ELECTION COMMENTARY: Why are there no black, indigenous, or people of color candidates running in Medford?

The candidate pool for the 2019 elections for Medford’s School Committee, City Council, and mayor include very few, if any, people of color. While the city’s overall population is around 70 percent white, the public schools have 48 percent of students of color, and that proportion is projected to increase.

In addition, West Medford remains one of the last neighborhoods with a rich history and presence of African Americans in Massachusetts.

Why then do we not have a single candidate who is Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color (BIPOC)? What barriers exist for BIPOC candidates from contesting in elections or for that matter, why is their absence in city elections not a topic of discussion? Are we to assume that there are no candidates who are viewed as capable of running or are there systemic barriers in place that do not allow access to power for BIPOC in Medford? If you think there is no one capable of running, are you saying that BIPOC are lacking in ability and are not equal to everyone else? If you think there are barriers in place for POC, why are you not acknowledging and addressing it?

Make no mistake, Medford like the rest of the U.S. owes much to the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves. It is explicitly visible in Medford via the Royall House, Pomp’s Wall, and the Slave Memorial. The “nation of immigrants” is a grand narrative meant to override and make invisible the labor, lives, and stories of those who were forced to work without financial compensation and the most basic of human rights.

Today, African Americans continue to be affected by the legacy of slavery as it is manifested in institutional, structural, and everyday racism, whereas the fruits of their labor accrue to those who inherited the wealth created by chattel slavery. This legacy continues in the gross underrepresentation of teachers of color to match student demography in schools to the lack of politicians of color representing the diversity of the city in City Hall chambers, to the city government and the police force.

The idea, pull up by the bootstraps or meritocracies do not work when certain folks are denied bootstraps or have barriers placed from accessing them. The argument that “there are not enough qualified candidates” reveals institutional racism that disallows and prevents people of color from equally accessing the resources and opportunities to be qualified. It also ignores the fact that the “qualifications required” were written and administered by those who have held power historically and continue to do so.

So then why are there no BIPOC candidates in Medford? Why do many African Americans and other families of color still continue to suffer discomfort each time they walk in and view the 1939 mural at the Medford Square Post Office with no interpretive signage? And why do people who do not suffer that same discomfort have an equal say in it? Why did the school psychologist at the Medford High School resign, citing racism as the reason for leaving in June this year? Why are we informed in the city website that Medford was founded in 1630, erasing the presence of the indigenous communities who lived here before colonization?

Why do I meet children of color from the schools who share stories of being bullied in the name of their skin color to being suspended without paperwork? Why do I hear African American parents share their sheer uneasiness over celebrations of Dr. Seuss in Medford schools when “Read Across America” has itself turned away from these works following several publications on the racist tropes in the stories? Why do they feel uncomfortable speaking up?

All of this speaks to the overt and covert ways race continues to play a role in Medford. All of this points to a pattern of making invisible the voices of BIPOC. And that many white people would jump to argue otherwise and feel they are qualified and entitled to do so, proves my point. So the lack of candidates shouldn’t surprise anyone. But what is shocking is the number of folks who speak in favor of diversity and equity, and yet there is no change in the horizon for BIPOC to have access to power.

We cannot absolve ourselves of racism in our schools by citing there are only 18 percent of teachers of color in the U.S. and hence we cannot have teachers representative of the student demography in Medford. Using that as an excuse, to not acknowledge and intentionally change that in our schools, is partaking of the same racist systems that continue to exclude people of color. There are schools across the nation, which recognize the absolute necessity of staff of color, which are intentional about hiring diverse staff and have succeeded.

Studies show if a black student has just one black teacher by third grade that student is 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two black teachers were 32 percent more likely. In fact, having teachers of color is beneficial to ALL students as their class experiences help counter stereotypes, combat bias and groom students for success in an increasingly diverse world both personally and professionally. The recent rise in online recruitment of white youth by alt-right and white supremacist groups targeted at schools and colleges should be another reason for us to sit up and take action.

