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College, schools unite for equity in Amherst

AMHERST — A partnership between the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District and Amherst College is creating a mentoring program in which racial issues will be confronted by elementary, secondary and college students in forums led by social justice educator Calvin Terrell.

Terrell, whose Social Centric Institute is based in Phoenix, is returning to Amherst for 10 days in the coming school year to lead daylong, intergenerational workshops aimed at combating racism, creating safe spaces for students to discuss race and addressing what he views as a “massive gap” that exists between white people and people of color.

At a meeting with Terrell involving school and town officials Monday afternoon, Superintendent Marie Geryk said Terrell will respond to efforts to create an equitable school system and achieve the goals of closing the achievement gap outlined by Harvard professor Ronald Ferguson.

Geryk said the challenge is to engage students, teachers, administrators and community members in an honest dialogue.

“We need to create spaces where you have this conversation. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel real,” Geryk said.

Terrell said institutions such as the public schools and town government are ideally suited to be places where multiple perspectives are welcome. If they are only offering one perspective, he said, “That is not learning, that is indoctrination.”

Terrell, who was in Amherst last year for the Minority Student Achievement Network conference, will supplement the work to be done by Carol Ross, who was recently hired jointly by the town and schools as media and climate communications specialist.

During the last school year, the district faced several issues centered on race. Black high school teacher Carolyn Gardner was repeatedly targeted by racist graffiti and other hostile acts; a white high school student posted a claim on Facebook that he was carrying a gun to school for protection after he used a racial slur on the social media site; and four middle school students were involved in a racially charged fight in which some have claimed a white student was seriously injured.

Terrell said proactive conversations are needed, even when not in crisis, because race remains a “distraction” from sharing and collaborating.

The commitment to his work was indicated by those who met with him, including Ross, Monica Hall, the district’s director of diversity and equity, Kathryn Mazur, the district’s director of human resources, Town Manager John Musante and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek, Deborah Radway, the town’s director of human resources and human rights, Select Board Chairman Aaron Hayden and board member Connie Kruger.

“I am so excited about this effort, but terrified,” Musante said. “How do you talk about something that’s hard?”

Geryk said it’s important to cultivate the voice of the youth and “support students, not just through the walls of schools but the community.”

Amherst College’s Center for Diversity is providing the $35,000 to $38,000 to pay for Terrell’s work and its students will be working with high school students, who in turn will mentor younger students, starting with fifth-graders.

Terrell said the intergenerational training, which brings together young people and adults from various backgrounds, will explore how race affects other identities, such as gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and style.

“Race intersects with all those identities,” Terrell said.

Terrell spoke of the long era of dehumanization faced by African-Americans, which he said can be traced either to Christopher Columbus in 1492 or the establishment of the Jamestown colony in 1607.

“It’s really about ending the process of dehumanization our forefathers began,” Terrell said.

Terrell said Amherst can be a challenging community, with some arrogance that is the antithesis of the “humble posture of learning.”

“Some people are in defense of their reality,” Terrell said. “When you begin to do this with people, they feel it is being violent toward them.”

Ross, too, said she expects pushback because people’s identities are at stake.

Kruger, though, said it is worthwhile work.

“I am very distressed in what I’ve seen happen over the last year,” Kruger said. “I will try anything to get to a better place.”

Before he begins, Terrell said, he needs a better sense of where the town and schools want to see the community in a decade.

Radway said her goal is to have town employees look like the community served. “That’s not just recruiting, that’s making people feel they belong,” Radway said.

Terrell said he would go beyond this, comparing employees to a box of crayons, in which they are all different colors, but still crayons.

Musante acknowledged that the process of addressing issues of race won’t be easy, but he said he hopes Amherst residents will be even more passionate about finding solutions.

“It’s a hell of a lot better than apathy,” Musante said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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