Justin Cohen is the former president of Boston-based nonprofit Mass Insight Education, and one of the co-founders of the We Are Educators for Justice initiative. Here he explains why he has prioritized working at the intersection of education and racial justice.
I have spent my career working to improve public schools, and that work comes from a personal, lifelong commitment to social justice. My grandfather was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska, my mother started her career in the Boston public schools, and I went to K-12 public schools in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
I'm almost embarrassed to say, though, that it wasn't until I moved to Massachusetts that I realized how foolish it was to approach school improvement without also dealing with the lasting impact of institutional racism on schools. It's hard to pinpoint moments of personal transformation, but after the murder of Trayvon Martin, my colleagues and I began having much more transparent conversations about race and racism. I subsequently led a reading group discussion of the book Common Ground, which details the saga of desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. Reflecting on the chillingly familiar ugliness of that era, I realized that our current technocratic attempts at reform were doomed to fail without a concomitant focus on the racism that lived beneath our public institutions.
I also realized that my colleagues of color had been saying some version of that same thing for many years, and that it was a failure of my own leadership that I did not shift my perspective sooner. While I appreciate the patience of my friends in the black community in particular, the other white folks in the field and I have done very little to earn such grace. I have made a personal commitment to undoing the racism that my past inaction has perpetuated, starting with my personal corner of the world.