Guts and glory

Posted: Oct 11, 2002 12:00 AM
Erika Harold has dealt with worse bullies than these. Growing up in Urbana, Ill., she was harassed by fellow students to the point where her entire family felt under siege. A box of eggs was lobbed through her window, the electric line to the house was cut and, at one point, a number of students told her they were planning to pool their money so that they could buy a gun and shoot her. Harold today holds the title Miss America. She is of mixed ethnicity, black and American Indian. The majority at the high school she attended was white. But to this day, she isn't sure why she was singled out for abuse. An assistant principal suggested (incredibly) that she try being more "submissive." Not likely. Officials of the Miss America pageant are now learning what that assistant principal discovered about Erika Harold -- she doesn't scare easy. More on that in a moment. Harold is unusual in many ways. How many previous Miss Americas put off Harvard Law School for one year in order to serve out their "reign"? But not the least of her outstanding traits is solid integrity and commitment to certain principles. She earned fame in Illinois for her role as spokesman for Project Reality, a group promoting sexual abstinence, and elected to make that her "platform" in her bid to become Miss Illinois. But when the time came to compete in the Miss America pageant, state officials changed it to "teen violence prevention." These "platforms" are obviously not worth much. But they are delicate barometers of social mores. The Illinois folks clearly understood that teen violence prevention is much less controversial than abstinence education. Still, as Harold saw it, the two are linked. "I think that if a young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle, it makes them vulnerable to other risk factors," she told The Washington Times. But can you say that as Miss America in 2002? Apparently not. Fuming before a press conference last week, Harold said she had been told by Miss America Pageant officials
not to talk about abstinence and to stick to teen violence prevention only. "Quite frankly," she told The Washington Times" ... there are pressures from some sides not to promote (abstinence)." But, said the confident 22-year-old, "I will not be bullied." "Bravo," says Elayne Bennett, president of the Best Friends Foundation, a Washington, D.C.- based abstinence program for girls. "She is delivering a message that young girls are hungry for, and they respond to it. Who better than the beautiful, accomplished Miss America to deliver this message to impressionable girls? And she is dead-on about the link to violence. At Best Friends, because we offer girls the tools to 'say no' and instill self-respect, we've prevented six cases of sexual violence. The girls are told not to keep those kinds of things secret." Best Friends has also prevented countless teen pregnancies, abortions, drunk-driving deaths and other violence through its message of abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol. For years, the Miss America Pageant was so conservative that its crowned queen was not even permitted to be alone in a room with a man. That conservatism is still evident, though now it is in service to quite different standards. Today it is forbidden to promote the very values the pageant once insisted upon -- and it is Harold who represents the new counterculture. Miss America officials will no doubt protest that Harold ran on a teen violence prevention platform and is now violating the rules by changing her message. But let's be serious: If she modified her speeches to include the importance of raising awareness about violence against homosexuals, would she be silenced by the powers that be? Reflecting on her years as a spokesman for Project Reality, Harold said, "I would hate to think that there are kids ... who now wonder, 'Did I make the right decision ... if that person who inspired me to do it no longer is willing to share that commitment on the national stage?'" With intelligence, grace under pressure and dignity, Erika Harold transcended the bullies who tried to intimidate her in high school. She'll need all of those qualities to withstand the pressure on her now. As a cultural conservative, she's once again a despised minority.