Cambridge youth participate in a June 20, 2020, rally at City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The normalization of failure that has proliferated in my hometown has broken my heart and is deteriorating our communal ethos. Over the past six weeks we have been plagued directly and indirectly by the virus of violence emblematic of a national problem, one that can be attributed to our collective impotence to strategically and pragmatically connect young people to lives that run counter to the lives that are glorified online – lives that present as idyllic, informed or woefully irreverent in our carefully curated digital stratosphere. Despite the wealth of resources and the proximity to a beacon of innovation, we remain a community stuck in the quicksand of mediocrity.

The greatest strength of our community is also its weakest link. We are a community that remains a model to the ones who can and have benefited from its genius, yet an enigma to those who have not had access to the same Cambridge as their neighbors. Recently, I found myself partaking in conversation with six members of the latest Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduating class; coincidently. all six as of Thursday have decided not to attend college in the fall. Nor did they have jobs lined up. Intrigued by their responses, I continued to push the limits of the conversation and peppered the multiracial and multiethnic subgroup, four males and two females, with questions about their experiences coming of age in our hometown. They unknowingly spoke to navigating a fractured system that requires rethinking and redesign beyond our schools. The system that I heard most critiqued without being explicitly called out was our penchant to normalize mediocrity. Four of the young people indicated that they would be taking a “gap year,” but were unable to spell out what that year would look like. The concept lacked form and function; likely they heard it being used by one of their classmates and felt it was suitable for this discussion, adding a layer of acceptability to this strange and intrusive adult – though I have more in common with them than they knew. I too believed that my hometown was better situated for greatness than it actually is; I bought into the advertised promise and presumed privilege of a city of great potential but very little collective will.

The paradox of Cambridge is that it represents a host of possibilities for those who have the audacity to dream, but for those who are distanced from access and equity – despite their proximity – need the greatest supports and are treated as afterthoughts, often devoid of a seat at the crowded and unorganized table of ideas of those who espouse to care and advocate. The haves sit front and center, while the have-nots are cloaked in intellectual invisibility. We are a world-class city with access to world-class and innovative ideas, but ideas are not action. We often demonstrate the antithesis of our marketed self as it pertains to leveraging success for our most vulnerable citizens. With that said, our most vulnerable must rise and present their most vigilant selves.

It is time for community stakeholders to engage in a moral reckoning that places tangible change for the vulnerable and marginalized among us, from newborn to our eldest members, front and center. We must be brave enough to challenge those running for office to discuss how they will make universal Pre-K happen, while simultaneously mapping out a strategy and commitment from the corporate oligarchs to fund programming for our formerly incarcerated. Those vying for opportunities to represent us must share their plans on the campaign trail and be held accountable by and to all of their constituents. This will challenge each of us to see political operatives as partners in arms versus assuming they are aligned to make change outside of reelection.

As I walk the streets and examine the pulse of the local and national discourse since the state execution of George Floyd, it is incumbent upon each of us to no longer be complacent in this moment and the moments ahead of us. I encourage citizens to challenge our elected officials, challenge law enforcement, nonprofit leaders and clergy, but only challenge those if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and surrender to the work.

We are a city that is on moral life support, too fearful to be curious and courageous enough to dream a new, bigger and broader dream – one that does not leave those six young people that I spoke of earlier to languish in and perpetuate the same communal fear and resistance that we have modeled for them. It is time to shun the normalization of mediocrity and replace it with expectancies of excellence. The time to change our priorities must begin today. We must shift our priorities from dogs and bikes, and only then to children. It’s time to dare to be excellent. The passing of giants rouses us to measure our own efforts next to their accomplishments. We lost Bob Moses on Sunday. His quiet but dynamic presence was embodied in his work and efforts to align with everyday people while pushing for change at the root, calling local leaders to task. Fearless and unfazed by the gatekeepers of the status quo, Cambridge’s own Moses understood the power of braiding voting power, education and community engagement to radically upend systems of inequity. He faced violence and opposition with humility and unwavering dedication. Let him be the bar we must meet as we charge ahead for change people can feel and claim from every corner of Cambridge, not simply the ivory tower.


Tony Clark is co-president of The My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge Task Force.

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