Over the past few weeks, I have been grappling with a nagging conundrum regarding the state of activism in our country, as well the City of Cambridge. The advent of social media, coupled with a 24-hour news cycle, has led to many of us either forgetting or choosing to disregard the importance – the moral imperative – to be activists committed to institution building. Progressive approaches still have room to model the steadfastness of our ancestors and elders. We must channel the strength of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lani Guinier and Bob Moses. We must humble ourselves to sit at the feet of Janet Moses, Kathy Ann Reddick, Caroline Hunter, Ray Shurtleff, Mel King, Ruby Pierce, Pam and Charles Ogletree Jr., Phyllis Bretholtz and far too many archetypes of activism to name before we lose their institutional genius – not to death, but to our smug egos simply failing to ask for help. We must continue to learn and to build on their work while we are granted the privilege to do just that: learn.

As a parent it is painfully clear that I must awaken every day with the reckless abandon to model a modicum of excellence for my child, so that he may not emulate me but eventually surpass his father throughout his journey. In committing to this work of moving our children from good to great, we must be aggressive and unapologetic in preparing the young people in our village to be 10 times more prepared than each of us. As we continue to publicly lift the wealth of resources endowed throughout this community, it is not lost on me as an alumni of Cambridge Public Schools – 28 years removed – that we are still shy of a civic identity that radically and unapologetically services the needs of all our students. Not just those students who inherently have the self-advocacy skills to grasp at an education obtainable within a well-resourced system, yet somehow remains just out of reach. Not just the few students who find a way to break the budget and busing bureaucracy, or the many whose family resources place them in elite spaces beginning with premiere preschool. Quite frankly, we have a great deal to do to aptly move the children in our public schools from good to great, while addressing the nuances of how neoliberalism in Cambridge has potentially done more harm than good. During this upcoming school year and moving forward, all parties who are committed to liberation must work in a structured, organized, aligned and metric-driven chorus to cohesively unlock the genius of each of our learners. It is equally important to address the structural racism and classism that exists in this community, despite good intentions and well-meaning, overly saturated, moderated discussions.

The Covid-induced shift to simultaneously sheltering, living and working in place coupled with the national racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder spawned a fervent discourse. While video conferencing across our country and around the world, it seemed that though the pandemic was keeping us physically apart, perhaps more of us were philosophically coming together. Many must have felt quite proud of their revelation of systemic discrimination or relieved that their long-standing laments of racial violence were finally undeniable.

But now discourse must move beyond Zoom calls and socially distanced town halls; it must compel us to move us from rhetoric to results as pervasive intergenerational academic gaps must be addressed with an antidote that is not in the form of a basketball or a block party. Morale is built and sustained when the adults of the village roll up their sleeves to complete the work of our human- and civil rights icons past and present. They have given us the blueprint that far too many of us, me not exempt, at times fail to adhere to.

Educating the children of this village is not the sole responsibility of the school administrators at 135 Berkshire St., nor is it the singular responsibility of the School Committee; it must exist as an organized and coordinated multi-service provider effort that is committed to excellence and rooted in metric-driven results. It must be an all-in community force of as much and many as we can muster that works in tandem with the city manager and City Council. We must stop claiming dollars from MIT and Harvard will cure all ills in our schools. That is not only a misguided statement, but places the onus on others while shifting responsibility out of our locus of control. No school, teacher, district, politician or program can save us. We must lead the charge to reposition ourselves.

We’ve become a community that has shied away from grit, allowing any new academic jargon to pivot us in a moment. It’s time to get back to the basics and operate under tough love. If a student is struggling it’s not simply societal pressure, it’s often compounded by the adults in our community who make a litany of excuses for behavior. It’s a failure to drive forward and change the circumstances for our children. Far too many adults lack grit, and by proximity our children find it to be a Herculean task to model it. Change is not usually comfortable or convenient.

The adults must be okay with unlearning behaviors and being tougher with fellow parents who have done harm by not pushing through to undo their bad experiences with education. We must operate under the guise of solutions, not well-versed soliloquies. The focus must be liberation and at this present moment we’re not liberating children, we’re assuaging our egos.

We are once again being granted the rare opportunity to work differently, to dream without limits, to build beyond walls and to unstick ourselves while chasing a new dream – a dream in which we don’t allow ourselves to be marred in intellectual tug-of-wars around antiracism doctrines, social-emotional learning or instructing through an equity lens. All these pillars are important and are not mutually exclusive to furnishing our children with a great education. It is time to simply say no more to the surveys that account for voices but don’t amplify them, panels of pontification, faux policy orders and any other rhetoric-driven exercises that don’t yield results. Instead of town halls, let’s opt for teach-ins that empower people with the tools and armor to fight the battles of a poorly aligned system. Our district leaders are not solely responsible for educational failings; as community members we too share the blame, because we have enabled and perpetuated a poorly articulated and just as poorly executed 24-hour teaching and learning village for our children. I am for moving to actionable projects that are mission-driven, while unpacking statistical data with a plan that spells out the short- and long-term needs of our children. It is time to move from a well-resourced and poorly coordinated village to an international, interconnected model of excellence.


Tony Clark is the co-founder and co-president of the My Brother’s Keeper, Cambridge, Task Force and a professor of African American literature and learning communities.