Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD
As our 50th Bryn Mawr reunion rolled around many of us were stunned to realize that it had been that long. And so of course reflections began. And, not surprisingly they took a political slant. When our class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 we had all sorts of rules about attire (skirts for class), social life (no boys in rooms and curfews), ladylike behavior (tea time, meals served by African American maids.) When we left in ’68 all that was gone. We were the class that came in already involved in antiwar and civil rights activities. We came in on a wave of Beatles music and were the generation of peace and love. We marched, we fasted, we attended teach-ins. Some of us were radical in our activities and some of us interned for legislators as I did for Bobby Kennedy. Our second month on campus we were taking part, as a campus, in election activities working phones to take returns from various Philadelphia precincts. This was not everyone for sure, but enough to make a real mark on the campus culture. And our activities made a mark on us.
In the run up to reunion several of us were talking about then and now. How the Parkland students, and the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter all represent things we were doing fifty years ago. For some of us our grandchildren were marching with us in opposition to gun violence, or for women’s rights (we had been there at the beginning of the women’s movement too) or to preserve the rights of Black and Brown people being harassed at every turn.
So we thought it would be interesting to have a panel discussion at reunion to share our experience, stimulate discussion and action, and to hopefully encourage and empower those students in classes behind ours to be engaged. The college liked the idea as a launch into reunion weekend. They had one stipulation that there be an alumnus from a younger class who would moderate the panel from a different generational perspective. And so my stepdaughter Maratea, class of ’89 was chosen.
She was perfect. She is a staunch activist herself, coming from a family of activists including my father the late Civil Rights leader, Whitney Young and her own dad, my late husband Francesco, who was a corporate change agent for 40 years. She came to the panel wearing her “Nasty Woman” t-shirt and armed with shirts she had worn to various protests and the remaining pussyhats left over from the dozens she had knit and sold to benefit Planned Parenthood.
What she elicited from us was a discussion of how our becoming “woke” during our college years shaped our entire lives. One classmate was part of the Weather Underground for several years after graduation until pregnancy led her back home to Seattle and a nursing career followed by a marriage that led her to embrace her unwavering political views through thoughtful philanthropy. Another two went on to law school with one being in the forefront of thought on sexual discrimination and the other a labor lawyer who cut her teeth taking on textile unions in the south. And I was the fourth with a career that began with engagement in corporate responsibility work and then higher education focusing on enhancing the experiences of students of color. None of us lost our activist tendencies and all have passed on the germ to our children and now theirs.
However we all feel that it is not about us anymore. We want to see our children and theirs doing what we did. We take heart in the Parkland students. We want to see the young people who came out for Obama and Bernie Sanders do it again. We want to see local engagement. For us making changes on our campus – helping the Black maids and porters who served us to move to jobs of more meaning and responsibility and less subservience was local engagement in change. We obviously took it further as we left campus. But we each found our niche causes to give focus to. We hope that while some of us have aching joints and replaced knees and hips, younger folks will do the heavy lifting of door to door canvassing. We are encouraged to see women, including others from Bryn Mawr, running for office and that people who are very young are giving it a shot. We have had some legislators and judges among our classmates and some mayors among other college alumni. If the 60s represented our moment then this is another time for youth activism supported by the same kinds of folks, whether Pete Seeger or Pauli Murray who were pioneers raising voices and supporting us. Everywhere there should be folks like Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez breaking into the ranks of local politics but supported by women like, Bryn Mawr alumna, veteran politician Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges. Our classmate Drew Faust leaves her role as Harvard President with four new Black women deans in place. We can support driving change in all kinds of ways.
At the end of our panel discussion we gave out a list of source material—bloggers, organizations, news forums that we found to be balanced (well maybe, nuanced to the left of center…) and credible. We encouraged people to read and speak up and “share truth to power.”
But comes the downside. There are those who feel betrayed by the fact that, in their minds and experience, the Democratic party did not go far enough during the Obama years. On the other hand many who voted for the President did not vote during the midterms and gave away a legislative majority that could have done far more. Once upon a time we taught Civics in elementary schools so that folks understood how it all worked and our own roles in the process but those courses are gone now. So people do not understand the political process. (Interestingly on our reunion panel three of us were Political Science majors and one did Anthropology.) When we, Black folks, were fighting for the right to vote in the south in the 1960s we understood every nuance with the fervor of those with a vested interest. But when the focus of one’s life has to be on just surviving it is hard to muster the will and energy to engage in fickle political action. Many disillusioned voters reacted against the “establishment”, represented by Hillary Clinton, or so they thought in the 2016 election but instead ended up entrenching powerful forces who do not have at heart the things that are truly on the minds of most citizens who are not wealthy. Many more, including people of color, did not vote at all.
So the powerless remain powerless. Unless we go old school again. One of the things that most impacted me during the 60’s was the “Teach In” where on campuses faculty and others met students outside class hours to teach us about the Vietnam war. This was important to me in a special way. My dad was civil rights leader Whitney Young. Daddy was a WWII veteran and thought about the troops who were there. Many of these troops were Black men who had no way to avoid the draft. He did not want to demean their service by speaking in opposition to the war. He traveled to Vietnam twice to show his support for these Black enlisted men and, as a veteran, he always wore military fatigues on these visits to hospitals and barracks. His position was also made tricky by his ties to the Johnson administration. He was the voice and force behind Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which incorporated much of what daddy had articulated as a Domestic Marshall Plan referring to the rebuilding of Western Europe after WWII using US aid. Daddy got Johnson on board with his ideas of domestic investment in the poor and blighted neighborhoods. He did not want to upset that relationship. So when he found himself on a dais at a dinner sitting with McGeorge Bundy, the Under Secretary of State, rather than stating any views of his own on the war he used me as proxy. He told Bundy what his Bryn Mawr daughter thought. Then after the dinner he introduced me to Bundy as the daughter whose views he had shared. Then daddy walked off. He left me to continue to share all I had learned in my campus teach ins. (Many years later my husband and I met Bundy at a dinner and told him that story and to his credit he responded… “And history proved you right.” ) The point is I had become informed about the issues on campus outside classroom hours.
There is evidence that when the poor or low-income folks mobilize they often win. The numbers are in their favor. And there are issues out there that relate to poverty threats like health care, criminalization of petty crimes, disparities in educational systems and access with its implications for work, technology as a threat to work, the environmental crisis impacting weather and quality of life, and the elephant in the room (pun intended)— income disparity counter to the whole vision of the American dream.
If the young took it upon themselves to disseminate information that is balanced and easy to understand that alone would be helpful if that is done along with clear awareness of where candidates stand locally, on local issues. Then maybe another shift could occur. We of the old guard would be happy to teach in community forums or craft materials that are clear and balanced to disseminate in the old school door to door, neighbor to neighbor way. Social media may not be the only or best way to proceed especially given threats of tampering. Operating intergenerationally, we might just do something to preserve what we say we believe our national values to be.
However such a strategy also means crossing lines of race, income, age, or gender to find allies. If we look at the photos taken at the various marches for women, or in opposition to gun violence or in opposition to punitive immigration policies we see an amalgam of people of all ages, gender orientation, ethnicities. We can do this. We did it 50 years ago and then fumbled the ball and let the bad guys win. We need to do it again.