Graduate Students

Harvard Students Build ‘Resistance School’ to Harness Anti-Trump Sentiment

April 07, 2017

Timothy P. McCarthy stood at the front of a classroom on Wednesday evening in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Students and Boston-area residents filled every seat in the room. Online more than 15,000 people in all 50 states and 20 countries tuned in to a livestream.

"Welcome to Resistance School," said Mr. McCarthy, an adjunct lecturer on public policy who studies social movements. "Our first class is now in session."

Mr. McCarthy’s lecture and Q. and A. kicked off a free, four-course series developed by Harvard graduate students who say they want to help harness the passion that has grown out of recent anti-Trump protests and turn a moment into a fully fledged, sustainable movement. Resistance School debuted a slick website, a logo, and social-media accounts last week, and 6,500 individuals and groups have signed up, said Shanoor Seervai, a second-year public-policy student and a founder of the project.

"We take this as a sign that people really want and need this," Ms. Seervai said of the substantial interest in the school.

In the weeks that followed the election of President Trump, Ms. Seervai and a group of her peers — many of them former staff members in Democratic candidates’ campaigns — talked among themselves and with professors and others about a central question: What are we going to do now?

The students have likened their efforts to Dumbledore's Army, a student-led movement organized to battle the villain Lord Voldemort in the fictional Harry Potter series.
Those conversations have spawned a training program that Ms. Seervai originally expected would attract friends and family members, maybe a couple of hundred participants at most. The students have likened their efforts to Dumbledore’s Army, a student-led movement organized to battle the villain Lord Voldemort in the fictional Harry Potter series.

But the school’s purpose is not just fighting Mr. Trump’s agenda, Ms. Seervai said. "Resistance School is about much more than one man," she said. "What we’re doing is equipping people to think about their progressive values and take actions to defend them."

Ms. Seervai hoped far-flung activists would find solidarity by gathering in groups each week and watching the livestream. "It is a school," she said, "but it’s also a sort of virtual community."

Harvard does not offer course credit for completing the four sessions. Doug Gavel, a spokesman for the Kennedy School, said Resistance School was organized and managed entirely by students and was not an official Harvard program.

‘An Immediate and Urgent Need’

Resistance doesn’t take just one form, Ms. Seervai noted. People can take to the streets in protest; they can sign petitions. They can call local politicians and members of Congress every day, and advocate for legislation — or run for office themselves. She hopes the school will give local organizers the tools to sustain whatever actions they choose to take.

For his session, Mr. McCarthy crafted a syllabus of recommended readings — the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Malcolm X’s 1964 "Ballot or the Bullet" speech, among others. There is also a postsession worksheet online for participants to fill out in preparation for the next week.

Students have a critical role to play in opposing the Trump administration, Mr. McCarthy said on Wednesday. Colleges, he said, "are places for intellectual exchange, for social transformation, and yes, when necessary, for political resistance."

The historian and longtime activist focused his hourlong talk on five ways to communicate one’s political values effectively. He touched on what he described as "nonnegotiables" ­— values that a person holds most dear — as well as why progressives must do a better job of framing those values and the role of social media in activism.

Mr. McCarthy also did his best not to say Mr. Trump’s name throughout the evening, referring to the president instead as "he," "him," and "45."

The organizers used Facebook and Twitter to solicit questions and promote conversation among participants.

Ms. Seervai said many college students had registered for the school, though the enrollment also includes community organizers of all backgrounds. Some faculty members also tuned in. Among them was Aaron D. Walker, an assistant professor of communication at Florida’s University of Tampa.

Since the inauguration, Mr. Walker said he’d seen activism swell in the Tampa area, particularly among people who weren’t previously activists and therefore didn’t have a good grasp of best practices. Resistance School, he said, "is clearly filling an immediate and urgent need." He described Mr. McCarthy’s talk as "phenomenal" and praised his wide-ranging syllabus of suggested readings.

A conservative critic dismissed the class as 'an opportunity for liberals to double down on identity politics.'
Not everyone who tuned in on Wednesday was there to learn about how to be a better activist. One editor at the conservative publication Red Alert Politics watched Mr. McCarthy’s lecture and later dismissed much of it as "an opportunity for liberals to double down on identity politics."

Confirmed speakers for the next three sessions include Sara El-Amine, the former executive director of Organizing for Action, President Barack Obama’s grass-roots movement; Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard and veteran activist; and Michael Blake, a New York State lawmaker and the newly elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Ganz said he would be discussing how to build a sustainable resistance movement through story, strategy, and structure. He had high praise for the Harvard student organizers, several of whom have taken his classes.

“There is an enormous appetite out there for acquiring the tools to organize effectively in response to the whole Trump challenge to democracy itself.”
Traditional advocacy organizations have struggled to "absorb all of the energy" that has emerged from progressive circles since Mr. Trump’s victory, which makes something like Resistance School especially valuable, Mr. Ganz said. "There is an enormous appetite out there for acquiring the tools to organize effectively in response to the whole Trump challenge to democracy itself," he said.

It’s difficult to measure the success of an effort like this, Ms. Seervai said, though she was excited that the first session had sparked so much engagement. She also wasn’t sure what would become of Resistance School after the four sessions were over. She will graduate from Harvard this spring.

In the meantime, the vast interest has meant a lot more work for the students behind the school. Ms. Seervai said she hadn’t been able to go to class this week.

Still, "it feels great," she said. "It feels like we’re doing something that matters."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at