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Yes, Arlington fights racism: We should. We have. We must do more.
This commentary was written by Barbara Goodman, a member of the School Committee from 1993 to 2005. She is the co-author of Legendary Locals of Arlington (Arcadia Publishing, 2015), a local history.
Bias, prejudice, stereotyping live everywhere – and certainly in Arlington. They are deeply embedded in our society, and it has been a long struggle, globally and locally, to bring these evils to the surface, to create awareness and confront racism and bigotry in all its ugly forms.
This crucial work is far from complete. Yes, even in Arlington, we must fight racism. The question is how do we continue the struggle?
To understand where we need to go, we should first take a look at our past. Arlington has a proud history of fighting racism. As the civil-rights movement grew and became more violent in the South, a group of Arlingtonians came together to focus on issues of segregation and inequality in their own town. In 1959, they formed the Fair Housing Committee to ensure people of color were welcome in Arlington.
ARC urged inclusion
To reflect its expanded mission, the name was changed to the Arlington Civil Rights Committee (ARC) a few years later. This group worked with local churches to promote Arlington as an inclusive community. They created a booklet for minority home seekers titled Arlington -- A Good Place to Live. This was distributed to real-estate agents and media outlets in the greater Boston black community. Committee members served as testers in housing-discrimination cases and participated in the landmark case that overturned the state statute that permitted discrimination in owner occupied two-family homes.
The Arlington Civil Rights Committee also focused on economic issues. In 1970 and 1999, the group worked to pass bylaws at Town Meeting promoting equal opportunities for woman and minorities in hiring, purchasing goods and services, and in construction contracts. In 1970, the ARC established a low-interest mortgage fund to assist minority groups seeking to buy homes in the suburbs.
Education was also a priority for ARC. Arlington was one of the six communities that joined the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program in 1966, the year it was founded.
Earlier work continues today
The work started by ARC continues today in the efforts of the Human Rights Commission, the Martin Luther King Committee, Envision Arlington Diversity Task Force, the Rainbow Commission and the Housing Corporation of Arlington. For nearly three decades, these town-supported volunteer groups have sponsored a multitude of programs that have promoted awareness and advocated for change.
We have heard from experts and have had community conversations about stereotyping, unconscious bias and stigmatization. We have learned about the injustices in our prisons and in our legal system and have been taught to be an “up-stander” instead of a bystander. Offering us insights into the lives of others have been art and photography exhibits; music, theater and dance performances; and several film festivals.
These groups, along with other concerned citizens, have advocated for changes in all town departments.
Established by Town Meeting in 1993, the Arlington Human Rights Commission has investigated complaints brought by anyone who feels that their human rights have been infringed upon. Each year, about 20 cases are investigated thoroughly, and an attempt is made to resolve the issue. The group has hosted more than 100 dialogues, panel discussions, guest speakers, interactive meetings and author-led book groups, all focused on making this town a place where every person and guest feels welcome and safe.
Rapid response in 2019
We come to together when one of us is a target of hate. Because of the town's rapid-response network, we are able to hold vigils and townwide meetings within just a few days of an incident. For example, in May 2019, more than 500 people crowded Town Hall following fires started at Jewish house of worship in East Arlington.
Arlington has hired a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator to work with Arlington's Disability Commission, Human Rights Commission and LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Commission and to oversee racial-equity efforts that the town will embark on over the next year in partnership with the National League of Cities' REAL (Race, Equity and Leadership) Initiative and Government Alliance on Racial Equity. In January, the town held racial-equity and inclusion training for the Select Board and all senior staff. We overwhelmingly passed a Trust Act (Sanctuary Town) resolution at the 2017 Town Meeting.
The Arlington Reads Together program focuses on books and related events highlighting ethnic, racial and religious minorities and the challenges facing refugees, transgender individuals and those living with disabilities. A collaboration between Arlington Public Libraries and the Diversity Task Group brought author Esmeralda Santiago to Town Hall in March, when she discussed her experience as a Puerto Rican woman living in the mainland United States.
Recently, the town Police Department has participated in a range of professional-development activities. Officers have attended programs titled “Cultural Diversity and Bias Training,” “Diversity/Depth and Perspective” and “Biased; LGBT Training for Law Enforcement Officers” at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. All members of the APD completed the online course “Islam 101 ISBCC” in 2019, as recommended by the Arlington Rainbow Commission. The department also worked with members of the Muslim Community to develop a training program for all of APD.
