History can be a powerful teacher, even when it involves a Rose Bowl queen.
Back in 1957, the Tournament of Roses named Joan Williams as Miss Crown City, the predecessor to the current Rose Queen. Then officials learned that she was African American and suddenly the city “curtailed official duties of the honoree,” according to an obituary for Williams, who died last year at age 86.
She was not invited to ride on a parade float. In fact, that year Pasadena decided against entering a float in the parade at all.
But in 2015 — 58 years later — the city extended an apology and offered Williams an invitation to ride in the first float of the storied parade.
For 130 years, the spectacle on the first day of every new year has captured the attention of millions of people around the world. The parade was started as a showcase of sorts of the abundance provided by California weather, and also of its benefactors, the stalwart Pasadena scions who created it. For most of its history, the Tournament of Roses, which includes a foundation and committees that consist of volunteer members, reflected the epitome of Pasadena’s old guard – the white and male establishment.
In recent years, the organization has moved forward in fits and starts on its way to reflecting the Pasadena of today – diversifying the ranks of volunteers, committee members and staff who keep it going. Its membership has grown to include more African Americans, Latinx and Asians, according to numbers provided by the organization.
“As the community has become more diverse, so have the efforts to make the membership reflect that,” says Tournament of Roses CEO David Eads.
Those efforts include adding “at-large” committee members who are ethnically diverse, says Laura Farber, the organization’s immediate past president. Farber was the organization’s first Latinx president; her term ended with the most recent festivities in January. She now chairs the committee that oversees football game management, a position never before held by a woman.
The committees are the pipeline by which executives, officers and presidents are promoted. All those who have served as president have come up through the committee system after years of service. The “at-large” members are chosen for their diversity.
“I think that was intentional,” observes Farber, an immigrant from Buenos Aires. “We can at least make sure we are providing an opportunity to people from a variety of viewpoints. I credit the at-large positions for diversifying the organization.”
The Tournament of Roses’ 935 members now number more women than men and are younger — 43 is the average age of the latest class, Eads says. Its members are 11% African American, 20% Latinx and 20% Asian. Pasadena residents overall are almost 10% African American, 34.4% Latinx, 16% Asian and 36.5% white.
The committees oversee all the activities and the foundation that donates $200,000 to local nonprofits annually. They are what helped promote the Tournament of Rose’s first Asian American president in 2014, the first African American president two years ago and Farber one year ago.
An attorney with Pasadena law firm Hahn & Hahn, Farber says she first learned of opportunities to volunteer with the Tournament of Roses from other attorneys at the firm. She had never thought about it because she had the impression she would not be welcome.
“Of course I would have never envisioned people like myself getting involved,” she says. “I’m glad that I was encouraged to do so.”
Farber has served on nine committees over 26 years and believes it’s important for young people from all walks of life and all socio-economic backgrounds to see people of color in prominent positions. With that in mind, she made a point to visit all of Pasadena’s public schools and different community groups to invite them to visit the Rose Bowl headquarters while she was president.
“You need experience to lead,” she says. “It took time. It took an investment. We are reaping the fruits now of the work we did over many years to bring this change.”
Farber’s notable contributions to the organization included bringing on three Latinas as grand marshals of the parade, something that had never been done before. Actresses Rita Moreno and Gina Torres joined Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez for the festivities this past January.
Farber also opened up the parade entries to a more global audience, which brought in bands and floats from countries that had never participated before.
Farber and Eads made it their goal to broaden the organization’s membership, to bring in many different groups within the community, not just ethnically diverse groups and women.
Farber says she wants people from all economic classes to feel welcome to the festivities and to Wrigley Mansion, the Tournament of Roses headquarters. She has joined committees with the local NAACP to help businesses during the current economic downturn.
Farber wants to encourage participation so that more people who represent the community at large move into executive positions. Many members of the Tournament of Roses committees come from nonprofit organizations that work to support the community and create an overlap of interests.
The foundation grants $200,000 annually to nonprofit groups offering programs in education, sports and recreation, and the visual and performing arts. It offers a scholarship for high school football players nationwide and funds local nonprofits in their fundraising efforts.
To increase participation, Eads says the organization has participated in community parades and events, such as the Black History Parade, the Latino Heritage Parade and the San Gabriel Valley Pride Festival. It has been a deliberate effort, he says.
“We continue to evolve. We try to keep a balance between holding on to our values. The joy and excitement of the Tournament of Roses and our traditions are only enhanced when we have an inclusive membership,” Eads says.
But while there has been progress in reflecting the community, that progress should not be taken for granted, says former Pasadena developer Jim Morris, who once protested the lack of diversity of the Rose Bowl with an actual roadblock of the coronation festivities. He and other activists persisted in efforts to bring awareness to what they saw as stagnation in getting the organization to better reflect the community.
Morris fears there are efforts to eliminate those at-large positions that helped elevate Farber, Gerald Freeny, the first African American president, and Richard Chinen, the first Asian American president.
Morris also believes the foundation can do a better job of supporting local communities of color rather than donating to organizations in economically well-off cities such as San Marino and La Cañada Flintridge.
Along with the encouraging changes brought on by diversifying the membership, Morris hopes that diversity broadens and that more history of the event be known – that, for instance, the land on which the Rose Bowl and the Wrigley Mansion reside was once owned by an African American.
Morris is encouraged, however, to see the recent demands for structural change in the country and believes it will benefit all people if these changes are enacted.
“There’s a hope that this change is going to be meaningful,” he says, adding that when more people are included in organizations such as the Tournament of Roses, everybody benefits.
Eads too looks forward to seeing the tournament continue to embrace and reflect all people of Southern California today. “It makes for a better organization. We are stronger for it.”
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