An Educator’s Letter to Families in This Moment

This letter was written by Manuel J. Fernandez, Head of School at Cambridge Street Upper School (CSUS) in Cambridge, MA to CSUS Families

Dear CSUS Parents and Caregivers,

1968 was a pivotal year in my upbringing. I was in my early teens, and it was the year of assassinations (notably Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy), urban protests, college campus takeovers, the rise of the anti-Vietnam protests, and so much more. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, I felt pretty invisible as a Black Cape Verdean boy among my white classmates. I only felt noticed when one of them would call me the N-word or bullied me verbally and physically. I know now that I suffered from internalized racism, which was burrowed into me every time my white teachers were dismissive of my racial harassment concerns. I did not like being Black, and it seemed no one else liked it either. The only Black teacher I had was when I was a high school senior. He was the P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t too impressed with my unathletic and uncoordinated self. I am not sure what was internalized in my psyche from that, but I certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of a tall Black boy.

I observed many changes in society at that time and within my self-identity. In the ensuing years, I latched on to the Black Consciousness movement spurred on by my Uncle and Aunt’s membership in the Black Panther Party. I became more and more racially conscious through the readings of James Baldwin, W.E. B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance period. As I came to know of the many contributions Black people had made to the country and the world, I felt proud of being Black. I was becoming increasingly aware of my Cape Verdean ancestry, particularly about our history in southeastern Massachusetts. I was equally proud.

As a young educator, I endeavored to support the aspirations of my Black students and advocate for their needs with higher-ups. I became increasingly aware that my white students and the white educators I worked with needed my support to embrace an anti-racist lens. We learned from our consultant Beverly Daniel Tatum (author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria) that anti-racism was an active choice. Choosing not to be actively engaged in the dismantling of racism in our society was to implicitly or explicitly support racism. This past week, I have heard from scores of those students, Black, White, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ accomplices. I am so proud of these many women and men who, like me, have made the struggle for racial equity their life’s work.

This week that pride has been tempered by feelings of rage, fear, and despair. As the father of three Black daughters and two young Black grandsons, I cannot look at the graphic videos of unarmed Black men and women being murdered without seeing my family members in harm’s way. They all embody some of my voice — proud, unapologetic, and strident on all issues of equity. I caution my daughters often to consider their surroundings when they publicly object to inequity. They don’t always heed my advice.

As a Black school leader, I have struggled with ways to support our scholars devoid of my emotions at a time when they need clarity and perspective. Since its founding in 2012, CSUS has centered equity in our mission. At this time, I find comfort in the leadership and advocacy of so many of our CSUS educators. They have stepped up in a big way and have responded to scholar inquiry on the horrific events of the past few months and engaged scholars with strategies rooted in an anti-racist lens to help CSUS move forward.

I have spent my forty years as an educator as a staunch advocate for equity and anti-racism. It has not always made me friends, but it has created opportunities and a vision for all the scholars that I have been fortunate to serve. I will continue to do that as long as I am able. I will stand for my scholars and with my colleagues to advance anti-racism in our school and the community. There is no other choice. I hope you choose to do the same within your sphere of influence.

1968 changed America. Unfortunately, the change was incomplete, and many of the small gains have little influence on our present situation. 2020 is changing our society, whether because of the pandemic or because of the heightened awareness of the anti-Black racism and other forms of bigotry that pervade every aspect of our society. We can embrace the change and stay the course. But the new day that we want for all of our children and grandchildren will not be realized unless we all step up.

Thanks for reading.

Peace, Manuel


An Educator’s Letter to Families in This Moment was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Silence is Complicity

At the time we’ve reached the unthinkable milestone of 100,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19, we’ve also witnessed the murders of too many Black Americans at the hands of violence and white supremacy: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Sean Read, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor. These are merely a few of the names of Black individuals that have died at the hands of racism — there are unfortunately many more that have gone unnoticed and unheard of by the public. Racism is a virus too.

The COVID-19 pandemic has just pulled back a curtain on the racial inequities that are foundational to our country. In Wisconsin and Michigan, the percentages of affected residents who were Black were more than twice as high as the proportion of Black people living in those states overall. Here in Massachusetts, the highest per capita rates of infection reside in working-class immigrant cities like Chelsea and Brockton, who both have high concentrations of people of color.

How our society moves forward depends on our ability to understand why these inequities exist, and the actions we take to address them. As Merlin Chowkawayun so rightly notes in an analysis of these statistics in the New England Journal of Medicine, “disparity figures without explanatory context can perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities.” False narratives around Black people being able to tolerate higher levels of pain, for example, date back to slavery. That explanatory context is something that white people love to sweep under the rug — the pervasiveness of whiteness and violence in our country.

