Newton Parents Work Towards an Anti-Racist District

by Abigail Arndt, Features Reporter
graphic by Emily Zhang

Families Organizing for Racial Justice (FORJ) is a group of Newton families seeking to educate themselves and their children about racial inequality and discrimination and how to stand up for racial justice and equity.

FORJ was founded by Amy Behrens, Erica Streit-Kaplan and Vineeta Vijayraghavan in 2016 in response to the shootings of unarmed Black men and women across the country.

The week after the 2016 presidential election, the team hosted their first FORJ meeting, providing a space for families to process President Donald Trump’s election and promote racial justice in the Newton community.

“Our overall purpose is to bring parents, families and school staff together to work for racial justice and to form bonds of community between people so that people feel closer together,” Behrens said. “[We need] to work systematically to create changes that are really helping our schools to become more equitable, inclusive and diverse, and also creating a sense of community [and] shared purpose.” 

As the founders publicized their mission, the group grew from 13 people to over 200 people in only a year. As FORJ grew, parents formed school-specific coalitions at nearly every Newton public school. 

After receiving an email about a citywide FORJ meeting three years ago, Newton parent Elsa Janairo joined FORJ as an active member at Day Middle School and Pierce Elementary School. 

“I had been really disturbed by the fact that there wasn’t really a space to talk about race in Newton, so when FORJ came along, I jumped at the opportunity to be able to connect with other people who wanted to engage in the conversation and help build awareness and connections,” she said. 

FORJ members have also branched off into smaller cohorts to work on specific initiatives. Over the summer, Janairo collaborated with Newton parents Elisa Rodriguez and Kerry Prasad and Countryside teacher Emily Restivo to propose and implement an anti-racist curriculum and structure in the Newton Public Schools. 

Restivo said that the group was dissatisfied with the lack of accountability by Newton Public School (NPS) administrators in becoming an anti-racist district and providing tools and safe spaces for students, parents and teachers to talk about race in schools. 

“The purpose of this initiative … is to amplify student, family and educator voices all together in a cooperative effort to raise our concerns to NPS … about different areas in which we see NPS’ policies or practices not yet being aligned with anti-racist principles,” Janairo said. “We’re offering solutions, but we’re not saying that these are the only possible solutions. We hope that NPS as a district and then at each individual school as well will be interested in continuing to have the conversation with all different members of the community, instead of just driving anti-racist initiatives at the education center, led only by the NPS administration.”

The group is working to develop equity teams in Newton schools that would provide safe spaces for families, students and teachers to discuss race at school.

This summer, the group developed a written report to propose to Kathy Lopes, NPS Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The report is designed to encourage families, teachers and administrators to re-examine the current education system with an eye toward embracing anti-racism. They plan to send it to the district administration for feedback and implementation advice in the coming weeks.

By sharing student stories, the report hopes to shed light on the racism and discrimination that is happening within the Newton Public Schools and to hold NPS administrators accountable for their actions.

“Just reading through the student stories, it’s just shattering thinking about what’s happening in our own buildings and how students are feeling. I think that’s something we can’t ignore,” Restivo said. “Part of the things that we’re hearing in the student stories is that, even if they report something that’s happening, there’s not a lot of accountability or follow-up.” 

Rodriguez said there needs to be a shift in teacher training for classrooms to engage in anti-racist work. 

The report advocates for reforming professional development to help teachers to become anti-racist educators. Restivo said she believes educators are not given the opportunities, nor freedom, to implement anti-racist teaching in their own classrooms.

Senior Akim Jocelyn, who initially joined FORJ to help facilitate an anti-racist book club for younger students, said that he wants to continue disseminating anti-racist principles.

“Hopefully, in the future people can look at how race affects people [through] a wider lens,” he said. “My vision for [FORJ] in the future is continuing to teach people about racism in today’s world and how they can be an anti racist.”

Restivo said that curriculum overhaul is a short-term step in a long-term movement.

“Curriculum can’t solve [everything],” she said. “It’s really a societal change that has to happen. And until we can actually make that happen, education is the most powerful tool that we have.”