Until meeting Allen Counter, my impression of diversity at Harvard was shaped by the comment of a Crimson editor on my press release announcing the launch of the Irish Cultural Society.
“What are you going to do?” he said, scanning the document. “Sit around and drink?”
It was the fall of 1985. Anti-apartheid protests on campus stirred debate. In the swirl of events, ethnic identity fed not divisions but common ground—showing the possibility of many coming together around a single cause.
As the son of an Irish immigrant mother, I appreciated Harvard’s decision to take a chance on me. Its generous financial aid made my education possible. But accepting someone into the club isn’t the same as embracing the new member. Elite institutions have a way of making it clear you must bend your cultural ethos to meet their norms.
The derision I encountered at the Crimson seemed to embody this uncomfortable truth, but only momentarily. By a stroke of good fortune, I wound up the next day in the office of Dr. S. Allen Counter, head of the recently formed Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Counter, a neuroscientist who grew up in the segregated South and survived brutal racist incidents as a child, at that time ran the foundation from the basement of University Hall. The small office nourished a simple idea: that every student, and his or her culture, was welcome not only to attend Harvard but also to contribute to the community. It was an ideal embraced by the president and deans of Harvard when they established the Harvard Foundation to “improve relations among racial and ethnic groups within the University and to enhance the quality of our common life.” And it is an ideal embodied by Allen Counter, whom University President Derek C. Bok appointed as the Foundation’s Director in 1981.
By that stage of his career, Counter had already conducted pioneering excursions into the rainforests of South America to seek out tribes descended from escaped African slaves. While providing support to the fledgling Irish Cultural Society, he was laying the groundwork for a journey to Greenland to follow up on reports of the abandoned sons of Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson living in remote Inuit communities.
Counter has won public acclaim for his expeditions as well as his work to bring inspiring speakers to Harvard, such as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by Taliban insurgents for having the audacity to suggest that girls should have a right to education.
But amidst all the medals and citations, Dr. Counter’s enduring legacy will be the students touched by his kindness and those he urged to believe in themselves and value their heritage. With his guidance and support, the Irish Cultural Society flourished, hosting discussions and presenting plays, poetry readings, evenings of Celtic music, and Irish step dancing. Two of the speakers Dr. Counter helped bring to the club, John Hume and Seamus J. Heaney, later went on to win Nobel Prizes.
One of the students I met through the foundation was Rosie G. Rios ’87, a first-generation Mexican-American raised by a single mom in a household of nine children. As a freshman in 1983, she found a safe harbor for the Latina dance group Balleto Folklorico under Counter’s wing. She helped launch the foundation’s Cultural Rhythms celebration in her junior year.
“The whole idea of Cultural Rhythms was less about asserting identity than freedom of expression in celebrating differences—it was a collective experience of many cultures coming together through music and dance,” says Rios. “You come to a place like Harvard and no one looks like you or expresses culture in the same way. Dr. Counter’s work on Cultural Rhythms personifies his belief in students and his liberating influence on their talents.”
Rios isn’t hard to find these days. As Treasurer of the United States, her signature appears on U.S. currency. For every undergrad helped by Counter who went on to prominence, like Native American activist Winona LaDuke ’82 or violinist Lynn Chang ’75 (who, at Counter’s request, performed at the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony for the absent Chinese laureate Liu Xiaobo), there are hundreds of others living quieter lives who have carried Counter’s humanitarian message into their communities and careers.
The famed Explorers Club recently presented Counter with its highest honor, the Lowell Thomas Award, in recognition of his extraordinary scientific expeditions to remote corners of the world. To me, his expeditions into the realms of cultural understanding and expression in Harvard Yard are the greater achievement.
Sean T. Brady ’89, HLS ’92, is a Managing Director at Credit Suisse in New York.