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Where Idealism and Pragmatism Collide

Robyn M. Minter'91

By Jonathan S. Cohn

Robyn M. Minter speaks the language of idealism.

When the Leverett House senior talks about campus race relations--the issue she has focused on for most of the last four years--she generally means improving attitudes or creating better "communication and feelings" across existing barriers.

Two years ago, Minter helped found an organization to do just that. The result was Actively Working Against Racism and Ethnocentrism (AWARE), a program dedicated to the same ideal of helping students better conquer racial and cultural obstacles in everyday life.

But Minter is not quite the idealist her rhetoric would make her out to be. The casual, almost carefree smile Minter shows the outside world belies a deeper sense of realism about the potential for effecting social reform in 20th Century America, whether on college campuses or in the inner city. Minter holds few illusions about the ability of either her or others to make a difference individually; she expects little in the way of quick, easy change.

"She's a serious person," says Professor of Government Martin Kilson, who has known Minter for nearly four years. "What I mean by that is she has a sense of what is significant in both the life of the mind and the pragmatic world... She's intellectually keen and sharp, and this keenness is tempered by a tremendous pragmatic sensitivity."

Indeed, if Minter manages to hold on to idealism, she does so more out of a desire to find inspiration, and, perhaps, occasional security. Ultimately, Minter--the child of an interracial marriage--says she must be idealistic when it comes to improving interracial and cross-cultural harmony.

As she explains it, "There's no way I can't care about it. If I give myself up to a world like that, where will I fit in? I have to believe there will be a community and a society where people will reach out to each other."

MINTER REMEMBERS confronting racial issues at an early age, and she recalls that her parents bestowed her with a strong sense of African-American identity.

"My parents dealt very openly with those types of questions," Minter recalls. "I was aware of racism, and I was raised with the tools to deal with that. If you have a strong sense of self you can get through a lot of tough situations."

Over the years, Minter says, she has had to face more than her fair share of "tough situations," particularly since biracialism has brought some complications of its own. For instance, during her first year at Harvard, Minter says she and other light-skinned Black women were "harassed and threatened" during a tour of Southern Black colleges with the Harvard-Radcliffe Kuumba singers.

"This painful confrontation forced me to understand in a very personal way the complexity of issues of racial/ethnic identification," she says.

Realizations like that are one reason Minter maintains a skeptic's perspective when it comes to race relations at Harvard. Minter is not one to deny the leaps and bounds by which race relations on campus have improved over the last 10 or 20 years. But she's also not one to overlook lingering attitudes which she says still divide the campus along racial and cultural lines.

"There's a lot of denial about some of the dynamics that exist on Harvard's campus as well as some other campuses," says Minter.

That kind of thinking evolved into AWARE--an organization Minter hopes can "educate all of us in ways in which we develop cross-cultural and cross-racial communication."

Minter eventually became the program's chairperson, and under her direction, AWARE blossomed. Today, it enjoys a high profile on campus even Minter had never quite expected it to achieve.

"I think there's a lot of room to grow," says Minter. "Only this year did we start to achieve the kind of name recognition on campus that is the building block for success."

Still, it takes longer to change attitudes than it does to change institutions, and Minter is the first to admit that "lofty expectations" about the program's potential for short-term success are unlikely to be met.

And Minter has confronted plenty of criticism for trying to promote a program that looks for a middle ground somewhere between meek acceptance of the status quo's evolution and more confrontational social activism. Specifically, AWARE has earned more than a few barbs from critics who claim it is "preaching to the converted." That is, many critics say Harvard students are sufficiently open-minded that racial sensitivity efforts would be better directed elsewhere.

But Minter says racial and ethnic divisions still fester in daily undergraduate life, if only because most students are unwilling to face up to their own ambivalence. It is one thing to disavow intolerance, Minter says; it is quite another to bring it down.

"You may be converted in your heart, but that doesn't mean people are educated in how to do the kind of reaching out across racial and cultural barriers," she says.

There are, Minter admits, plenty of trying moments. "But then," she says, "occasionally there is the exceptionally joyful or rewarding moment that makes it all worthwhile."

