THE STRENGTHENED MASSACHUSETTS civics standards for schools that was signed into law last month may well contain an unexpected benefit that will bolster the core of the state’s democracy: It can serve as a conduit to grapple with the persistent issues of race and violence— especially in the Commonwealth’s urban centers.
The law was needed. Along with other democracy reforms advocated for by organizations like the New Democracy Coalition since the early 2000s, the law is an important tool to be used for developing vested citizens. By signing the bill into law, Gov. Baker acted wisely in strengthening the fabric of democracy by increasing civic literacy in our public schools.
But what kind of innovation can flow from this new law? Surely, textbook teaching about how local, state, and federal government functions and what constitutes citizenship is important and must be foundational. This kind of instruction will give the next generation clear ideas about to how to navigate the broad boulevards and narrow backstreets of our democracy — giving precious lessons about the hard won right to vote, the mechanics of elections, media, rights to petition and advocacy.
But the strengthened civics curriculum could also have students grapple with the pressing issues like race and violence.
Whether we admit it or not, racial animus and urban violence sit at the epicenter of our civic life. In many cases they stand as impediments to broadening our sense of public engagement and creating a more functional Commonwealth.
Sadly, examples abound. This fall anti-Semitic graffiti was found scrawled on the walls of a public high school in Reading. Similarly, anti-black sentiments were sprayed across the doors of a public elementary school in South Boston. In Salem this fall, Mayor Kim Driscoll responded to racist graffiti on public facility by saying that such vandalism “must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
Urban violence likewise disrupts the functional performance of our body politic. In Boston, the murder rate this year may surpass last year’s numbers. Three murders in Springfield in September drew sharp alarm from anti-violence activists in the city. In 2013, Springfield was noted as one of the most violent cities in the Northeast. In Boston, if you are a black, Latino or Cape Verdean male between the ages of 18 and 34, you are more likely to be a victim of murder than any other demographic group.
How can civic literacy in our public schools address these issues? What forms of public instruction can be employed to address systemic racism and violence? What strategies exist? Who is prepared to work within our public school systems to find solutions to these problems.
No panacea is possible. But a clear approach to our public crises around race and violence is possible. Two pedagogic elements must be included in the implementation within our public schools in the wake of the newly minted civics law.
First, youth in our state’s public schools must be sensitized to the history and ongoing tragedy of race in our state. Such “sensitivity” should include the fact that Massachusetts was both the first colony to legalize slavery and the first state to end the practice. Our state’s founding father participated in the genocide of First Nation people. These realities serve as a basis upon which we can generate forward-looking conversations and expanded social sympathies.
Knowing our history around race may well predispose us toward public empathy and corrective behaviors.
The legacy of racial intolerance in our Commonwealth must be confronted in order to address how we eradicate it. Teaching the history of civil rights — and other forms of intolerance — in our state would represent an enormous step forward. Facing History, Facing Ourselves and The New Democracy Coalition’s recently created Faneuil Hall Race + Reconciliation project are organizations that can add to how race discussion and learning can serve as tools for building our capacity as a democracy. The ultimate goal is to create, through public school instruction, what Brenda Salter McNeil has called “intercultural competence” and “intercultural integrity.”
Second, Values Over Violence, a fledgling program run by Newton-based Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries provides a template on how we address urban violence. Utilizing personal reflection, intense behavior modification techniques, and peer-to-peer learning, Cooperative Ministries is currently working in the state’s Department of Youth Services system to reverse violent behavior among inner city youth so that neighborhoods are stabilized in Boston. Their goals focus on reinforcing mores that confirm the sanctity of life and foster a sustained belief in human flourishing.
Race and urban violence remain a threat to peace and democracy in our Commonwealth. They are particularly visible in the state’s urban centers.
The new civics law presents an opportunity to engage the challenges that they present. Through tested and innovative programmatic approaches that directly engage youth in our public schools we can inculcate new perspectives and attitudes that value diversity and life. We can change the dispositions of a new generation of youth by teaching that racism is a civic sin and violence should be eschewed at all costs.
Creating a civics law is the first step in a longer journey toward addressing fundamental problems that plague our communities. With creativity and a will to strengthen our democracy, we can advance the cause of a greater and enhanced public life.
Kevin Peterson is founder of the Boston-based New Democracy Coalition.