state legislature draws voting districts in a distorted manner,” O’Connell, Jim Harbison ’73, and editor Sallie Gouverneur ’73, explain in their primer. Finding ways to give their parties as many victories as possible, these architects of gerrymandering have come up with ingenious methods to cram as many opposing voters into as few districts as possible while distributing their own voters in ways that allow them to capture slim majorities in as many districts as possible.

    Legislators who draw those maps have the most to gain from configuring the contorted districts. “The fox is guarding the chicken coop,” said O’Connell, who concludes that such a system shreds accountability. Those lawmakers then focus solely on the voters likely to reelect them while ignoring the rest and rendering their votes worthless. “It distorts the political process,” O’Connell said. “The forces of darkness are very strong.”

    For the ClassACT team that created the primer, it is past time to break that web of secrecy and silence. Their five months of work has resulted in an incisive and detailed analysis of gerrymandering that inspires hope for change. Along with historical context that stretches back to 1788, they introduce readers to the latest mathematical tools used both to construct gerrymandered districts and to expose them. Most importantly, they provide pragmatic routes to reform already underway.

    With the release last month of new census numbers, the ClassACT authors’ mission is more urgent than ever. This year states begin redrawing congressional and state legislative districts according to how their population has shifted. With demographic movements from northern industrial states like New York and Michigan to southern and western states like Texas and Florida, the borders of many electoral districts are likely to shift dramatically.

    In too many cases, the authors say, state legislators see redistricting as a means of holding onto and extending their own power. In recent decades the party in power in the legislature gerrymanders to gain a disproportionate number of seats and to send a disproportionate number of their party members to Congress. Gerrymandering gives incumbents a convenient way to design the maps of their own districts so that they can easily hold on to “safe seats.” Harbison noted “We are the only democracy where legislators pick who votes for them.”

    The end result is a political system where countless voters in state and federal elections find their votes are essentially worthless. Gerrymandering proponents deliberately rely on such methods as “packing” and “cracking” to place voters into the districts they construct. With “packing,” Harbison explains “You want to pack the opposing party into as few districts as possible.” There those disenfranchised voters are likely to choose a candidate of their own party by an overwhelming majority. But that cramming means there are fewer voters from their party to place in other districts where they might have a shot at winning an election.

    Conversely, “cracking,” Harbison says, allows these same architects to scatter the voters being disenfranchised into as many districts as possible. It then becomes nearly impossible for their party to approach the 51 percent necessary to win an election in these districts. One telltale sign of such practices are the contorted shapes of districts on gerrymandered maps whose creators have linked narrow strands of counties to get the voting pools they desired.

    When did the excesses of gerrymandering reach the point where it became the threat to democracy that it is today? Harbison and O’Connell trace the trend back to the 2008 election when Republicans failed to secure the White House or Congress. Savvy political operatives figured out the key to winning back seats in Congress was first to establish control of the state legislatures that would do the redistricting after the 2010 Census. “If you look at history,” Harbison said, “the Republicans recovered by winning back all the legislatures. They did very well.” The eventual rewards were redistricted maps that ensured a majority of Congressional and legislature seats that would allow them to perpetuate control for years to come.

    The legacy of that power grab means even though polls indicate the majority of voters care about issues such as climate change and gun control, incumbents can dismiss those concerns. “Popular opinion is in one place, and politicians are in another,” Gouverneur said. Lawmakers do not have to respond to changes in voters’ attitudes because the current system works to keep them in power, Harbison added.

    Moreover, elections in districts where one party’s victory is essentially guaranteed tend to result in intraparty contests that give rise to extremist candidates. “When you give lawmakers safe seats, they can ignore the people in the middle,” O’Connell cautions, observing that elections become less competitive. The result is an electorate that is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Reforming gerrymandering can remedy this trend by reducing the wings of both parties and appealing more to the center, he adds. “More moderate politicians come from areas where elections are contested.”

    The tech and software advances that have emerged since 2010 have heightened the excesses of gerrymandering because they make it easier and cheaper to draw up redistricting maps, Harbison said. Gerrymandering specialists can now look at new sources of “big data” to determine how a block of voters will behave by using indicators like their shopping habits on  “There is an incredible amount of sophistication,” he added.

    With state legislature control cemented in 2010 and high-powered digital tools, gerrymandering practitioners appear poised to thwart the demographic changes sweeping the country. Democrats once thought they would prevail as their core constituencies assumed larger shares of voting blocks and moved into states that were previously Republican strongholds, but they have found that the tools that entrenched legislatures weld make it tough to overcome disproportionate representation, explained O’Connell. Current efforts by state legislatures in Texas and Georgia reveal how eager those lawmakers are to reduce the power of voters in cities like Austin and Atlanta. Redistricting is one more means they are likely to use to secure their seats this year. “We can’t assume that demographic change will do it,” O’Connell concluded.

