City Council Candidate Loved Campus and Harlem

Ruthzee head shot
Ruthzee Louijeune ’08 is a lawyer and advocate who is running for Boston City Council At-Large. Her candidacy is historic: Louijeune would be the first Haitian American elected to represent Boston citywide. A Boston native and the daughter of working-class Haitian immigrants, Louijeune has worked on the issues most important to working families: housing affordability, equity in education and economic opportunity. She represented low-income individuals in Boston Housing Court, worked on racial gerrymandering and voting rights cases that went before the U.S. Supreme Court and served as senior counsel to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on her presidential and Senate campaigns. Louijeune is a graduate of Boston public schools, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. At the College, Louijeune was a Kluge Scholar and an Edwin Robbins Public Service Fellow.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived at Columbia very curious and excited to take it all in. I was in a new city, around new people and thrilled for this new adventure. I have extended family in Brooklyn and Queens, so New York did not feel completely foreign; I made frequent use of the subway to visit family and get some home-cooked meals. I remember being in awe of my proximity to 125th street in Harlem and how easy it was for me to be steeped in Black history and culture after walking out of a class. And as a Bostonian, I knew that I was never, ever to root for the Yankees or even look in the direction of the stadium. Other than that, everything was fair game for my exploration, and explore I did!

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I handed in my dorm choice form late and was placed on the all-girls floor in Carman. I ended up being really glad to be there. Some of the women I met that year remain some of my closest friends, two of whom continued on to Harvard Law School with me — Adrianne Clarke ’08, my roommate, and Latrisha Desrosiers ’08, my floormate. Everyone seemed so different from the people I grew up with; I was curious to get to know each and every one of them, learn about their worlds and become friends.

One of our floormates was from a very large and proud Italian-American family, so as a floor, we would go to the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy, where she served as an expert tour guide. We would eat all the cannolis and pasta imaginable. We continued that tradition all our years at the College. Another floormate introduced us to Tyler Perry’s early plays that she picked up on DVD on 125th; we stayed up late watching them and laughing endlessly.

I love those women. We still check in on each other, see each other at reunions and weddings, and support each other. Few things can compare to that bond.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

To be frank, my memories of my Core classes are unexciting. I had had a classical education from seventh to 12th grade, and therefore was unenthused when I received a copy of The Iliad in the mail before I arrived at Columbia (although I must confess my Lit Hum instructor, Geoffrey Mac Adam GSAS’06, was great). The Core classes didn’t really resonate with me, especially because few of the rich cultures I identify with were reflected in the material.

I was more excited to take classes like “African American Literature,” taught by the formidable Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. She introduced me to great works by Black writers, like Ann Petry’s The Street and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her own book on Billie Holiday (If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday) remains one of my favorite biographies, and it exemplifies the importance of Black women writing about Black women in order to really tease out the intricacies of our existence.

I was also excited to continue exploring my love of languages by taking classes like “Modern Greek.” As a class, we once went to a Greek restaurant in Astoria, and I ordered a half-chicken and baklava. I forget most of my Greek, but I still know how to order a half-chicken and baklava, so I count that class as time well spent!

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

This is an unfair question. How can I pick just one?! So, here’s a list:

• John Jay Dining Hall: Learning how to use the waffle maker; waiting for a kind friend to swipe me in when I ran out of meals; spending hours at a table talking to friends about life, school, family, politics and everything in between.

• The Steps: A place to participate in political protests; a great spot to hang with friends, meet new people and find new reasons to be late to class.

• JJ’s: What can beat late-night eats with friends in a popular basement hangout?

• Low Library: The location of one of my work-study jobs — I worked on the balcony overlooking the atrium. It was a stunning place to work. I learned quite a bit about Columbia as an institution in that job.

• Black Students Organization lounge: A safe space for Black students to gather in community, celebrate each other and air grievances. The lounge was also impeccably designed by my friend Sadatu Dennis ’10. I was co-president of the Haitian Students Association, and we met in that space.

• Levien Gym: Rooting for our women’s and men’s basketball teams. Go Lions!

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I studied abroad in Senegal the first semester of my junior year and it was incredible. I still talk to my host family, and my host sister has come to visit me in Boston. If I had to do it again, I would have tried to study abroad the entire academic year, and maybe gone to a different country for the second semester. Living and learning abroad is a memorable experience (and tremendous privilege), as it helps you better make sense of who you are, your place in this world and the deep global inequities that shape our everyday lives.