The Woman “Running Newton Behind the Scenes”

by Emily Schwartz and Lily Zarr, Editor-in-Chief and News Editor, AP Lang students
In photo: Kerry Prasad with artist Juan Perez at the 2021 Indigenous People’s Day celebration
photo contributed by Kerry Prasad

She likened it to a page out of a high school civics textbook. 

Word spread, hundreds of letters arrived at City Hall, and people poured into city council meetings. On Nov. 2, 2020, the Newton City Council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. 

Outraged that Newton’s schools still taught Christopher Columbus’s heroics when “discovering” America, a few Indigenous residents had formed the movement to petition the city for change. After a public hearing, Newton resident Kerry Prasad joined the group because as a white woman, she wanted to support the Indigenous peoples whose land she benefits from. So, she distributed letter writing templates and empowered others to get involved, eventually becoming a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee. 

Through the direct action of writing letters, the clear-cut, “checklist-like” strategy that the former high school social studies teacher recalled from her textbooks, the community successfully challenged the system of power. 

“I can’t believe that that happened. And when that happened, I was like, ‘Kerry, this is not going to happen all the time. Pace yourself here,’” she said. “But that was definitely a moment where I felt like lots of people could do a small thing that would make a big difference.”

She was right: not all progress would be so straightforward. 

Since moving to Newton in 2010, Prasad has spent the equivalent of a 9-5 job volunteering for local issues from the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee to FORJ to the PTO Council to the Vote Yes for Newton tax override campaign. According to her colleagues, activists in their own right, Prasad is a connector, the white ally who gets things done and pours her time and power into uplifting their work. 

From her time in college, when she organized a tutoring program for local high school students, to her teaching career where she saw the inherent inequity in different leveled learning, social justice has informed her work: it’s a lens through which she sees the world.

“Social justice is a way of life and it’s part of motherhood too,” she said. “It’s part of what we talk about at the dinner table and what we do as a family.”

Prasad juggles being a mother with her social justice commitments, work she’s able to pursue because of her husband’s full-time job. She met Sashank in college, and in the 27 years since, he has watched her activism blossom. 

“Kerry wants to know what she can do to learn more about people in the community where she lives and what struggles they face, what people have in common with each other, and what types of efforts can be made to address ongoing inequities in our own communities,” he said.

She did just that when she moved to Newton, having taken a step back from her almost decade-long teaching career to care for her young family. She joined Countryside’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) in 2013 and rose through the ranks, learning its inner workings and meeting people from all over the city. As co-president from 2015-2017, she leveraged the organization’s ability to promote equity. 

One mother, June, had three children in Countryside’s English Language Learners (ELL) program. She approached Prasad, then PTO co-president, because she was concerned that ELL families weren’t getting the comprehensive information they needed. The two mothers created Countryside’s ELL Committee, which recruited parent volunteers to serve as cultural liaisons to support families. 

 “I knew how the PTO works, she knew how the ELL world works,” Prasad said. “What we need are families … who can help guide those folks and … help really build connections.”

Prasad had worked within the PTO’s system, and now would create systems from the ground up in collaboration with new activist colleagues. To continue the movement to honor Indigenous people, in 2020, Prasad joined the newly-formed Indigenous People’s Day Committee, which educates residents about the significance of the holiday and establishes a new citywide tradition. Aware of her place as a white person on the board, Prasad chooses to take on the often unacknowledged, yet vital, grunt work.

“I’m not Indigenous, I just know my way around Google Drive,” she said. “How can I use that to help my Indigenous neighbors achieve this goal that they have: to create a space where Indigenous people can go be themselves and feel comfortable in doing so.” 

Although her official title is clerk, Prasad fills whatever role the moment requires, committee co-founder Dr. Darlene Flores said. She’s “a Jill of all trades.” Prasad has served as a grant writer, liaison between city officials and the committee, and even once a hostess at a dinner with an Indigenous chef.

Last year, when charged with securing a permit to hold the inaugural Indigenous People’s Day celebration, Prasad experienced the uphill battle people of color can face within a power structure like Newton’s City Council. What was supposed to be a routine city council meeting discussing and approving the permit devolved into an onslaught of attacks from residents who criticized the celebration’s right to exist. 

“It was definitely an eye opener, as a white person, to see that every single thing we have to do is being weighed down. We can’t do anything easily,” she said. “It was an interesting experience as an ally, and I really learned a lot from that about how I could do things so easily and [how] it’s unnecessarily difficult for others.”

Prasad collaborated with fellow Countryside parent Ashia Ray to create a space to continue the work of educating others about the structural racism Newton harbors. As co-founders of Countryside’s chapter of Families Organizing for Racial Justice (FORJ), Prasad and Ray intentionally centered the voices of people of color when structuring the chapter. Ray said that Prasad purposely amplified their voice, a dynamic unlike anything Ray had ever experienced. 

“I’ve never had a white lady follow my lead. That was amazing … So often, when we’re in these spaces where there’s a white woman and there’s a person of color, particularly Asian, the white woman makes the decisions and the Asian person does the photocopies. … And she’s like, ‘I will be the scribe. I will do the grunt work. I will do the photocopies and the emails.’