    Those who use gerrymandering to solidify minority control have increasingly set their sights on the judicial as well as legislative bodies. Thirty-eight states elect Supreme Court judges rather than appoint them. In almost all of them, judicial candidates must run a statewide campaign. But in states like Pennsylvania and Texas, legislatures have worked to have Supreme Court judges elected by specific districts, like lawmakers, to tilt the bench toward the party who orchestrated the gerrymandered maps, O’Connell explained.

    It is no wonder, argue the authors, that the majority of citizens polled say that they do not like gerrymandering. “Whether Democrat or Republican, 60 percent of voters are opposed to this method of redistricting,” O’Connell said. Yet the movement to uproot gerrymandering has taken off in only a handful of states. Reporters and pundits as well often echo the fatalistic view that reforming gerrymandering is a quixotic struggle.

    That redistricting looms right after the release of the 2020 census data underscores the urgent need for just apportionment. That imperative is strongest for states that stand to gain or lose Congressional seats in 2022, O’Connell said. On the critical list are Pennsylvania and Michigan, which will lose representatives, as well as Florida, North Carolina and Texas, all slated to add seats.

    Nonetheless, other states on the list have already put in place reforms likely to ensure a more accurate redrawing of maps than in cycles past. California, which will lose a congressional seat for the first time, became the “gold standard” in 2011 when the state under then Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created a commission designed to check partisanship. Citizens apply to a selection committee independent of the governor or legislature to become one of fourteen commissioners – five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents – who will draw the new maps in a transparent fashion. Members cannot have held or run for state or federal office prior to their selection. Nor can they act as a political candidate or appointee for ten years after their tenure is completed.

    Pennsylvania has moved toward fairer redistricting in a more contentious fashion. When Republicans who control the legislature proposed heavily gerrymandered maps, citizen groups sued in state court. Not only did Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court examine the contorted shapes of many districts, but the judges also used the latest mathematical tools to measure whether voters were divided fairly among the proposed districts. “In Pennsylvania part of the court’s reasoning was that the maps made no sense,” O’Connell added.

    Virginia, a state emerging as “purple,” has a hybrid commission that could serve as a model for battleground states undergoing similar political transformation, the primer suggests. After nearly a decade of citizen activism, Virginia came up with the a bi-partisan commission of legislators and citizens who draw up the maps and then submit them to the legislature for approval. If a mandated threshold fails to approve the maps, the state Supreme Court then appoints a “special master” to draw revised maps. Those agents when appointed in other states have “taken an impartial approach,” the primer concludes.

    While some state courts like Pennsylvania’s have pushed for fairer redistricting, the federal judicial system has been reluctant to weigh in on reforming a gerrymandered system, O’Connell said. “One of the hallmarks of this Supreme Court is its antipathy to protecting voter rights,” he added, pointing to the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that opened the way for unchecked gerrymandering in states like Texas and Georgia. That decision stripped the 1965 Voting Rights Act of any federal oversight of practices that restrict voting access in states where obstacles for Black Voters have historically existed. On occasion, the authors note, the Supreme Court has upheld lower court decisions, like the one in Cooper v. Harris in 2017 that invalidated North Carolina maps “on the grounds that they had been unconstitutionally drawn predominantly on the basis of race.” But when cases are brought that challenge partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court has declined to rule. “The Court essentially said in recent decisions ‘We are not mathematicians…We punt,” O’Connell said.

    On a federal level the passage of the “For the People Act of 2021,” which aims to preserve voting rights and fair elections would be an invaluable reform, the authors concur. The proposed legislation would require that all states adopt the California model of an independent commission for remapping Congressional districts. “On the Congressional level, it is a massive reform,” O’Connell observed.

    Even if the legislation becomes law this year as its Democratic sponsors hope, it would not directly affect how state districts are mapped. But the act might inspire people to seek change on the state level after witnessing the improvements on the federal, O’Connell said. Its passage might succeed in raising the awareness of voters that gerrymandering, while not as obvious as sharply reducing mail-in voting and poll stations, can still render their vote worthless.

    Another cause for optimism is the ability of mathematics to make the process more transparent, maintains Harbison. Mathematics not only enhances our ability to evaluate the fairness of voting maps, but it also allows us to construct maps that try to reflect the actual strength and distribution of each party’s voters. Now when the shape of a district or the gap between the number of one party’s voters and the number of seats held in a state congressional delegation seem disproportionate, when it “smells funny,” as Harbison puts it, mathematical analysis can determine if partisan gerrymandering has gotten out of hand. “In bringing the process out into the light, math comes to the rescue,” Harbison adds.

