By Ginni Spencer
Bedford Embraces Diversity hosted the second annual Martin Luther King Community Breakfast at the First Church of Christ, Congregational, on Monday, January 15, to mark the late Dr. King’s birthday.
The energy of the gathering was upbeat and hopeful as nearly 200 people gathered in the church’s Fellowship Hall to listen to featured speakers who have been part of Bedford’s METCO program. Time was also made available for brief discussion of issues raised by the speakers and how Bedford might respond to strengthen the program which is now 40+ years old.
After a brief welcome from Marilou Barsam, president of Bedford Embraces Diversity, Mike Rosenberg, treasurer, took over as emcee. He began by introducing town officials who joined the celebration, including Moderator Cathy Cordes; State Representative Ken Gordon; Col. Roman Hund, commander of the 66th Air Group at Hanscom Air Force Base; Margot Fleischman, Chair of the Bedford Selectmen; Mike Rosen, Assistant Town Manager; Police Chief Robert Bongiorno; Fire Chief David Grunes; Heather Gallant, Principal of Bedford High School; and O.C. O’Connor, commander of American Legion Post 221 accompanied by representatives of the USAF security forces at Hanscom. The invocation was given by the Rev. John Castricum, Senior Pastor of First Church of Christ.
Bedford METCO Director Akil Mondesir (BHS class of 1998 and himself a former METCO student), introduced the speakers and recognized the family of the late Irene Parker, Bedford’s first METCO director. Ms. Parker’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson were in attendance and the three generations took the stage amid a standing ovation. Yvette Cheeks, Ms. Parker’s daughter, said “All of these young people meant a lot to my mother and father….This program could not exist without the support of Bedford families.”
The first round of speakers included Marcell Bittle (class of 1996), Lennox Chase (class of 1990) and Jameel Moore (class of 1997). Each person spoke individually and described a positive experience enhanced by caring BHS staff members and for some, the value of participating in the sports program. At that time, there was no late bus into Boston provided by the program, so after school participation was limited or came at a high cost: taking public transit back to Boston and not arriving home until 10 pm or later. Since the school day began at 5 am for most students, there was little time for homework and rest. Chase, who started in the program as a kindergartener and was the first graduate of the program to complete all 12 years in Bedford, concluded his remarks by saying: “Race and socio-economic status are two of the many factors that divide us. But our…humanity is what keeps us united. Hopefully, the experience of METCO ripples beyond Bedford and beyond the state and stems the tide of darkness that is on our country right now.”
In the second round of speakers were more recent graduates which included Naomi, Brianna, and Chantay Robinson, triplets in the class of 2015 and fellow classmate Master Sandy Peaks; and Chauncy Williams, class of 2017.
Chantay Robinson and her sisters started in the program in sixth grade. She pointed to the Tenacity Challenge as particularly meaningful with its opportunities for team work and public speaking. She expressed a wish going forward that more minority teachers would become part of the staff, especially those teaching courses focused on African-American history and experience. She felt that being in the METCO program helped “steer me in the right direction”. Chantay is now a Criminal Justice major at University of New Haven, class of 2019. “The criminal justice system is really messed up right now….There shouldn’t be minorities dying from the hands of officers who should learn how to properly be officers and protect the society….I think that starting in high school to interact with others and to love one another and actually talk to each other [is important]…you can’t just stick around people who look like you…being in Bedford taught me that.”
Naomi Robinson, also a student at Quinnipiac University graduating in 2019, said she felt “embraced” by Bedford students from her first day. However, over time “There were some incidents,” and she recalled as one a video prepared by METCO students in their senior year that described aspects of their experience by recreating interactions with some white BHS students. The video was aired on the school TV station. According to Robinson meetings at the school held afterward were critical of those who put the video together. “We were not attacking white students,” she stressed. “We were explaining our experience, which couldn’t be “wrong” because we were talking about our experience.”
Click this link to view the video It has accumulated more than 66,000 views on YouTube.
Brianna Robinson, also currently a student at Quinnipiac University, said that “overall, the Bedford METCO experience was amazing.” At times, she felt excluded from certain social after-school and weekend socializing and found that these incidents “opened my eyes to who [were] really my friends.” She expressed the opinion that it was easier for the male METCO students who went out for sports and made friends through the team experience. Although all three of the sisters participated in track, Brianna said she regrets now that she did not more aggressively reach out to fellow white female students.
Chauncy Williams said that being a member of the football team was a big factor in finding friends and fitting in. Again, and this was a theme touched on by almost all the speakers, staying after school and then dealing with the long commute home was a serious challenge for any after-school participation. In his case, he often stayed overnight with a teammate’s family. Williams said he “never felt alone” and also praised The Tenacity Challenge as being a very positive event in his life at the high school.
Master Sandy Peaks became part of the METCO program in the third grade. He recalled the challenges of having fewer friends in Boston where he lived than he had in Bedford. While at the high school, there was an incident with swastikas being drawn as graffiti in various places within the school. This incident was part of his own growing racial awareness, including recognizing that he was not always included like everyone else was. That said, he said he felt participating in the program “was not all bad” and “set the ground rules”, including how to act with people of different cultures.
All of the speakers agreed that the METCO experience was formative and helped prepare them both academically and socially for life after BHS. This included an understanding of leadership, awareness of the different ways people interact depending on individual experience, and as one student said, “BHS taught me my opinion matters.”
Reginald Nichols, Assistant Director of Human Resources and Affirmative Action Officer at Middlesex Community College acted as facilitator of discussion among all the attendees following the speakers. He asked each table (typically 6 to 8 people) to consider two questions based on the speaker presentations. First, what might be done to enhance the experience of female METCO students in particular and second, how could outreach to METCO families be improved to strengthen relationships and visibility between the two communities. Time was limited for any detailed consideration of these issues, but the buzz in the room was enthusiastic and the few suggestions that were shared with the larger group included making sure the late bus schedule is responsive to the needs of METCO students and providing more opportunities for Bedford and METCO families to interact.
The program ended with live music by Jerome Kyles, Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music in Boston which included an acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace” and “O Happy Day” in which everyone joined in, and two songs by Donny Hathaway. It was a toe-tapping ending to a bright, spirited meeting characterized by intergenerational participation and discussion of issues relevant to this important program.
Editor’s Note: At the end of Monday’s program, the organizers distributed slips of paper so that attendees could share their reactions to the morning’s events. A representative selection of the comments will appear in The Bedford Citizen on Thursday.