Minority Groups Now Use Subtler Tactics

Student Leaders Work to Change Harvard Stereotypes

On April 30, seven disabled students staged a "crawl-in" at North Station. To prove that greater accessibility is necessary for disabled users of mass transportation, the seven proceeded to "crawl" onto an inaccessible bus. Rani Kronick '84, president of A Better Learning Environment (ABLE), who participated in the crawl-in, says that her group faces a large job just educating the Harvard community of the problems of being disabled in a largely able-bodied society. "Harvard has been white, male, upper class and able bodied for the last 350 years," she adds.

As minority groups at Harvard consider tactics they inevitably revert to this archetypal view of the Harvard man. "Male," says the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS). "White," say the Black Students Association (BSA) and La Raza, the Chicago students group. "Upper class," says the William J. Seymour Society, a Black fundamentalist Christian group concerned with issues of economic equality. "Heterosexual," says the Gay Students Association (GSA). What these groups have in common, says RUS President Sharon J. Orr '83, is that "Harvard doesn't understand."

How a group sets out to make Harvard "understand" depends a lot on the group. Few students seem to relish the idea of planning a massive protest, or, for that matter, a crawl-in. Last year those with the power or means to accomplish their goals through a little quiet lobbying seemed more than willing to resort only to that.

Of protests, Orr says, "We tend not to, simply because we don't have to--we have Radcliffe, and we have the alumni." RUS has a strong body of alumni who share many of its general concerns, she says. It is "always a real rush," she adds, to receive letters from alumni who have read of an RUS goal in Second Century, the Radcliffe publication, and write, "Here's a copy of the letter I sent to President Bok."

Orr says that when she lobbies administrators on women's issues, they are always attentive. "People here, no matter who they are, are willing to listen to you if you speak well and know what you're talking about," she says. "Politics at Harvard is based a lot on personal contacts--who you know, who you get to know, and what kind of impression you make on them."


But for other groups it isn't as easy. "I'd say we don't have a lot of friends at University Hall," GSA vice-president Jonathan Handel '82 says. He notes that one dean told him that "most of University Hall feels the same way" as Edward L. Pattullo, director of the Harvard Center for Behavioral Sciences, who last May wrote a letter to the Harvard Independent endorsing "negative societal pressures" to discourage homosexuality.

"When you have an audience that isn't very receptive anyway, you have to be very clear," GSA President J. French Wall '83 says, adding that GSA's lobbying and protests are often not received as positively as the actions of other minority groups. Wall notes that when 10,000 copies of a letter signed by the class marshals and calling for a University non-discrimination policy were distributed at Commencement two years ago no reference to this was made in Harvard Magazine, which did mention a similar protest about El Salvador.

Most groups, however, seem to fall somewhere between these two extremes. Lacking the power of RUS's alumni constituency and friends, but also lacking GSA's entrenched opposition, they design their tactics accordingly. In fact, the BSA's biggest obstacle may be the seemingly decreased urgency of the issues confronting Blacks on campus. BSA President Curtis Hairston '84 says that there has been a decline in the old and "obvious" issues. The battle for a third world student center, which rallied many minorities two years ago was resolved with the formation of the race-relations Foundation. The struggle to strengthen the Afro-American Studies Department has lost some of its freshness, Hairston concedes, saying, "Of course issues are going to lose their interest after a while."

Hairston portrays the last year--during which the BSA was unusually quiet--as a time of confusion and fatigue. "After the events of last spring as far as the third world center and the birth of the race-relations Foundation, people were just unsure of where to go from there," he says. When he heads up the organization this fall, Hairston says he will be working to show Black students that "there are plenty of issues here," pointing out that since many of them "aren't as salient, they have to be brought out" by the BSA leadership.

The period after the loss of the third world center battle also saw some confusion in the Puerto Rican student community, says Susan R. Morales '82, a founder of the Committee for Puerto Rican Student Concerns, which last year displaced La Organization, the long-standing Puerto Rican student group which Morales calls "not very functional." El Committee, as the group calls itself, has not been in the forefront of many political battles this year but has instituted a program of support for Puerto Rican students at Harvard. The group has concentrated on issues of academic and concentration counseling, Morales says, adding that it has printed a weekly newsletter, which it has distributed to the 80 to 90 Puerto Rican undergraduates. But even on a political issue like the student constitution--against which third world student leaders hoped to build a minority consensus--Morales concedes that the "committee never took a formal position." She adds, however, that "some people were involved individually."

But while many groups have become somewhat less political this past year, Kronick says a "real attack on legislation for the disabled, and particularly disabled students" has forced ABLE to use political tactics for the first time ever. In addition to the North Station demonstration and crawl-in--which most ABLE students missed because of exam period--ABLE sent a large contingent to a local appearance of Vice President George Bush, who has been prominent in Reagan Administration efforts to dismantle the regulations that have insured many rights of the disabled. ABLE has also led a postcard drive to urge the U.S. Senate to protect rights of the disabled, although Kronick says that the group, which consists of about eight active members lobbying for a University community of about 40, "doesn't have the manpower to table in all of the houses."