    In other ways Harbison and O’Connell see encouraging signs that gerrymandering can ultimately be turned around in the years to come. O’Connell praises voting rights activists like Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, for her “nuts and bolts’ work to safeguard fair elections. Brian Cannon, the Director of Campaigns for the Institute for Political Innovation, wins his respect for patiently working for nearly a decade to make Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission a reality. Likewise, he lauds analysts like Michael Li at the Brennan Center for Justice for elucidation of how gerrymandering took hold and how insidious it is for democracy.

    Optimism also springs from states that have adopted reforms that make it likely they will emerge from the 2020 cycle with fairer voting maps. New York, a state where gerrymandering prevailed, is set to rely on an advisory commission chosen largely by both Democratic and Republican legislators to recommend its new maps. That redistricting plan, which will allow for the loss of one Congressional seat, must then be approved by a super majority of the Assembly and Senate. “I am hopeful that New York will get some good maps,” said O’Connell.

    Colorado, set to gain one Congressional seat, and Michigan, which will lose one seat, have given the task of redistricting to independent commissions like California’s. Ohio, which will also lose one seat, and Utah have also put reforms in place.

    Obstacles to reform in the other battle ground states remain because they do not allow the ballot initiatives that birthed fairer procedures in places like California. Half the states still do not permit voters to decide at the polls if they want a reformed procedure. As a result, O’Connell said, “You have to convince their state legislatures to give up the power they now hold to draw maps that may ensure their incumbency.”

    For these seemingly intractable states, civic activism matters enormously, O’Connell and Harbison say. At the primer’s end they lay out recommendations they believe will erode gerrymandering’s hold. They advise readers to push senators and representatives to support the “For the People Act” with its promise of ending gerrymandering on a federal level. Write and call their offices, they urge, attend upcoming town halls when they resume, make representatives aware you want legislation to safeguard voting rights and end partisan gerrymandering.

    Secondly, they counsel, don’t lose sight of state elections. Press state lawmakers to establish an independent commission to oversee how maps for state elections are drawn. Most states, even those with processes that foster gerrymandering, require public meetings when they come up with new maps. “As a rule, no one shows up at those meetings,” Harbison mused. This time around find a way to discover the plans that are being concocted and make your voice heard if you don’t approve. If your state intends to establish a bipartisan commission, apply to serve on it, he adds.

    One of the best ways to get involved with reforms is to join one of the state chapters of organizations like The League of Women Voters ( or Common Cause ( that are already seeking to improve redistricting practices. FairMaps groups across the nation concentrate on organizing grassroots activists who lobby their state lawmakers for specific reforms, as OneVirginia2021 did. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, in most cases; you can simply volunteer for one of these organizations,” the authors write.

    This task of reforming redistricting becomes more critical as states prepare to receive by September 30 detailed Census information about voters. “Now is the time to get cracking,” says O’Connell, who warns that inattention means the chance for fair redistricting could be lost for another decade. Harbison takes a more sanguine view that setbacks during this cycle do not mean that all is lost until after 2030. Citizens who begin trying to establish more bipartisan modes of redistricting may see gains in the years leading up to the next apportionment. And both he and O’Connell maintain that Democrats will not overlook the process at the state level as they did in 2010. “The Democrats are far, far behind in terms of history and experience,” Harbison said, but “there won’t be a roll over like 2010. They have their swords out.”

    Activists across the political spectrum who oppose gerrymandering need to develop patience and a willingness to be informed and involved in state and local elections. “Gerrymandering is not a sexy topic,” O’Connell cautions. “It’s about long-term change. Lots of patience is needed.” He reminds those eager for quick fixes that it took a decade for Virginia to create its bipartisan commission. “No matter your political stance,” Gouverneur said, “You can make politicians have this as a topic of conversation.” Developing habits of thinking about state wide issues also bode well for citizen involvement when the redistricting phase has ended.

    Reforming gerrymandering is at the heart of the current struggle to preserve democracy, Gouverneur and her fellow authors conclude. Unless we embrace the effort to change the current imbalanced and partisan system, many of us will continue to cast wasted votes. The time for giving into “doom and gloom” has passed, said O’Connell, who hopes that the primer will inspire his Harvard classmates and fellow citizens to take on the challenge of ending gerrymandering. “If people get involved, we should have a good shot at turning things around and having a functioning democracy.”


ClassACT HR ‘73

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