By Diti Kohli
Jennifer Hedrington, a Salemwood School math teacher who is Haitian American, wearily remembered missing out as a child on having a teacher who looked like her. Today she advocates alongside the Malden Community Organizing for Racial Equity to ensure the same won’t happen to any of her seventh grade students.
Hedrington is a part of MaldenCORE, a community-based organization that aims to foster more diverse leadership representation in the city, especially in its schools.
Starting August 2018, the groups hosts “fourth Wednesday conversations” open to the public in the Markey Senior Center dining room. Members lead inclusive conversations on issues that disproportionately affect communities of color.
“The beginning of solving all issues is a conversation,” said Hedrington. “Some of these topics are frustrating and painful, but we have to go through pain to make that change happen.”
Past “conversations” addressed bias in the education system, the nature of racial discrimination, and the school-to-prison pipeline that drives disadvantaged students to criminal activity. Last Wednesday, three presenters detailed the origin and history of mass incarceration that largely disenfranchised the black population to nearly two dozen attendees.
Each Wednesday conversation begins by referencing the group’s mission statement that calls for cultural inclusion, justice, and equity. Speakers then introduce statistics and video clips that explain the issue and segue into small group discussion guided by pre-planned questions.
Erga Pierrette, co-convener and organizer of MaldenCORE, said each conversation usually draws more than 35 people from Malden and its surrounding cities. Interested guests learn about the meetings simply through word of mouth or the group’s recently created Facebook page. A large portion of attendees do not identify as people of color.
“It’s a beautiful thing that people of all backgrounds attend…all people are noticing that things aren’t right,” said Pierrette.
The 12 consistent MaldenCORE members collaboratively brainstorm conversation topics when they convene two weeks before each Wednesday meeting, and individual members volunteer to spearhead the presentations they like.
David Senatillaka, a MaldenCORE member who interacts with inmates routinely in his job within the criminal justice system, said he chose to present on mass incarceration because of the breadth of people it negatively impacts.
“It’s an issue that is close to my heart, and it affects a lot of people’s voting rights,” said Senatillaka. “How can they ever participate in society if they can’t vote?”
Outside of these monthly meetings, MaldenCORE aims to prevent instances of discrimination in the school system and hopes to enact anti-racism education programs for public school teachers. A handful of MaldenCORE members met with the superintendent of Malden School District, John Oteri, last week to begin to build a relationship with district leadership.
Oteri’s office declined requests for an interview.
Malden High School ranks as the most diverse public high school in Massachusetts and the 25th most diverse in the country, according to Niche. The majority of the city’s residents identify as minorities, deeming Malden a “minority-majority” town. Residents even speak more than 60 different languages, said Pierrette.
But first grade teacher and MaldenCORE member Rachel Sorlien finds that representation and racial awareness in Malden does not mirror the city’s diversity.
“I have an incredibly diverse group of students, and many other teachers and I have a lot of learning to do,” said Sorlien. “Racial equity just isn’t a priority in schools in Malden right now.”
Through steady action beginning in the city’s schools, MaldenCORE strives to create policy to alleviate inequality in town and elect a school board, administration, and city council that reflects Malden’s colorful demographic.
Since its formation two years ago, MaldenCORE does not have a strict blueprint of qualifications to identify its members. Pierrette and her co-convener, Isadel Eddy, distinguish members from non-members by their commitment to weekly meetings and the MaldenCORE mission statement. In the future, they hope to incorporate more students and younger members.
Pierrette founded MaldenCORE with Isadel Eddy two years ago when their passion for education and equality drove them to form a dedicated group away from their jobs in Malden schools. Going forward, they want to continue their engagement with the community for the same reason the organization began.
“We created this because our future depends on it. The future of all communities of color in the city depends on it,” said Pierrette. “That’s why this is important.”
The next Wednesday conversation on May 22 features guest speaker Mikelina Belaineh at the Market Senior Center. See the MaldenCORE facebook page for more events and information.
Diti Kohli is an intern at MATV and a journalism major at Emerson College.