COVID-19 is only uplifting what has been so ingrained in our nation’s history for decades — the constant state of violence against Black people — in our economy, our justice system, our health system, our education system.

As an organization, we wholeheartedly stand against anti-Black racism, and are committed to ensuring that we can take the steps to becoming an anti-racist organization. We are committed to supporting our grantee partners who are on the front lines of racial equity work in public education, by supporting organizations led by and serving people of color through general operating support grants, and supporting community organizing groups that are working to ensure that young people of color have a seat at the table in educational decision-making, to name a few. As an organization, we will continue to do our own learning around white supremacy, our complicity in upholding this system as a philanthropic entity, and we will take action to dismantle it. As a white leader, I am committed to holding myself — and other white people — to do better.

White people must step up and take action, and hold each other accountable. It is our responsibility to examine how we are complicit in the spreading of this virus of racism, and how we benefit from it every day. Silence is complicity. This moment calls on us to reflect on the type of society we want to build and take action. Our future depends on it.

Nick Donohue is President & CEO at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation


Silence is Complicity was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Guest Post: “Staying Proximate” to Advance Racial Equity

This guest post was written by Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Nellie Mae grantee Public Agenda.

While incidents of bias and discrimination can occur anywhere, it’s especially troubling when they happen in our schools. To help educators, students, and other community members address these issues, Public Agenda has created “Addressing Incidents of Bias in Schools: A Guide for Preventing and Reacting to Discrimination Affecting Students.” This resource, which was developed with the support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, provides a framework for discussion and action, along with advice on how to use the guide in classrooms, staff meetings, after-school programs, and school-wide events.

The type of dialogue that this Guide helps facilitate involves bringing together a large, diverse group of people, and having smaller discussion sessions within the group, as we saw happen in a high school in Portland, Maine. There, students and faculty used the Guide to organize a community dialogue event following a racially-motivated incident outside of the school.

How does this type of event and conversation help us make progress toward racial equity? Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative calls this “getting proximate and staying proximate.” By this he means that people of different backgrounds need to talk with each other, work together, and get an up-close look at the everyday challenges each of them face, in order to minimize the misunderstandings and maximize the many benefits that cultural diversity can bring.

Getting proximate

“Getting proximate and staying proximate” may be helpful for understanding the recent history of public engagement on issues of race and difference. During the 1990s, we “got proximate.” Following trials involving Rodney King and then O.J. Simpson, in an effort to help overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices, a wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of diverse citizens in forums, trainings, workshops and small-group dialogues.

These conversations, which included teachers, police officers, social workers, city planners, and more, led to changes large and small, from adjustments in police hiring policies to new economic development plans, from new extracurricular activities to the construction of public schools, and from police-sponsored basketball leagues to new police substations. But we didn’t build in ways for large, diverse numbers of people to “stay proximate,” and this limited the long-term impact of the work, as demonstrated by the re-emergence of highly visible forms of racism in the last five years.

How to stay proximate

While getting proximate on issues of race had many positive outcomes, it had only limited impacts on systems, or more accurately on the ways in which people interact with public institutions. The tactics of small-group dialogue, comparing lived experience, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that crime watch groups and neighborhood associations operate. In most places, they are not part of the standard operating procedures for police departments or school systems.

In the absence of these more systemic changes, the benefits of public engagement on race may have been meaningful but temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities.

We are are entering the next stage in our long-running attempt to realize the full potential of the most diverse nation on earth. Building on our prior work to get proximate, there are several ways we might try to stay proximate:

  • Identify, create, or support regular opportunities for people to come together to make decisions, solve problems, and build community. There are inspiring examples large and small, like On the Table in Chicago, Meet and Eat in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and the dialogues held by the Portsmouth (NH) City Council.
  • Embrace and adapt new practices that reinvigorate existing engagement opportunities, like the student-led parent-teacher conference, high-impact volunteering, and participatory budgeting.
  • Take a serious, systemic view of local engagement: map the current systems for engagement in a place, figure out what is working and what isn’t, and come up with cross-sector plans. We should use a racial equity lens in these analyses, to understand whether and how the participation is inclusive and the outcomes are just and equitable.
  • Offer programming content — meeting agendas, short videos, discussion questions, readings — for people meeting in all these settings to help them raise and address issues of cultural difference.

These are all strategies for helping people stay proximate, but some of them do not explicitly address racial equity, at least at first. That’s all right: by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and who they are, various kinds of cultural differences will emerge. In these settings, when people are comfortable being open about the differences between them — gender or class, for example — they are better able to surface and address all kinds of differences. So for example, people in small towns where there is very little racial diversity can productively address racial equity, especially if they start out with the differences that are more central in their daily lives.

People are showing their willingness to get proximate and make progress. We should capitalize on that goodwill by establishing sustained opportunities for them to stay proximate.