“… We set the lead for other FORJ groups where there’s at least one person of color who’s making decisions and then there’s a white accomplice who is being the barrier, because there were a lot of people who are angry at me. I don’t know who they are because Kerry dealt with them,” Ray said.

Prasad and Ray created a space for parents to unpack racist incidents in the community, and then went further to ensure that METCO parents felt their voices were heard by organizing a PTO meeting in Boston. The group also worked to implement restorative justice practices in the schools, even witnessing a session in response to a racist incident. 

Prasad got things done in an environment Ray said could be incredibly resistant to any sort of progress. She set an example, inspiring others to use their power to fight against systems of racism as well.

“Kerry’s basically the white woman engine who’s like, ‘Come on white people. We can do this’ … ‘If she’s willing to look into it, maybe I can look into it,’” Ray said. “It’s rewarding to watch her do her magic in her very polite way and say profoundly radical, transformative ideas.”

But the main goal of FORJ, to provide a space for parents to learn about anti-racism, is inherently difficult. It can be hard to ask adults to confront their long-held beliefs and examine the ways that they benefit from these structures of power, but that’s how movements are built.

“This stuff gets to be a huge mess and the neighbors are fighting with one another, but the thing about all this is sometimes things have to break before they can get fixed again. We can all either pretend everything’s fine and not talk about it or we can actually talk about it,” Prasad said. “It was ugly. We disagree. There’s conflict. Yeah, we’re humans.” 

“You want to change the power structures, but at the other time you want to use the power that already exists to sort of get yourself rolling and make those changes start,” Prasad said, reflecting on the role power, privilege, and education plays in social justice work.

Though Newton is home to a lively community of activists, Prasad said such work here looks different than in less wealthy, white, or politically progressive places. 

“[In Newton], lots of people have the time, lots of people have the power, meaning they have the education and the connections that they need to make things happen. Whereas if you lived in another place and you didn’t have those connections, it would be harder to make social change, which is the weird thing about it, right?” she said. 

In a way, being able to lean on such an active community is a privilege that makes the fight against systems so resistant to progress much easier. 

“We’re all going through these ups and downs. So when I’m down, somebody else is up, and that helps me to rebalance again, and to think about what they’re doing,” Prasad said. “[If] she can do it, then I know I can do this, too.”

When asked if they, too, have found a place within Newton’s activist community, Ray said that it’s been hard. 

“I haven’t found a way to make connections beyond Kerry. I don’t belong in Newton. Newton is not accessible for non-binary, disabled people,” they said. 

But Prasad’s support has gone beyond just their personal connection, Ray said: she looks to reduce exclusivity systemically.

“One of the things that she does that’s so amazing is she takes those people who do feel like they don’t fit in Newton,” Ray said. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, you definitely fit in here. Let’s work together to … change the system so that you can feel welcome here and people like you can feel welcome here.”

Ten years after her first PTO meeting, Prasad has turned outside of the system to work towards equity in public education, a cause she’s pursued throughout her career. She knows the ins and outs of the local education system, especially as senior co-president of the PTO Council.

For the last two years, she’s led its members, Newton’s 22 PTO presidents, on the council’s mission to ensure high-quality education in the city’s public schools. Junior PTO Council co-president Elsa Janairo said that Prasad’s roots in teaching shine through her leadership style, where she is currently focused on building community in the wake of Newton’s superintendent absence and budget issues. 

“It’s a time that could feel really daunting, but because we’re doing it together, and she has such a can-do attitude about it, it’s actually a lot of fun to sit down each weekend,” she said. “She’s always willing to take the lead … and model how it’s usually done. But then afterwards … we reflect on ‘Well, yes, this is the way it’s always been done. But do we want it to continue with the way that it’s always been done? Or is there a way to improve upon it?’” 

Now, Prasad looks outside of the system to improve the way things have “always been done,” efforts that will culminate in the upcoming special election on March 14. She draws on years of organizing experience to head Vote Yes for Newton, a campaign to pass ballot questions that would override the current tax levy limit. Increased revenue would fund the schools and city improvements, efforts Prasad supported throughout her time on the PTO. 

Prasad harkens back to her origins as a teacher to decide how the ballot question committee will best educate voters about the override. 

“[I’m] using my teacher brain to think about what’s the best way of communicating about this and to teach people about what it is. They don’t have to agree with it, but I want people to know what it is and why we’re doing it,” she said. “People don’t really understand how their local government works, but it has such a big, big impact on our lives. I’m living the social studies teacher dream, basically.”

Although Prasad may not still be in the classroom, she would advise aspiring activists, students in this work, to start by building connections with others. 

“Everyone in the world has something to bring to the table. Get to know everybody because someday, you might be working on something and you might say, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had a landscape architect who could help me with this,’” she said. “The more folks who you invite in and who are part of your world makes life so much more satisfying.”

Prasad is an inspiration to all, Ray said, the “rare and wonderful human,” who betters our world, as imperfect as it may be.

“Whatever we can do to make more Kerry’s in the world and also give her much more credit for the way that she’s basically running Newton behind the scenes.