Sunday, May 26, 2024

School Committee members-elect José Luis Rojas Villarreal, Rachel Weinstein and Ayesha Wilson delivered this commentary Tuesday at a School Committee hearing about a Cambridge Public Schools report on a January panel discussion where a committee member used a racial term. They offered it to Cambridge Day to publish as an open letter, saying: “As we are deeply troubled by the pain community members – especially students – within and beyond Cambridge Rindge and Latin School are experiencing, we appreciate the opportunity to share the public comment we made at this week’s School Committee meeting with the broader community here.”

We come here not to speak to this one incident but rather to how we Cantabrigians – elected, appointed, hired, enrolled, concerned – might hold one another accountable and how we heal together from future incidents of racism or other harm, which we know can happen.

The three of us share a sense of urgency and we are committed to doing our part to bring about a culture that prioritizes both accountability and healing.

We recognize and understand that it is unusual for School Committee members-elect to engage in public comment prior to being sworn in. We also recognize and understand that we do not have all the facts – none of us have seen the unredacted report nor are privy to confidential processes. That said, there is an undisputed truth that the students who experienced harm 11 months ago are still in pain. We also know that CRLS students and staff as well as the CPS community continue to experience many racist situations. In this regard, Cambridge is a microcosm that reflects the widespread problem that continues to exist across our community and country.

We all know that Cambridge can and must do better than this. We want to work with you, departing and remaining members, superintendent Kenneth Salim, students, families and educators, to see such productive, educational and healing responses to this and future incidents.

We believe institutional culture is disproportionately set at the top. On the campaign trail and again with one another in the last week, the three of us have expressed support for restorative justice. Restorative justice provides an evidence-based approach to holding individuals accountable for their behavior and building community by using collaborative processes to problem-solve and heal. It is inherently an educational process. Whether there is harm by an adult to a student, a student to another student or between adults, it provides principles and practices for moving forward. We are heartened that CPS has started to integrate restorative justice into our schools, including expanding Chandra Banks’ role to train educators in restorative justice and to lead mediations. We also are encouraged that delegations from multiple schools have participated in trainings on the method.

When we are sworn in as your colleagues, we plan to explore a motion for the School Committee to be trained in restorative justice, to “circle up” as a group in order to build our own cohesion and efficacy, and to look into how members could circle up with other key constituencies in the district. The intent of the motion would be to build a shared language and set of practices that reflects the accountability-taking and relationship-oriented healing practices that we want to see across the district.

These are not the circumstances in which we hoped to begin our tenure, but we are witnessing intense pain and feel compelled to take action. We know and appreciate that each of you also wants our students and school community to heal from this – and many other – incidents.

We look forward to working together.

José Luis Rojas Villarreal, Rachel Weinstein and Ayesha Wilson, School Committee members-elect