Revisiting Bryn Mawr

"After I left the College, both race and gender became primary causes for me as a divorced Black woman navigating the corporate world."

My life has changed dramatically since I left Bryn Mawr. In the piece I wrote for the Bulletin after graduation, I noted that I was grateful that the College had given me freedom to discover and be myself, not bounded by my racial or even gender identity. Being a kick-ass woman seemed to be a given for Bryn Mawr women, and my classmates were on the rebel path in the '60s. I had the advantage of family role models who broke the molds for their fields. The intersection of race and the Vietnam War made that an important issue for me while at Bryn Mawr. After I left the College, both race and gender became primary causes for me as a divorced Black woman navigating the corporate world.

I wrote a memo during my corporate responsibility role at Avon that uncovered the liabilities of the firm in pay and advancement policies for women and people of color. And a bunch of us got raises. I think, though, that my sense that I had the right to write such a memo came from the empowerment I had gained at the College. I think my class was particularly feisty, asking tough questions and shaking things up. The maids/porters issue was a problem the College had to face. We pushed back on other archaic rules and practices and soon could dress as we wanted, and we waited tables, and no one asked about our comings and goings.

I ended up in the corporate world doing corporate responsibility work, which is how I met my second husband, Francesco Cantarella. We were/are an interracial family, and my stepdaughter Maratea Cantarella ’89 benefited from the legacy recommendation that I wrote for my white stepdaughter. I was also among the slim ranks of Black women in corporate America. Bryn Mawr gave me the exposure and the skillsets that made my work possible. I was not uncomfortable in predominantly white spaces or afraid to ask tough questions even though they might have been politically questionable in another time.

Once in higher education, I was asked to lead a group of Black and Hispanic students to assure that they adapted and graduated. When I began to assert what I thought they should do, the students pushed back. Then I remembered myself at their age pushing back against the administration. I backed off and gave them the power to run the program as they thought it should be. Again, it was a reference to my Bryn Mawr years that was helpful, if only to remind me that those years were when I was in the company of classmates, like Kit Bakke, Liz Schneider, or Drew Faust, interested in changing the College experience and the world beyond. My leadership style came directly from my courses with Peter Bachrach, who preached the power of a participatory democracy. That extends to my concern that Black folks be represented where decisions are made. I am continuing to work with young people of color and engaging with my former students to get them to know that they have voice and important things to say and do. I learned that at Bryn Mawr.


This issue of the Alumnae Bulletin presents reflections from Black alumnae/i and students spanning 65 years in the life of the College.

 

Marcia Young Cantarella ’68, Ph.D. (political science major), was a corporate executive who became a college dean. Author of I CAN Finish College, she consults and speaks to students and programs regarding the challenges around college success and graduation. She is the daughter of civil rights leader Whitney Young, who was her BMC commencement speaker.