It’s been six years and a day since my dear friend and mentor Barbara Lazarus passed. In the years between ’93 and ’03, no one from Carnegie Mellon was more important to me and in the professional decisions I made than her. Barbara was as gritty as she was sweet, someone who made my decision to go to Carnegie Mellon to earn my doctorate worthwhile. If there was a person that I would’ve wanted to meet in a past life, it would be her.
I met her at a joint graduate school conference between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon on diversity seventeen years ago. I don’t even remember the details of our first conversation, but I do remember that we immediately hit it off. The fact that she was an eternal optimist didn’t deter me from continuing to interact with her. When I transferred to Carnegie Mellon the following year, multiculturalism and how I defined it was a constant conversation between the two of us.
This apparently wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. Barbara wanted me to serve on her Graduate Advisory Board, which gave her input on all issues related to diversity on campus. It was a great three-year experience, and one in which I became familiar with my unofficial mentor, her home, her two children, and her dog. It allowed me to test my ideas on multiculturalism in practical ways while it also enabled me to get a better handle on the conservative identity politics of the university. She also wanted me to work for her as an assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs where she served as Associate Provost, but my Spencer Foundation award made that impossible.
Once problems with my advisor became critical in ’96, I turned to Barbara for advice and help. Her insight into my advisor and the History Department helped me immensely, and enabled me to finish my doctorate without resulting in the drastic and suicidal measure of filing a grievance against him. After the Ph.D., I continued to rely on Barbara for career advice, letters of recommendation, and insight on my more intellectual writings.
I last saw Barbara in October ’02, about nine months before her death after a two-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer. Her commitment and her care remained strong even though the rest of her was waning. She also managed to comment on how to turn my manuscript on multiculturalism into a book, asking if I thought it still wise to use the word multiculturalism in my title or in the book — the book titled Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience. I managed to give Barbara a hug and a final farewell that sad and sweet day. At least it was for me.
I kept in contact by email, the last one sent a month before her death. It was about an op-ed I managed to get published in The Washington Post. She congratulated me while telling me that she was no longer working on campus, and was restricted to bed rest. I knew at that point that the end was near.
It’s been more than six years since Barbara passed, and yet I still have moments when I hear her voice in my head, telling me to do something that I know I need to do. She remains one of the few people I ever considered a mentor. We acknowledged this fact, but it wasn’t something she beat her chest about. Our relationship grew out of a mutual interest in diversity and multiculturalism beyond the theoretical. I learned more from her in the eleven years I knew her than I could’ve learned from my former advisor in a lifetime, and yet I’m still not sure that this was enough. This, I have come to believe, is what friendships and mentoring situations are all about.
After hearing about the memorial service that the folks at Carnegie Mellon gave her in October ’03, I wrote a note in response to be presented at the ceremony. I couldn’t be there, between the chaos of a one-month-old baby at home and my idiotic boss at work. Here’s some of what I said:
I want to communicate to you that I am in complete solidarity with everyone who attends the gathering at CMU on October 17. For me, Barbara’s work was more than about women’s equity in the engineering and science fields. She was about ensuring that all (regardless of gender or race, and regardless of the degree) who attempted the grand enterprise of competing for a degree actually made it through the process … Barbara was a dear friend and mentor who truly believed in me, even in spite of myself. I loved her, and I will surely miss her, as I am sure you will also.
And I still love and miss her very much, especially on this day.