(Pastor Benjamin Echevarria, a Boston Foundation fellow, is the Executive Director of the Welcome Project and also serves as the co-chair of the The Tisch College Community Research Center at Tufts University. He is the Ward 1 chair of the Somerville Democrats and serves as the Chair of Political Education for the Latino Caucus of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.)
As the executive director of a leading immigrant advocacy organization serving both the both documented and undocumented community and a long-time advocate in the Latino community you’d think I’d be the last person to be intimidated by anyone.
For years I’ve worked on the front lines of social justice, rallying thousands to stand up and fight for their rights and building coalitions with some of the most powerful organizations in Massachusetts.
But last week as I sat on a stage waiting for my turn to speak as part of a panel on how to help immigrant students as a part of the professional development curriculum for teachers within the Somerville Public School system, I was suddenly thrown back to my own experience as a 9 year old little boy — sitting at a desk in front of some of these same faces — and the vibe was incredibly different.
As I looked out to the audience — I recognized many of these educators. Some were friendly faces of teachers I have met through various community events and my work in civic engagement. I knew them to be engaged, devoted and empathetic to the struggle of children of color and people living in poverty.
But others I knew from my own school days. Another group of teachers who were in my life almost 30 years ago.
I remembered them well.
Teachers who had no problem telling me directly to my face that I would “never amount to anything” and seemed hell-bent on making sure that would happen — now sat before me as the senior teachers in the school district some 30 years later.
As I sat there listening, my mind began to wonder to my own days as a student and growing up in a neighborhood where my sisters and I were the only students of color in our public school.
On a daily basis, kids spit out racial slurs to us directly in front of teachers — who would turn a blind eye and act as if it were never said. Instead, I was always labeled the troublemaker or problem child because I refused to “ignore” the slurs and would defend myself.
Teachers often sent notes home claiming I was disruptive or argumentative but in reality, all I did was sleep in class. If I wasn’t causing problems, I was invisible.
But the message to me as a young student was clear: no matter what I did or didn’t do somehow, I was always the problem.
And it was clear, no one there was going to help. What is a student to do when the very people who are supposed to be responsible for your safety and the ones you’re supposed to trust to help are the problem?
Eventually my parents gave up on the public schools. Although we were poor, they worked endlessly to give me a chance to go to a private high school and avoid Somerville High School — where I was guaranteed to be failed as a Latino in our community.
Some of the other guests on the panel began to spout platitudes on how great the schools are while thanking teachers telling them how amazing the schools are on the issues of race and immigration.
My thoughts then turned to why would such a forum be needed for teacher development. Once again, I scanned the auditorium — filled by teachers who did not reflect the minority-majority population of our school district.
Looking directly at my former teachers — butterflies swarmed around in my stomach. Although that scared little 9 year old boy was still inside me, the 43 year old man I am today had to speak up.
I snapped out of my thoughts as the moderator asked me a question was asked on why is it important to be speaking about immigrants now and when the microphone came to me I decided to speak my mind.
I began with addressing the painful history of how the schools and the city has consistently stumbled on handling race issues in the past — including the race riots that may have been whitewashed from recent memory for some, but remained top of mind for those of us who lived through them.
I reminded them that for all we pretend to be — many in our city, even teachers, aren’t as progressive as we think on the issues of race and immigration. The audience sat in uncomfortable silence as I ticked off multiple examples of how parents in the immigrant community have come to me for help after many failed attempts at trying to work with the school system to fix issues — and how they often see me as their last effort to fix a system that is broken.
My mind is still racing as I think through how much of an impact teachers have had on my life and how my adult life is driven by proving these teachers and adults wrong.
And providing professional development for teachers in my hometown was very much a homecoming for me filled with rage, nervousness, and disappointment.
You were wrong. Yes, I became something.
(Ben receiving a resolution from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for his advocacy for the immigrant and Latino communities across the state just last week.)
But I can’t help but think about how many other students of color like me were treated the same way?
How many gave up before they ever got a real chance in a public school?
And more urgently — why are these same teachers who failed me still here — and in that auditorium?
Why weren’t these teachers weeded out of the schools?
And how many children are falling through the cracks as we speak?
What do you think?