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“You belong here”: Naisha Bradley’s vision for community-building at Harvard Graduate School of Design

When Naisha Bradley was appointed Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at the Graduate School of Design in 2019, it marked the first time in the school’s history that a role was created solely to ensure that women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation and LGBTQ+ community members–and anyone else from historically underrepresented communities–would have an equal place among the arbiters of culture at the GSD.

In her new role, Bradley serves as an advisor and resource for students, faculty and staff, a position that draws on her 13 years of experience working at Harvard as an advocate for women. As the former director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, an appointment she held since 2015, Bradley had been notable in spearheading the establishment of Harvard College’s Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Prior to that she worked at the Kennedy School of Government, where she started as a staff assistant and ended her tenure nine years later as program manager of the Women and Public Policy Program. In May 2018, Bradley graduated from the Kennedy School with a Master’s in Public Administration.

“When you come [to Harvard] and you are a person who has never navigated this type of space before, you have to be reminded that it’s possible, even when you’re already here,” she says. In 2016, Bradley was recognized as one of Boston’s 25 Emerging Leaders by Get Konnected and named one of the 40 Under 40 top professionals by the Boston Business Journal. Today, she has a message for current and prospective students: “You belong here. This space is for you. The opportunities that are here are yours.”

You’ve been at Harvard for over 13 years. I imagine that you’ve seen many different facets of the Harvard prism over those years. How does that experience inform your work at the GSD?

I’ve been able to see Harvard from various vantage points, which gives me a different perspective on what’s possible. I know what a student feels like when there’s not a critical mass of their identity in the classroom. I know what it feels like to lead a team that looks different from me, but has a lot of the same desires for advancement and change. I’m a firm believer that in order for Harvard to continue to live up to its promise of excellence we have to create spaces within the Harvard ecosystem where all people can thrive.

You are also Harvard alumnus. There is a powerful photograph of you at commencement wearing a mortar board that reads “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” How does your personal history at the school affect your approach to creating inclusive spaces?

I’m the first Ivy League graduate in my family. Commencement was a really emotional time and moment for us. My family’s from the South, and we’re the descendants of slaves. When my grandparents migrated up north, they couldn’t read. Growing up, I would go to their home and read the newspaper to them, read their bills for them. My mother was a housing activist, but she never graduated from college; my father was a police officer, and he had graduated from high school, then returned to college as an adult learner. They would remind me that there were times our ancestors would have been killed for trying to learn to read. So for me to get to this space, after my parents sacrificed so much to get me through school, and to have grandparents who couldn’t read—I, in that moment of graduation, felt like I had stood on the backs of so many people. I hoped, if my grandparents were looking down on me, that message, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” would be the first thing they would see from above.

Naisha Bradley's mortar board at her graduation from Harvard Kennedy School in 2018.

Now, I also attended a historically black college. It’s where I started my higher education experience, and it’s a huge part of what’s made me who I am. But to be at Harvard felt like a familial accomplishment. It wasn’t just about me. It was about my family that went back several generations who wanted to read but couldn’t, who wanted to learn but couldn’t.

When you come here and you are a person who has never navigated this type of space before, you have to be reminded that it’s possible, even when you’re already here. If we’re in spaces where there’s not a critical mass of us here, no matter if you’re LGTBQ-identified, if you’re gender-nonconforming, if you’re black, if you’re Latina, if you’re a woman studying a STEM field—whatever those dynamics are, I think we have to be reminded that we’re living a dream. No matter how many times the world is telling us that it can’t be done, we need to remind ourselves that it is. We’re living it and we have to take it all in.

What changes have you seen during your time at Harvard?

I’m excited about the momentum of change at this moment. The changes that President Bacow has made, some of the appointments that he’s made across schools—I think that those changes have been really inspiring for me, in particular as a black woman.

Beyond that, the changes that we’ve experienced in our society over the last couple of years have prompted a certain level of activism and advocacy, and a lot of people are being positioned to look at hard truths that they might previously have been blind to. It’s no longer about “I’m trying to do something”; it’s now about, “What are you doing?” So I’m excited to be at Harvard during a time where people are focusing on action, not just reaction. Something that excites me here is that I didn’t need to convince anyone that diversity, inclusion, and belonging needed to be here—people see its value, whether faculty, staff, or students.

I recognize that it’s also a challenging time because as a society we’re thinking about how the country has been built, and here at the GSD we’re thinking about building places for the future, engaging with concepts like sustainability and social justice.

When we talk about creating a more just world, a more resilient world—that project requires voices from everyone.

There are so many perspectives on what “just” means. “Justice” requires intentionality. In the pursuit of justice–a just city, a just society–there needs to be an openness and a respect for one another, and a willingness to listen to each other’s definitions of justice, fairness, and progress. As I approach my work, I assume good intent from those I’m engaging and listening to. We have to create the space for more conversations and do so with forgiving ears and with the understanding that people are going to make mistakes.

This is the first time in the GSD’s history that we’ve had a diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer. One of the ways that you’ve framed this position is that it’s a win already for students. What do you mean by that?

The GSD is at a ripe time for change, and this position is going to be a part of the change that’s needed. It’s really important to me that students in particular recognize that their voices are being heard. A lot of different people came together to create this role, and the dean listened to them, and now a person is here ready and willing and dedicated to doing the work. I also want to create a structure so that, long after I’m gone from the GSD, this position will be here and there will be a flexible, adaptable structure here to get this work done, so that it no longer has to land on the backs of people who were doing so many other things to keep this community thriving and flourishing.

As I approach my work, I assume good intent from those I’m engaging and listening to. We have to create the space for more conversations and do so with forgiving ears and with the understanding that people are going to make mistakes.

Naisha Bradley on advocating for diversity, inclusion and belonging at the GSD

This is an inaugural position, and I recognize that the work of diversity, inclusion, belonging has previously been carried out by people who were doing lots of other things, too. So it’s tempting to look at this position and say: Here is what’s been done before and here’s what you should be doing. We can look at this role from that perspective, looking at a deficit—here’s this new administrator, and here’s the work that hasn’t been done and that needs to happen—or we can look and say, “This is the beginning.”

What are some of the core principles or approaches in a role like yours?

Listen to the concerns people have and what they feel like needs to get done. In every space, there’s a system in place that has made it look the way it does, made it operate the way it does. Understand what that system is. Here at the GSD, I have to look and see what kind of culture and system has created some of the challenges we face, and figure out how to penetrate that culture in a way that’s strategic, intentional, and feels respectful.

What about prospective students who are curious about Harvard?

I would say, “You belong here.” I would say, “This space is for you. The opportunities that are here are yours, here for you to take.” I remembered a feeling of imposter syndrome when I was accepted into the Kennedy School. When I got my letter, I didn’t want to tell my parents. I wanted to call admissions first and ask them if it was true. I was in a space where I was like, Could this be for me? But what I’ve learned is, Harvard is no longer for one type of person, and that is the key to true excellence.