Lani Guinier '71
@ The Radcliffe Institute, May 27, 2011
Inspired by the legacy of this year's Radcliffe Institute medalist Ela Bhatt, three leading women scholars and practitioners who are pursuing different ways to change the world—alumnae of Radcliffe College, the Radcliffe Institute, or both—gathered to speak about the continuing need for social change in their respective fields.
Panel moderator Swanee Hunt—the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, president of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, and chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security—kicked off the panel with a short anecdote about her own Radcliffe affiliation. "In 1968, I was dying to go to Radcliffe," she said, but her conservative father wouldn't allow her to because, he said, "Radcliffe was run by Communists. Instead, she was sent to Southern Methodist University, which, she recounts, "was also run by Communists, but at least it was 10 minutes from the house." Hunt now works to advance innovative approaches to social change, including inspiring women to political leadership, and will release her third book this fall, Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security. Hunt, who also participated in the recent Institute conference "Driving Change, Shaping Lives: Gender in the Developing World," introduced the panelists, marveling over "the rich range of experience and expertise we have here at this table."
As director of the Center for Adolescent Health & the Law, Abigail English '71, RI '11 focuses on the needs of vulnerable young people, including adolescents' access to comprehensive, affordable health care. This year, she is the Frieda L. Miller Fellow at Radcliffe Institute, where she has been researching sexual exploitation and trafficking of adolescents. Confronting this worldwide problem, she said she is "forced to confront once again the necessity for change and the difficulty in achieving it." She stressed her belief that change will only take place when there is broad public awareness of the problems and active political will to enact change—and that those who want to see change come about must be willing to invest some part of themselves in the struggle, never losing sight of empathy and hope. English is herself willing to make such an investment. "Change is worth working for and possible to achieve," she said. "So I have tried to use this year at the Radcliffe Institute as I tried to use my years at Radcliffe College: to learn about empathy and to change my own life so that I could keep on trying to change the world."
Lani Guinier '71 became the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School and is now Bennett Boskey Professor of Law. Through her work, books, and scholarly writing, Guinier addresses issues of race, gender, and democratic decision-making and seeks new ways of approaching affirmative action. Guinier confessed her cynical tendencies and her wish to temper that cynicism with a healthy dose of hope. Wishing to reconcile the two, she settled on the notion of "leading from behind," espoused by Nelson Mandela, as the theme for her remarks. "The shepherd doesn't stand in front of a flock of sheep and motion the sheep to follow him," she explained; rather he "identifies one or two energetic sheep who are moving in the right direction and then corrals the rest of the flock to follow the leaders." Guinier equated her students with these "leader sheep," and went on to relate anecdotes from her teaching career in which students took the initiative to change a status quo they deemed unacceptable. "Social change really comes from identifying young, energetic spirits who are moving in the right direction," said Guinier. "Although I have not been successful in corralling the rest of the flock, let me assure you."
Nancy E. Hill RI '11 is the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She researches cultural, economic, and community influences on family socialization patterns that shape child and adolescent development, helping to identify policy and program interventions that enhance children's chances of reaching their potential. Hill echoed assertions by both earlier panelists that the more things change, the more they stay the same. "We haven't given up on change," she said "We're just frustrated with the change we haven't seen—or the change that we're seeing that isn't happening quickly enough." After some sobering facts about the achievement gap suffered by African American and Latino children, Hill concluded that these children are underequipped. She asserted that the way to remedy this is to actively identify and remove any biases we may have and, in this way, see and articulate change. "Sometimes treating people equally means treating them differently and giving them what they need so that they can reach their potential."
The ensuing conversation—which at times sparked lively debate—touched on themes of collective intelligence; collaboration versus individual credit; and the place of icons within social movements. Ultimately, however, the question of the day seemed to be what people in the audience could personally do to effect change. Hill encouraged attendees to go back to their communities and make personal connections, stressing that change occurs "one kid at a time." English closed with an exhortation, encouraging audience members to spend just five minutes a month on simple activism or awareness-raising activities.