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It took 145 years, but The Harvard Crimson finally voted a black woman to lead it

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 11/18/2018 By Jeneé Osterheldt
a person standing posing for the camera: Kristine Guillaume is the first black woman to serve as president of The Harvard Crimson, leading the newly elected 146th Guard. © Photo by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff Kristine Guillaume is the first black woman to serve as president of The Harvard Crimson, leading the newly elected 146th Guard.

She was trying to focus on reading “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” Sunday night.

Rihanna’s voice sang from the speakers, “All this work, no vacation.” But no song or book could keep Kristine E. Guillaume from checking her phone for a call that could make Harvard history.

At 7:40 p.m. the phone rang, and she got the news: Guillaume had been voted the next president of the Harvard Crimson, leader of the student paper’s 146th Guard, and the first black woman to head the organization.

“I screamed,” Guillaume said, smile wide as her face, joy shining through her glasses. “It was a very shrill scream. My roomie Mariah also screamed, so it amplified both of our screams and that is what we did. We screamed.”

It’s been a few days, and she’s still taking it all in. Come January, the 20-year-old junior will become the third black president to lead The Harvard Crimson, America’s oldest published daily college paper, founded in 1873.

“It does make me feel weird that we’re still doing firsts,” she said. “It’s about time. I’m nervous but excited. It’s a huge responsibility and honestly it doesn’t feel real that I actually have the opportunity.”

Current Crimson president Derek Xiao believes Guillaume is the right person for the job.

“On the content side, her emphasis on building up the The Crimson’s digital storytelling capabilities will position the organization to continue to engage its readers,” he said in a statement. “On the business side, her plan to scale the organization’s alternative revenue streams promises to secure The Crimson greater financial stability. And Kristine’s previous work with the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee has demonstrated her commitment and dedication to ensuring our editors — regardless of identity or background — find a home at 14 Plympton St.”

Making The Crimson inclusive has long been an issue for the organization.

“Our organization’s issues with race and equity lead far too many talented editors to walk out the door of 14 Plympton St. indefinitely,” Zoe D. Ortiz and Ruben E. Reyes Jr. wrote in a Crimson editorial last year.

It’s a reflection of the journalism industry at large: The American Society of News Editors found that minority journalists comprised only 16.6 percent of newsrooms across the country last year.

Guillaume, along with managing editor Angela N. Fu and business manager Charlie B. Zhu make up what the Guard calls “The Big Three,” the top leaders of the organization. And they are all of color. That representation, Gillaume says, makes a difference.

“Harvard is a very white, very male space,” she said. “It’s hard for many students of marginalized backgrounds, for women of color particularly, to navigate their way through these institutional spaces.”

She knows it’s not enough to have the title. As part of the paper’s diversity committee, Guillaume has been doing the work to bring forth practices to make the organization a more welcoming place. A main focus: mentors within the newsroom.

“We definitely need to do a better job at recruiting and retaining students of color. I think mentorship is a huge part of making people of color feel welcome,” she said. “I’m inspired to have had mentors when I came on, Leah Yared and Brandon Dixon, by chance two of the only black writers. Their work and leadership inspired me and are a key part of why I am sitting here as president today.”

Kamara Swaby met Guillaume when she was a freshman through a mentoring program. Swaby, a former Crimson staff writer, was her “Big Sib.”

“I am proud, not just because I know her, but also as a former leader of the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee myself,” says Swaby, who graduated in 2017. “Seeing somebody who is passionate about diversity, who worked hard at it, become president is important. I am proud of all of the students who have come together to make it a more inclusive environment. I don’t think it will change overnight but having someone like Kristine as president is a show of progress and an inspiration.”

Guillaume, a joint African American Studies and History and Literature concentrator, grinds with the kind of heart and hard-knock honesty journalism needs. But for now, academia is in her future. She’s looking at master’s programs in African American Studies.

Writing has always been one of her great loves. Growing up in Queens, she and her best friend would take turns crafting chapters about two girls with the magic to create an otherworldly hangout. Later, as editor-in-chief of Townsend Harris High School’s literary magazine, she would discover The Crimson.

“The Crimson has a really wide reach and I would read it,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I came here. I wanted to go to Harvard and be on The Crimson.”

As a freshman, Guillaume’s first story was covering a campus talk by former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. But the pieces that stick with her, that showed her how important her work would be as a journalist of color, were on immigration and DACA.

“It was one of the first moments I realized how stressful the industry could be for people of color dealing with traumatic events that effect people of color.”

Born to a Chinese mother and a Haitian father, Guillaume is a child of immigrants. Her parents, both doctors, started their own private practice in New York. Watching them work long hours and still show up for her and her younger sister helped teach her about commitment, humility, and passion.

“Both of them have overcome so many racial and gender barriers, and they have done so much for me,” she says. “Making them proud means so much.”

And as the newly elected first black woman president of The Crimson, she joins a number of black women at Harvard making history this year. Guillaume just wrote about four Harvard schools being lead by black women — a first.

Claudine Gay recently became dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Tomiko Brown-Nagin became the first female African-American dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and and Bridget Terry-Long was named the Graduate School of Education dean. In 2016, Michelle A. Williams became Harvard’s first black faculty dean as well as the first woman to lead the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Seeing four black women taking the lead inspired me as an individual to really think about how I can move into these spaces. I’m not confined to a space, there are possibilities,” Guillaume said. “I feel really lucky to be taking on The Crimson at this time and to show other people of color here you are not the only one because so often you are the only one.”

Kristine E. Guillaume, Crimson President: You are not alone.

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