Although we have more than one candidate standing on equity platforms, one wonders how committed they are to equity and social justice beyond it being the words du jour to seek votes. The tragedy is that however well-meaning our equity intentions, intentions don’t matter if we don’t have a basic understanding of equity. Ergo, intentions will not yield equitable impacts, informed actions that yield outcomes, do.

By now, some of you will be Googling or cursing, or both, to find out who the heck I am. Well, I am an East Indian immigrant, with a doctorate in cultural sociology, teaching at an educational institution in Boston, running an organization that does social justice and equity training (your SJW warrior), and a parent to an 8-year-old, living in Medford. Rest assured, I recognize that I am an Asian American woman who enjoys a lot of privileges due to my educational and financial background, but I have also experienced prejudice as a woman, a person of color, and an immigrant.

Why do I designate myself as the person to ask these questions about Medford’s candidates and elected officials? The answer: there is no one else asking them. I ask these questions as a person of color standing on the platform of the privilege my educational and financial background grants me. So here is my call to action to candidates in the upcoming elections, both incumbents and newbies.

1. If you do not have the lived experiences of people of color, you DO NOT represent the diversity of Medford, or speak for them, unless expressly asked to do so. In other words, you lack the expertise and experience to speak with relevance and knowledge. Your role is to listen, help them reclaim and offer spaces for them to use their own voices.

2. Build relationships and trust with communities of color not represented in City Hall. Go to them, make them feel welcome, gain their trust, and recognize that the places (of power) you navigate are not welcoming spaces for many of them.

3. Do not hire people of color only because they are people of color. Unless you have their informed consent to be included or heard, your inclusion of them is mere tokenism that minimizes their merit and talents. If you do hire or work with them, make sure they have the space to be themselves and can air their opinions without fear of repercussion even though their views may make you extremely uncomfortable.

4. Embrace your discomfort. Lean into it. Ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable.

5. Recognize the comfort you do feel and contemplate how and why you might feel as comfortable as you do.

6. Check your assumptions. For each action you take, take a closer look at the impact of your actions rather than your intentions.

7. Check yourself for “performative alyship” or “ally theater” where you talk the talk shouting from the rooftops on social media and elsewhere, but do not follow with actions.

8. When you are “listening to” or “speaking for” BIPOC, is your focus on making yourself look good or will you make decisions and actions that spur real change in power or influence?

9. Do not rely on your Black or Brown coworkers to teach you about anti-racism. Do not rely on their emotional labor to educate you. Don’t ask them to relive their experiences of racism to enlighten you. Do the work yourself. If you still can’t find answers, say you tried and acknowledge the price and labor a POC has to expend to educate you.

10. Learn the difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism.

11. Understand the differences between systemic, institutional, internalized and interpersonal racism. Reflect how it exists in your world and what you can do about it.

12. Your role is not just to “listen” or crown yourselves as “spokespersons” or “allies”, if you do not have the lived experience of BIPOC. What you can do is amplify the voices of BIPOC, break barriers for them, and at every opportunity, step aside to create a platform for them to speak their own truth. That is how you use your position if you want to work for diversity, equity, inclusion, or whatever the name you give it.

Writing this also cost me a lot of emotional labor while risking my reputation for “not being nice.” But this is the work that needs to be done and unless you step up there is no one else in your position willing to do the right thing. And you or I do not get any brownie points for doing the right thing. Plus, this work is always in progress. There is going to be criticism from BIPOC for what I have written and for the work you will be doing. I welcome the criticism. This work is a continuum until we can ensure equality for all.

For equality for all we need equitable solutions as all of us do not start at the same line. The history of this country and this city testifies to it. Let us change this history.

Dr. Divya Anand is an author, educator, and breaker of status quos, residing in Medford, Mass. She is the founder and director of research at Gaia Connections, a social justice and equity consultancy and a senior faculty at Cambridge College, Boston.