But even as the national political climate has forced ABLE to become more political, Kronick says the organization cannot afford to stray far from its function of solving the problems of particular disabled students in their existence in the Harvard community. ABLE continues to work on the bread-and-butter issues of disabled student life--transportation to classes, getting classes moved to accessible rooms when necessary and the like. In doing this, quiet lobbying is usually a sufficient technique, Kronick says. Although the group has counseled people on filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she says ABLE first tries to achieve its goals by "giving Harvard the opportunity to show itself." Before ABLE launches a full-scale protest or goes to the press, Kronick says the group always approaches the University administration directly.

A common problem faced by most minority groups is a rift between juniors and seniors and younger members of the group who, the older ones contend, don't yet understand the history of minority groups on campus. Thus they tend to be somewhat more "conservative" than many upperclass members. In the Asian American Association (AAA), for example, president Andrew Ting '83 says that last year freshmen turned out in large numbers at AAA meetings, and tended to vote more conservatively than the older members. Ting says this is a major reason the AAA did not join most groups last spring in urging a "no" vote on the student constitution.

But most leaders say that this particular bunch is not any more inherently conservative on minority issues--just less familiar with them. "You get a lot more harassment at the freshman union for gay tables than even at Kirkland House," Wall says, adding, "They're fresh out of high school." Ting says that this conservatism among freshman is to be expected and that he changed his own mind on many issues just by talking with upperclassmen.

A more formidable obstacle for many groups is the number of potential members who choose not be active in groups representing them. "A lot of Asians don't want to have anything to do with us," Ting says, adding, "A lot of them feel, 'my parents are making it, and I want to make it too,'" and worry only about their schoolwork and careers. Former American Indians at Harvard (AIH) president Charlene A very '82 says that in the past two years, when she served as co-president of AIH, she was continually coming up against what she called "computer Indians": students who receive special attention in the admissions process because of their Indian heritage, but once on campus "refuse to recognize you on the street" if you are promoting Indian student interests. For a variety of reasons, primarily financial, an Indian community at Harvard of about 20 will be further reduced this year. Only three American Indians of six applicants--both new lows--were admitted last spring, and AIH must hope that all of these young students become active for the group to continue to function effectively, Avery says.

This question of how representative a minority organization actually is crops up frequently in discussions of the BSA's constituency. While asserting that "we're not a splinter group from anything," Seymour Society President Jacqueline Cooke '83 admits that there remains "an atmosphere of bitterness" between her group and the BSA since the spring of '81, when members of the Seymour Society picketed outside a cabaret the BSA was holding for Malcolm X weekend. Although the Seymour Society cannot compete in numbers--Cooke estimates its active membership at about 15, just a 10th of the turnout in the election that made Hairston BSA president--it has served as an effective gadfly by insisting that Black Harvard students maintain strong ties with poor Blacks in Boston and around the nation. They have often been effective in their more visible techniques--including a rally last spring in opposition to Senate Bill S. 1630, a proposed revision to the Federal criminal code that the society considers repressive. That rally brought over 200 protesters to the Yard, a turnout made possible by the wide-ranging endorsements the society obtained, including the endorsement of the BSA.

Many minority groups are realizing the possible advantages of getting alumni support along the lines of RUS. A group like the BSA is severely limited by the fact that Blacks have only been graduating from Harvard in large numbers since 1977, so their alumni pool is still relatively small and young. But Hairston says he anticipates a larger role for Black alumni this fall, noting that "most student organizations get a lot of their funding" from alumni. A recently formed group of Black alumni supporting Afro-American Studies has begun to exert some pressure on the University to continue its backing for the department.

The GSA is currently forming Harvard University Gays (HUG), a group of alumni who will help in funding and lobbying efforts. Gay alumni were instrumental in the production of Lavender-Portfolio, a new gay literary journal, Wall says, adding that alumni contributed some funds, and took care of the offsetting. The alumni group held a dinner last year for graduating gay students and their parents and have two fundraisers scheduled for this year, Wall says, adding that he thinks alumni contributions may reach $50,000 this year when the group obtains non-profit status.

If the groups share one overriding tactic, it is probably just educating the wider public about their particular viewpoint in an attempt to dispell myths about the groups. La Raza, the Chicano group, held a series of cultural celebrations last year, primarily to introduce the Harvard community to Chicano culture, Patricia Corrales '84, a member of the group's steering committee, says. ABLE is working on a slide and video presentation to be shown in the Science Center this fall, dispelling myths about the disabled perpetuated in the popular culture. And the GSA again last year held Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day (GLAD) to change some stereotypes. "What we're trying to do with things like GLAD is to get people to talk about it," GLAD co-chair Jenny Rudolph '84 says, adding, "I don't care whether what they say is good or bad--at least it gets people's minds ticking."

To a large extent, minority groups seem to see their role as just that--getting people's minds ticking about groups in a way they have not thought of them before. Every time RUS lobbies for a change in treatment for women, or disabled students hold a crawl-in, slowly but surely they are chipping away at the archetypal--but increasingly inaccurate--view of Harvard as 350 years of everything they are not.