Municipal Equality Index
Arlington has consistently improved the town’s Municipal Equality Index score, a rating granted by the Human Rights Campaign, achieving a score of 100 in the latest survey.
The school department established the position of human-resource officer tasked with hiring a more diverse staff. Cultural-competency training for all our educators is now required, and the superintendent has directed all principals to form Diversity and Inclusion Groups at their schools and to include diversity and inclusion goals in their schools’ annual plans. These groups have been established.
Students in all grades have participated in numerous programs on antisemitism, antiracism, cultural awareness and gender-identity issues. The list is too long for this article, but here are a few examples.
At the elementary level, Saasia Faruqi author of the Yasmin series, spoke to Thompson students 2019 about her that tell of the escapades of a second grade Pakistani girl. Posters at the Brackett School feature accomplished scientists of color. Parents from all over the world talk with students about their family's heritage. A native American visitor shared his culture and history with the goal of shattering myths. Almost all our elementary school schools hold international fairs.
At our middle schools, before our eight graders read To Kill a Mocking Bird, antiracism educator Dr. Carroll W. Blake has discussed the meaning of the “N-word.” Students heard from three authors whose books tell the story of youth who overcame challenges related to their ethnicity or gender. In response to incidents of antisemitism, students pasted huge portraits on the outside of the building that reflected the diversity of their classmates.
Every year, many high school students participate in several international trips and exchange programs. They hear from numerous guests speakers that have included a Palestinian and an Israeli. High schoolers interviewed members of our community and had their work published in The Arlington Advocate as a weekly series titled “Profiles of Diversity.” Juniors and seniors learned about the life of Justice Thurgood Marshall when the play "Thurgood" was performed at AHS. In 2019, students had the opportunity to choose from 29 workshops to discuss, reflect, and share issues related to inclusion, equity and diversity during Inclusion Day.
Professional development is an essential tool to make schools more sensitive to the needs of all students. School leaders joined Dr. Carlos Hoyt Jr. in a three-day intensive training on implicit bias in 2019. Teachers, nurses and social workers participated in cultural-competency workshops. A districtwide professional day in 2017 led by Dr. Anthony Muhammad was dedicated to understanding the achievement gap and developing ways to ensure access and equity for all students.
Even with all this hard work, racism and bigotry keep reemerging. Hate crimes have increased across the nation. and Arlington is no exception. Two fires were set at a rabbi’s home in 2019. ”Black Lives Matter” banners were vandalized in 2015 and 2016, and hateful graffiti was discovered at our high school and at the middle school.
In October 2018, an Arlington police officer published an article full of detestable language. In my opinion, the town’s response of offering restorative justice was very inappropriate. This action made those who were already marginalized and perhaps victims of violence feel even more vulnerable. Angered by the town’s response, a group of citizens formed a group called Arlington Fights Racism. In the current election season, the group supports a specific slate of candidates.
Much more to do
We have done so much, and there is much more to do. So how do we proceed?
First, we must recognize that fighting for justice is hard work. The progress that has been made has not always come easily. Prejudice, and especially institutionalized racism, is deeply rooted, and hard to rout out. Second, moving forward is going to take a lot of work by many people with a variety of skills and knowledge.
As you evaluate candidates for the upcoming local election, I urge you to choose individuals who are able to appreciate the efforts of the past, acknowledge the good work that has been ongoing and bring their energy to work collaboratively with veteran activists to make Arlington an even better place for everyone.
Let’s fight racism – NOT each other.
This viewpoint was published Monday, May 25, 2020.
Comments about this column are welcome. Make them at the window below and be sure to include your full name, a site requirement.
It is great to see this May article again. It is an excellent summary of what Arlington has done in the past to overcome racism in the community and make it a safe and welcoming community for all. Clearly there is much more to be done. But this article reminds us we've started down the path and made substantial progress, while still recognizing there is a long way to go!
TMM Precinct 16
Barbara Goodman's letter summarizes Arlington's efforts and attitudes very effectively. Yes, "more" can and will be done, but as someone who has observed this Town's efforts for the last 10 years and attended meetings on the very issues covered by Barbara's letter, folks should appreciate our Town's past efforts and also future planned initiatives through various established committees of concerned citizens. No place is perfect obviously, but Arlington ranks highly in addressing these areas, in my opinion.
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