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Seeking Social Equity, He Keeps Integrity First

Anthony Romano

By Spencer S. Hsu

One morning last summer Anthony Romano '90 sat in a Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) office, dispirited and ill after a camping trip with 20 Southeast Asian refugee children.

One youth had caught pneumonia. Another had gone berserk and required evacuation. A Vietnam veteran had stalked the mountain camp, threatening the youngsters.

An exhausted Romano, recalls Huyen Pham'92, took an early morning phone call from a young girl in the group. "She called and asked, `Anthony, are we going to see you today?' He said no, he was sick that day." Pham remembers. "She said, `What's wrong?' And he told her, `I don't know, I have to go to a doctor and see what she says.'"

"I think to myself, he doesn't have a doctor who's a woman. So I ask him and he says no, he doesn't." Pham marvels that Romano, amid his troubles, thought to find the little girl a role model. "To think of the impact one conversation could have, [so that] that little girl could think there was this woman who was a doctor...That's incredible."

The story of Anthony Romano, last year's PBHA president, cannot be understood without acknowledging the earnestness of his response. To his friends, Romano remains steadfast in his convictions about social equity, but conveys them with a seriousness that refutes any charge of triviality.

And for a young man raised in the prosperous white suburbs of Atlanta, this emergence as the leader of the University's largest social service organization has represented no small leap in social conscience--it is a metamorphosis for which Harvard typically seeks credit, but one that is far less common than its promoters would acknowledge.

To meet Romano is to discover a puzzle of contradictions in one persona. Raised in a Sephardic Jewish household, he also grew up comfortable in, and very much a product of, the South. An up-Close observer of de facto segregation's ugliness during his early schooling in Atlanta, Romano leaves Harvard this fall committed to a teaching program in rural South Africa.

At Harvard, he led the most politically sensitive student organization, while living in the College's most conservative house--Eliot House. It is a place which he himself criticizes as "racist, sexist, homophobic."

"Yeah, he's a mixed combination," says Silchen Ng '89, a close friend who co-directed PBHA fundraising with Romano in 1988.

"He knows what people like, what makes you tick," says Fidel A. Vargas '90, a PBHA steering committee member for two years and an associate of Romano. "He sort of comes at you from different directions."

Just as his background blends a Southern gentility with Judaic intellectual rigor, Romano presents an amiability that offsets his willingness to make sharp moral judgments. He retains the capacity for a mature rebuttal of selfinterest among the privileged while he himself is a product of middle-class comfort. And although his collegiate career has led him to oversee the work of 1000 volunteers in 38 committees, Romano remains most comfortable plotting and executing one-on-one community work with the children of Boston's housing projects and tenements.

At times it is an uneasy tension. Tempering Romano's success has been a trail of controversy at PBHA, in which political division tore apart an executive board--and Romano's administration. Some of his ideological opponents question Romano's ability to accept error, to justify his moral conviction against intellectual opposition. Yet friend and foe agree that Romano has grown used to placing integrity over diplomacy.

Romano joined PBHA at the height of a programming expansion spurred by Reagan-era funding cuts in local service agencies. As a sophomore, he took responsibility for the agency's fledgling fundraising operations, helping account for 75 percent of its gifts in fiscal year 1987 and 80 percent in 1988. That same year he co-founded a service program targeted at the children of Asian refugees in Boston. For four years he was a big brother to a child of Cambridge's housing projects.

But midway through Romano's tenure, the PBHA executive board splintered in a bitter debate over a staff member's attempted diversion of $150 to the campaign of Cambridge politician and PBHA alumnus, Kenneth E. Reeves '72. The conflict soon expanded into a test for Romano's boundless optimism and even his occasionally ponderous confidence.

Accusations of wrongdoing paralyzed the board and Romano, who believed that the payment was improper, became factionalized and isolated for what he says was the first time of his life. He lost control of the administration and failed to find a path out of the crisis.

His lack of an intellectual approach, of the adequate political equipment to deal with the new issues, became subject to attack.

"He's not this big social theorist," says Rosa Ehrenreich '92, Romano's successor as PBHA president. "In the debate that emerged, everyone got upset and Anthony--kind of in keeping with his style--he decides what is right, and...it's unlikely that anything will change his mind. Even now he feels he was right."

"It's not that a lot of people don't think he's a great guy, but he was wrong," she says.

Romano himself agrees after a manner. "I was good ol' affable Anthony. I myself had a lot to do with [the problem]...but you have to stand up to defend your position without alienating people. Obviously I wasn't able to do that."

"He felt like it had to be done but not necessarily the way he did it," says Ng. "He wasn't able to stand aside and let something that he thought was unfair go uncriticized. I think it hurt him being in that kind of position."

She concludes," Yes it's been difficult but I think he's learned a lot from it. He tried to carry on his administration despite these difficulties. I don't think PBH got worse because of it. PBH got better."

Romano appears to be a man of senatorial affability--an earnest gladhander who loves to greet strangers and to seek out their motivations. With a lanky frame that easily tops six feet and a genial, syrupy Southern drawl, he is given to wide, simple, declarative gestures.

The Georgia native typically slips into the manner of a practiced but informal public speaker, adopting a rock-steady, straight-ahead gaze when thinking--he never loses his train of thought. And not far from sight is a disarming grin, shot through with the confidence imparted by youthful success and good schooling.

"He likes people," Ehrenreich says simply. "He's not a cynical person. He's someone who can be very caring...[who] can be directly affected by someone's who's unhappy."

