Reaffirming Race Matters

Harvard has had a long and difficult history in its attempts to deal with race relations on campus. But there are two fundamental ways that Harvard can address the issue: one is to celebrate and foster appreciation of the many cultures represented on campus; the other, more difficult task, is to address head-on, why racial animosity, stereotypes and prejudices still exist in our community. Assistant Dean of the College for Coeducation Karen E. Avery ’87 has been instrumental in reviving Harvard’s institutional commitment to improving racial and intercultural relations on campus. These efforts are in jeopardy now that Avery has announced her resignation.

Last summer Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis ’68, responding to concerns raised by the Student Advisory Committee of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, took an important step in appointing Avery to work with the Race Relations tutors in the Houses. According to Lewis’s “Opening-of-term Greetings” Avery’s mandate was “to foster communication about race relations in the Houses and help respond to racial incidents when they arise.” In doing so, he reaffirmed the University’s commitment to matters pertaining to race on campus.

Under Avery, the Race Relations Tutors program, disorganized after several years without formal guidance, revitalized and transformed into the Race, Culture and Diversity (RCD) Initiative. This joint effort of students, student organizations, Race Relations Tutors and Proctors, the Harvard Foundation and the College administration, aims to proactively promote dialogue about issues of race, as it pertains to issues of culture, nationality, class, gender, religion, sexuality and diversity in general through events coordinated by the RCD committees in the Houses and Yard.

We fear, however, that without the institutional commitment Avery’s appointment represented, the momentum gained this year will be lost as was the case a decade ago. Therefore, we encourage Lewis to fill the void that will be left by her departure by appointing someone who has the expertise and training necessary to proactively ensure the University’s commitment to the RCD Initiative in a manner similar to its past commitments.

In Dec. 1992, a report entitled “Five-Year Overview of the Office of Race Relations & Minority Affairs” was written by Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle, one of Avery’s predecessors. The report noted that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through the Office of Race Relations & Minority Affairs (ORRMA), an extinct structure similar to the RCD Initiative also headed by Hernandez-Gravelle, Harvard dared to be a pioneer in race relations by addressing “the reasons why people did not naturally come together.” However, within a year of Hernandez-Gravelle’s 1992 departure, the office—and the proactive programs it spearheaded—all but disappeared, leaving the Race Relations Tutors as the only vestige from this era.

During its existence, ORRMA addressed the non-celebratory side of race relations and minority affairs, as a complement to Cultural Rhythms, high profile lectures and other multicultural celebrations of the Harvard Foundation. Hernandez-Gravelle decided to “shape the work of the office as one of deep engagement, developing understanding of issues about systematic conflicts that created barriers to diversity.” It is this vision that Harvard realized through its financial and ideological commitment to ORRMA.

This office sponsored dialogue series, publications, conferences and other events that encouraged students to engage in honest and open dialogue in more personal settings, like the Houses. In the spirit of the former ORRMA, the current RCD Initiative’s House/Yard-based-focus allows students to develop understandings that extend beyond the appearance of “appreciation of diversity.” Yet, unlike its antecedent, the RCD Initiative has not been provided with the budget, staff or institutional supports that allowed ORRMA to sponsor its vital programs a decade ago.

Nevertheless, Avery’s commitment to improving race relations has allowed the RCD Initiative to gain momentum in the past few years, with a mass of committed student liaisons and tutors as evidence of its impact and potential. Not since Hernandez-Gravelle’s tenure had this challenging side of diversity received the serious commitment from the University that Avery has expressed through the development of the RCD Initiative. In just one semester, she helped to revitalize the Race-Relations Tutors Program in its pro-active role, to recruit the institutional support of the House Masters, and to collaborate with the Harvard Foundation to formalize the links between these two complementary programs that can heal intercultural relations on campus through celebration and understanding.

We fear that without the institutional commitment that the RCD Initiative merits and the former ORRMA received, the University’s support of this proactive approach to race relations on campus might disappear, as it did after Hernandez-Gravelle’s departure. For the RCD Initiative to continue its success, it will need a stronger commitment from the University—an administrative advisor passionate about this vision, a larger budget from the Dean of the College and the support of the House Masters and Freshman Dean’s Office. Avery has continued the great work that Hernandez-Gravelle began. Let the College not lose sight again of this vision that it has once more begun to realize. As Hernandez-Gravelle advised, “To garner support and stability for a race-relations program, you need to [have] leadership, institutional leadership, with strong convictions.”

Marcel L. Anderson ’03 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Scott A. Rechler ’03 is a social anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House. They are members of the Student Advisory Committee of the RCD Initiative.

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