For Minter, one such moment came this fall, at the so-called commUNITY picnic, sponsored by AWARE, which attracted some 400 students for an afternoon of food and music.

"That's how you create cross-cultural dialogue," Minter says. "You get people in the same room together to realize they have a lot of common bonds."

Minter says moments like that, along with occasional positive reinforcement from outsiders (she won recognition from In View magazine this year for her social activism), is what keeps her going when times are tough.

ACTUALLY, Minter was planning to disengage from AWARE this fall. She wanted to turn the organization over to its new leadership and direct her attention to other diversions: her involvement with Kuumba singers, and even her academics (although she admits scholastics have never been her top priority at Harvard).

But even as she looked for a quiet exit, the cause beckoned louder than ever. The backlash against the "politically correct" on college campuses, suddenly ascendant in the national media, threatened to destroy much of what she and her cohorts at AWARE had dedicated themselves to achieving.

For Minter, the backlash was nothing new. Indeed, Minter could by the fall already count herself among the first victims of the national attack on the politically correct.

The year before, The New Republic, the weekly national political journal, had run a piece slamming AWARE Week. It was, as Minter recalls today, "a really big blow. It was really difficult to recover from."

Minter and AWARE did recover, and without too much hassle. Today, Minter even views The New Republic piece as a source of strength for her still fledgling organization.

"It made us really step back and see whether there was any truth to their evaluations," Minter says. "We came out of it much stronger--that's as strong as you can get."

But Minter says she is concerned over the extent to which p.c. bashing has become a cause celebre among undergraduates. There are always examples of extreme intolerance, she says.

But from what Minter can see, at least, conservative dissenting voices, like AALARM (Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality), are having no problem making their voices heard. She wonders whether all the clamor over alleged silencing by the left isn't merely masking a still significant level of intolerance and insensitivity throughout American campuses.

That is why Minter feels groups like AWARE still have such an important role in college life. And that is why she lobbied the group to act when a Kirkland House senior flew a Confederate flag out her dormitory window this February.

Minter says she "felt strongly that AWARE had to take a stand on this issue," and, typically, that stand took the form of rallying support from a variety of campus organizations. Looking back, Minter takes pride in the fact that AWARE helped build a coalition of different minority and political groups behind their cause.

It was, perhaps, only a small victory. The flag, after all, never came down. But it was a victory and--to Minter, at least--a source of satisfaction all the same.

MINTER was a government concentrator, who specialized in ethnic politics in America. Last summer, she interned at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, where she lobbied on employment issues relating to disadvantaged and lower-income youth. Now, she's headed for a one-year fellowship in South Africa, where she plans to study race relations, particularly among the nation's mixed race, or "colored," population.

It doesn't take a fortune teller to see that Minter's future lies along the road of social and political activism. But after her experience in Washington last summer, Minter bristles at the thought of pursuing a career in electoral politics.

"I suppose there was one age in which I did have political aspirations," Minter says. But seeing Washington at work "gives you a really unattractive view of what's going on in our nation's capital. I really didn't like what I saw."

Which might be just as well. As someone who is happiest when she can make a tangible difference herself, even on a small scale, Minter says she hopes to return to her community someday.

"I'm a person whose attracted to community-based structures," Minter says. "I like working on a community level."

So after South Africa, and perhaps a brief trip to law school, Minter expects to return to Cleveland. Her parents, who reside in the up-scale Shaker Heights suburb, are prominent civic figures in Cleveland (her mother volunteers for Planned Parenthood and serves on several college boards; her father directs the Cleveland Foundation), and she would like nothing more than to take up where they have left off.

"I was raised very much with the expectation that I'm supposed to be involved with the community," Minter says. "I always envision myself in Cleveland. The community I know is Cleveland."

Cleveland may be just one little corner of the world. But for a reformer who says she is committed to effecting real change--no matter how long it takes--it's as good a starting place as any.

"It's the Minters who ultimately make a difference in globe," Kilson says of his young student. "We're going to need more of them."

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