Ayesha Wilson for School Committee, 2021
Incumbent first elected in 2019 running for committee for the second time
Background: Social work | Focuses: Teacher diversity, universal pre-K
Why did you decide to run for another term on the School Committee?
I am a social worker and work as a senior teacher-counselor for the Cambridge Housing Authority’s Work Force Program, mentoring young CHA residents and preparing them for college and careers. As the only School Committee member who works directly with Cambridge scholars, I center them in my leadership and my policy approach. I am running for reelection to build on the progress I have made in my first term in tackling systemic racism, building student mental health and planning for universal mentorship to guide students in their postsecondary paths.
My work on the committee and at the CHA is deeply personal for me. I graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2000 and was a student in the Work Force program growing up in CHA homes. After high school, I worked human-services jobs around the city for seven years before earning my degrees in human services and social work. I have built my career around the city that built me, and my personal and professional experiences and deep relationships with Cambridge’s young people and educators each drive my work on the Committee.
What are the top three issues you would like to address if reelected?
The biggest challenge is that our system is deeply rooted within a white supremacist culture. It will take bold leaders and a bold community to address systemic racism. Here is where I believe we start. This is embedded in the goals we set for ourselves and our students, and I support equitable data and metrics for reading and math for Black and Latinx students, as well as for children with learning challenges. For too long, our district has formalized unequal expectations on the basis of race by setting different targets for white students and students of color on our state tests. Our target should be 100 percent reading proficiency by the end of third grade, and we can reach it with coordinated support for students inside and outside of the classroom.
We also face a crisis in student mental health. As the only social worker on the committee, I fought successfully to add nine social workers to the district budget this term; in my next term, I will work to build mental health curriculum into every grade level and into professional development for all staff and to continue increasing the team of mental health and well-being professionals supporting our students.
Finally, many students graduate without a clear path to postsecondary success, and we must take a wrap-around community approach to mentorship, guidance and advising. I plan to work with my colleagues around a 1:1 “champion for every child” mentoring program to achieve this; Cambridge has resources for every student, but we often fail to help scholars navigate them properly.
Across all issue areas, my policy responses are deeply informed by my lived and professional experiences in Cambridge and by my relationships with students and educators. I have made trust-building one of my top priorities in office and I will continue to do so to tackle issues as they come.
What are the most effective ways to strengthen the district’s initiatives to promote social justice and racial equity?
At the beginning of my first term, I worked with committee member Rachel Weinstein to pass policy establishing racial justice as a top priority for the district, adopting many of the recommendations of the Building Equity Bridges project. This order laid the groundwork for new funding for the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. We must also concretely evaluate the superintendent based on racial equity outcomes; if we do not establish clear benchmarks and targets for success, we cannot adequately evaluate progress toward our goals.
Recruiting and retaining staff of color is also a vital step in building racial justice and equity in Cambridge. First, we should fill the position of director of diversity development – where the work was starting and would need to continue – which has been vacant for more than a year. We must also put as much emphasis on retention as on recruitment, and this means addressing the factors that make the district a tough work environment for many teachers and especially for teachers of color. We often recruit excellent teachers who leave the district after just a few years.
How can the district improve its efforts to provide culturally sensitive instruction tailored to student interests, skill sets and ambitions in light of the diversity of student backgrounds?
A real commitment to safety, access and culturally sensitive instruction for every student must be accompanied by concrete policy changes in any of these realms. Here are examples of how I have approached this in my first term:
- The order Rachel Weinstein and I cosponsored didn’t simply declare racial justice important; it laid the groundwork for funding the OEIB.
- I have worked with the Mayor and the Family Policy Council on language justice, and the City Council’s recent policy order based on our work sets the groundwork for a citywide policy.
We need similar commitments on access for trans and nonbinary students and staff, and I will make collaborative policymaking on this issue a priority next term. On every issue here, we must accompany our words with actions.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students and staff since March 2020 has revealed strengths and weaknesses in the system – are there specific items that you would review or revise?
The strength of this district was seen at the onset of the pandemic, when we were able to immediately ensure all learners had appropriate technology for engaging in remote learning and delivered Wi-Fi hot spots to many families who lacked Internet connection. I want for us to continue to support our student’s needs in a way that is inclusive and without judgment. This period let us reimagine learning and academic spaces to increase the level of engagement, relationships and social-emotional learning.
As a School Committee member, how would you encourage the district’s after-school providers and partners to improve or expand services?
As a well-resourced city, we are extremely lucky to have so many partners providing services to our youth. As an after-school provider myself, I would like to learn more about how programs adapted during this time. What were their learning lessons and takeaways, and how are they improving their program practices to meet the needs of participants? I would also encourage providers to expand their roles in mentoring youth. Along with Rachel Weinstein, one of my key priorities for next term is a Champion for Every Child mentoring approach tying in out-of-school-time providers and other community leaders to ensure that every Cambridge student has a caring and knowledgeable mentor in the city.
What processes would you put into place to encourage parents and caregivers to have a voice in shaping the district’s priorities?
I have been a leader in bringing more stakeholders to the table to engage in meaningful conversations around the needs of those most marginalized young people in our community. Between caregiver groups such as the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and Cambridge Families of Color Coalition to community partners including the Agenda For Children Out of School Time, Community Engagement Teams, My Brother’s Keeper and NAACP Cambridge. These partner and caregiver groups must continue to feel like they have a voice and can help determine and set the district’s priorities.
As essential as the voices of parents and caregivers are, our schools are also fundamentally about the scholars who learn within them. As the only School Committee member who works directly with young people in Cambridge for my full-time job, I have a unique opportunity to learn from students and educators at our district’s largest school, and this presence has allowed me to serve as an important conduit for student perspectives.