It is bittersweet to announce that David J. Harris, Managing Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School (CHHIRJ) since its inception in 2006, is retiring effective May 28.
David has been a pillar of the Houston Institute since its founding, and while we wish him many sunny days in his garden in the years to come, he will be dearly missed by all who have had the privilege of working with him here. Under David’s stewardship, the Houston Institute has developed into a unique university-based center, serving as a critical bridge between scholarship, policy, and grassroots leaders and organizations. Since 2014, he has provided the guiding vision behind the Institute’s signature initiative, the Houston/Marshall Plan for Community Justice, which aims to amplify the voices and lived experiences of those most directly affected by decades of deliberate policies and practices of disinvestment in communities of color.
With a background in fair housing, David was already a long-time civil rights leader in Boston when he was hired as one of three full-time staff at the Houston Institute in 2006, working closely with CHHIRJ Founder, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., to realize the mission of an Institute dedicated to continuing the legacy of one of the legal giants of the 20th century, Charles Hamilton Houston. When Professor Ogletree stepped aside from daily leadership of the Houston Institute due to health issues a few years ago, David continued to realize his vision, while using his own stamp, experience, and insights to shape the Institute’s work.
In addition to managing a small staff and overseeing a multitude of initiatives and events—always free and open to the public—David frequently writes and speaks publicly, and has mentored a generation of future racial justice leaders, including all those who have interned at the Institute as high school, college, and law school students. David has also offered guidance to countless undergraduate, graduate, and law students of color at Harvard who have sought him out during his time leading the Houston Institute.
David pushed the Houston Institute to move beyond the boundaries of traditional academic centers, determined to harness the research capacity, legal acumen, and resources available at Harvard and elsewhere in support of the lived experience and expertise of organizers and activists deeply rooted in their communities. Over his long career, David has cultivated a legacy of justice work based in collegiality and partnership with directly impacted people—an ethos which informs all of the work at the Houston Institute. Above all, David focused not on opening doors to opportunity, but on tearing down the walls that hold the hinges. His good humor, critical insights, depth and breadth of knowledge, and steady, calm leadership in the face of turbulent events both within and beyond Harvard Law School will be deeply missed at the Houston Institute and by students and colleagues at Harvard, in Greater Boston, and across the country.
We know David regrets not being able to gather to celebrate the work of the Institute, and he looks forward to having some such gathering in the near future.
We wish him well in his retirement, thank him for his commitment to the Houston Institute, and hope he takes some time to unwind and relax with his family before embarking on his next adventure.