‘Change the world around you’

In Last Lecture, Niko Bowie challenges graduates to cultivate a theory of change to guide their careers

In a philosophical and wide-ranging talk, Harvard Law School Assistant Professor Nikolas Bowie ’14 reminded the Class of 2022 that they are on the verge of changing the world.

“As Harvard Law School graduates, you are some of the most powerful people on the planet, and that is not an overstatement,” he told them. “You may think that the injustices that brought you here are permanent, that there isn’t much you can do to change them. But there is, and you can.”

Bowie offered this perspective as part of Harvard Law School’s annual Last Lecture series, in which four faculty members are invited by the student class marshals to share parting thoughts with the graduating class.

Bowie, who was last year’s winner of the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence, challenged the graduating students to form their personal theory of change as a guideline for their careers. And he frequently invoked the career of his mother, the groundbreaking civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier, who was the first woman of color to become a tenured Harvard Law School professor. Guinier passed away in January after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and Bowie honored her work for the significant institutional change it represented.

Her tenure at Harvard Law, he said, didn’t come out of nowhere — and he reminded them that she was initially set against accepting it. He put this in the context of organizing as a method of change — noting that a movement for social change was well underway by the time Guinier was offered tenure.

“In the early 1990’s, Harvard was a place in which the faculty looked out over the countryside, saw the millions of women of color who worked and practiced law, and concluded that none of them were qualified to teach here. … The faculty did not change this conclusion because it spotted a Black woman ready to teach, or because they had a collective epiphany,” he said. “The faculty changed its perspective because of organizing, because students demanded change.”

You may think that the injustices that brought you here are permanent, that there isn’t much you can do to change them. But there is, and you can.

He noted that Harvard Law School’s first tenured Black professor, the late Derrick Bell, along with numerous students, protested the school’s lack of women of color on the faculty. The atmosphere was so charged that Guinier initially turned the offer down; she accepted in 1998. “So, it is people like you that brought an eleven-year-old me to Cambridge,” he told them. “I am here today because of people like you.”

Bowie traced his own theory of change to events of 1962, when civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley handled the case of James Meredith, who overcame institutional resistance to become the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi. Bowie’s mother watched these events on television when she was 12 and decided on the spot that she would attend law school. She ultimately followed in Motley’s footsteps by joining the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, working in Mississippi and Alabama to register and defend Black voters. This proved a cornerstone experience in Guinier’s life, and an influence on her son.

“She was part of a group of people who had a shared purpose — to change the injustice around them,” Bowie said. “It was that theory of change — that we can go out and represent Black voters and actually change the system to take down the pillars of racial segregation and disenfranchisement — that she found meaningful and persuasive.”

Thus, the graduates now need to develop their own theory of change — “your answer to the question, how does change happen?” And while change may feel daunting, it is also inevitable. “Even though the world today is full of injustices that can look like mountains or oceans —mountains erode. Change happens, and even a racial caste system that has existed in a country for decades, if not its entire existence, can be eroded.”

His mother, he said, had a specific vision: A multiracial democracy could replace the existing system if she took disenfranchised voters to court. And he challenged the students to form their own goals, built around the idea that “if I do this, change will happen.”

He allowed that it may take some time for each graduate to form their own approach to making a difference. To help them along, he noted that such theories fall into three categories. The one most often encountered in law school, he said, is that of advocacy — the theory that “arguing on behalf of a client that the law needs to change, and encouraging judges to adopt your position, can contribute to the eradication of enormous social problems.”

Even though the world today is full of injustices that can look like mountains or oceans —mountains erode. Change happens, and even a racial caste system that has existed in a country for decades, if not its entire existence, can be eroded.

Yet Guinier, among others, found this theory had its limitations. “It’s a persuasive theory for change mainly to the extent that you believe the laws on the books are good and are just being misinterpreted, that judges are open to persuasion, and that you can be the person to persuade them.” But this is not always the case, he said, citing as an example the fact that many Black students were still in inferior schools 30 years after the Supreme Court notionally desegregated schools in its Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Realizing these limits, Bowie said that his mother moved on to the theory of mobilization — “that social change sometimes requires getting a ton of people to show up at a march or a rally, or to vote for politicians who will change the law.” This too can have disappointing results, he said.

Bowie recalled his mother’s experience with President Bill Clinton, a longtime friend who impressed her with his commitment to civil rights and voting rights. Yet, he said that Clinton’s presidency ultimately proved that “even the most pressing issues can be blown away by new political winds.” He called Clinton out for withdrawing his mother’s nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights following a Republican-driven campaign to discredit her. “They charged her with being anti-democratic, not American. And the president, with no mobilized constituency pushing him to continue the policies that he had run on, left my mom to dangle in the wind.”

The third path, he said, is through organizing — groundswell movements such as the one that brought his mother to Harvard Law School, and that will impact the law in the future. “[It is] a power you already possess, a power you just have to recognize how to leverage. The power of the relationships you already maintain, of the people you care about, the communities that brought you here, the people that you want to make proud. That is not just a personal relationship. That is potential power that can change the world around you.”