Yale People

Alum returns for 50th reunion in search of conversation

Barney Brawer ’69 B.A.
Barney Brawer ’69 B.A.

Barney Brawer ’69 B.A. has spent much of his life trying to make sense of some of the most pressing issues facing humanity — racism, climate change, educational access. Nearly 30 years ago, he collected his thoughts into a personal manifesto called “It’s Our Turn: What We Owe Future Generations” (PDF), available on a website for his educational platform, the National Classroom. The statement calls on Baby Boomers to replace “learned helplessness” with education, innovation, and action.  

Now, approaching his 50th reunion at Yale and retired from an administrative role in public education, Brawer finds himself wondering what legacy he and his classmates have left. He is eager to talk to the current generation of students, to learn from them, and to share what wisdom he and others might gain from the benefit of hindsight.

The great wheel of life is coming around again. We are in the same kind of era of turmoil and division that characterized the ’60s and early ’70s at Yale,” Brawer says. “The path forward now is unclear, as it was then. The big questions remain:  Have we learned anything? Do we have any wisdom to share, or new lessons to learn?”

On May 30 and 31, at the beginning of the first Yale reunion weekend, Brawer is inviting Yale students, alumni, and community members to talk with him and other members of his class in an informal event at Dwight Hall called “Perspectives 2019.” Noting that there will be a five-minute timer to give everyone a chance to speak, Brawer says, “Our goal is to have conversations that are different than the kinds of arguments we’re having with our relatives over Thanksgiving dinner.”

When Brawer came to Yale from New Jersey in 1964, he says, he arrived unsure about his decision to attend Yale and conscious of the ideological divisions among the undergraduate men. “When you walked into the dining room at Silliman,” Brawer says, “on one side were the guys in secret societies and the football players, and on the other side were the activists and hippies.” Former President George W. Bush ’68 B.A. was a classmate, as was activist Mark Zanger ’71 B.A., who led the Yale chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Brawer joined the activists, and found his home at Dwight Hall. He credits his mentor Herbert Cahoon Jr. with “saving” him and many other students by introducing them to the New Haven community outside Yale’s walls.

Cahoon led the Yale Volunteer Services and more than tripled the number of Yale students involved in community service, from 300 in 1960 to more than 1,000 in 1982. “He sent us out to tutor kids on Dixwell Avenue and in the Hill neighborhood,” Brawer says. “Dwight Hall was a place where we wrestled with the issues of the day, and the role of privilege.”

Brawer finds himself wandering these same neighborhoods when he returns to campus for reunions. He remembers fondly the radical Yale Summer High School, which brought underprivileged kids from across the nation to Yale during the 1960s to have honest conversations about race using literature as a launchpad — including Sophocles’ “Antigone,” Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks,” which features black actors in white makeup grappling with the issue of racial identity.

Brawer partnered with the Summer High School’s former director, Larry Paros, in the creation of a film and book about the Yale Summer High School experience in 1968 and the perspectives — 40 years later — of the students and teachers who participated.  

New Haven is where Brawer had his start in public education. He first worked at a residential youth center in New Haven after graduation, and later taught at the Martin Luther King School on Dixwell Avenue, which was demolished in 2013 to make way for Achievement First Amistad High School, co-founded by another Yale alum, Dacia Toll ’99 J.D.  Most recently, Brawer worked as an elementary public school principal in south Boston.

He says he is encouraged by young people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics, as they were in the late ’60s. “There’s a contribution we can make,” Brawer says, “if we can create and sustain productive conversations that stimulate new initiatives — rather than repeating dead-end arguments that merely perpetuate the status quo.”

Perspective 2019 will be held Thursday and Friday, May 30 and 31, 10 a.m.-noon at Dwight Hall, 67 High St., Samuel P. Rose Room #211. The event is open to interested members of the Yale community and their guests.

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