"The fact that so many people can say that about him shows it," Ng says. "He likes to talk; anyone he can nail, he'll talk to. And his vision comes out in what he says."

He is quick to apologize for his school-boy achievements, which he sees as naive and very much removed from real-world conflicts of class and race. A scholar, student leader and athlete at Atlanta's Briarcliffe High, Romano was known among friends outside of school as "Rabbi" for his mastery of the Torah and "setting all kinds of records" at his temple.

But at Harvard something changed.

"Somewhere in my four years as a Harvard student I realized I was hugely ignorant, and I realized the value of finding you're ignorant [because] it's only at that point that you start to learn," Romano says.

The turning point came his first year, when Romano began what became a four-year-long relationship with a Puerto Rican youth living in Cambridge's Roosevelt Rowers housing project. The encounter led to a flowering of sensitivity for Romano at Harvard.

When Romano talks about Jerry, one can see his eyes wander and his mind turn inward. Known as a trouble maker, Jerry was nearly a street tough at age nine. The child of a single, non-working mother, the boy's life introduced a different universe to Romano.

"Jerry as known as a tough, one of the cool kids. In his neighborhood it's cool to be very tough. It's cool even to be in gang fights sometimes...In his neighborhood, studying doesn't get you too far. In fact, studying would probably get you into trouble and ridiculed.

"He knows that to get a decent job he has to go to college, he also knows down deep that the odds are stacked against him going to college. But he also feels, 'If I'm not able to protect myself, I'm not going to make it.'.. That's a huge contradiction."

Romano confronted such contradictions again in the Boston tenements that house relocated refugee families from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, Families crowding 10 people into one apartment, and children with no place to study, responsible for chores of cooking and caring for younger siblings, defied his expectations.

"It began suprising me when they did study," Romano says of the Children. "They may have had flashbacks, they have been thinking of their mother or father in a refugee camp...It's not a proper assumption that kids recieve a lot of love and attention."

Romano scorns those who convince themselves by reason or argument that social problems do not exist, or are intractable without the self-help of its victims. "If they intellectualize it to that point, why go out into the community?" Romano asks. "They already know all the answers.

For Romano, academic understanding, book-learning, is not sufficient either. "I don't think it's enough to intellectualize it. By nature, it's second-hand and it's fiction."

Instead, his dogma is simple. He has little patience for those who refuse to acknowledge the struggle and suffering that dog the lives of human beings everyday throughout America's cities.

"How do you dispel [the illusion]? Simply go out into the environment and see that it's not universal to have opportunity, to have the resources you do, the great school system or a supportive environment, For them to do what you do they have to go against the grain just to go to school.

"I feel that my talents and success are not a product of my own self but a product of my environment, and I want to use the talents I have in a socially constructive way. I see myself as a tool that can be used the in the best way possible to improve the world."

Recalling with rancor a speech by a Harvard alumnus to newly admitted Atlanta high schoolers, Romano says, "He said, these people are the `creme de la creme of our society.' Now all of us have heard that, that this group of people are a lot better because they did everything themselves."

"Look," he says with a touch of exasperation and a hint of dogmatism to classmates, "you're here because you had a lot of advantages and a supportive environment to get here...and because of what you've been given you have a duty to do something with it."

Anthony Romano borrows the language of his cause from courses in his concentration of Social Anthropology, plus academic work on the civil rights movement, a seminar with Robert Coles '50 and Afro-American Studies classes on social justice. But the combination is uniquely Romano's, reinforced by a certain down-home common sense.

Described as "the most pessimistic idealist," or as an "optimistic pragmatist" by acquaintances, Romano seems to understnad that the secret to a moral philosophy lies in its contradictions and occasional inconsistencies. He firmly holds that the guide to the right often depends more on one's heart and turn of mind than on doctrine and sometimes even reason--and that in any case hands-on experience refutes feelings of helplessness or passivity.

"You start by asking, `Is there inequity in our society?' I think there is. That question for many is never asked. If it were asked, there's the potential that some people will work for a better society.

"I believe community service is one way to do that. I believe that the hands-on way is the sure-fire way...but people see it as only potentially bringing bad things to their lives. They see their lives as set. [Social work to them means] more guilt, more responsibility, them having to change their comfortable lives."

Mining through Romano's beliefs at times reveals nuggets of popular Harvard folklore laced with hard truths. One must strip away impurities of passion, but the message remains consistent.

"I don't feel confident about this class that's graduating," Romano states matter-of-factly. "I feel confident that a lot of them will obtain positions of power and influence, but I don't feel that they're going to do a lot of good." The judgment sounds harsh, but it is a familar one and not without common affirmation.

"I get the feeling that undergraduates graduate with a sense of materialism and self-centeredness, of not giving back anything to their communities," he says, naming his own Eliot House as an example. "I expect Harvard to create an environment that will expect everyone to ask, `Why am I here and what am I expected to do?' Harvard has failed if people are not leaving Harvard socially conscious."

"To me that's the Core, asking what the hell should you be doing?" says Romano, referring to the heart of the undergraduate curriculum. "You're at Harvard, do you have any responsibility? To me that's the ultimate Core."

For Romano, the issues are clear, and only his future course of action remains to be set. Ahead lies a summer job with an Atlanta social agency and then South Africa.

"All I ask is that people think about these things, and at one point question themselves," he explains. At Harvard there is a choice of how one gets an education and an obligation, he explains. "Influence and power carry some responsibilities, and that's the assumption I work with."

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