Boston Bridges Initiative is Designed to Build Relationships

Bedford METCO director Akil Mondesir (3rd from left) with returning Bedford METCO graduates at the Town’s 2018 Martin Luther King Community Breakfast


Students and families in the Bedford schools will serve as the pilot for a groundbreaking initiative designed to build relationships among people of different races by bringing them together in special social and educational settings.

Boston Bridges Initiative (BBI) “seeks to build meaningful cross-racial relationships within and between suburban and urban communities in the Greater Boston area,” according to its founders, including former Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills, parents Kim Dunsmore and Jessica Castro, and the METCO director, Akil Mondesir.

The goal is to “support communities’ efforts to facilitate social integration, a critically underdeveloped component of school desegregation.” It will be pursued “by providing resources to, and sharing best practices with, students, teachers, parents, and programs committed to creating a more racially just and integrated society.”

The new venture would be underway already, if not for the limitations imposed by the prevalence of Covid-19.

The program’s rationale is explained in a prospectus shared by Sills: “Segregation exists as a prime impediment to cross-racial understanding and racial justice. Racially diverse schools and school desegregation efforts provide the opportunity for cross-racial understanding but not the means unless there are deliberately planned opportunities for dialogue, inquiry, and social interaction.”

BBI “seeks to support initiatives beyond the classroom that foster friendships and dialogue among students and families within racially diverse communities and between suburban and urban communities. The new program will provide the funding and programming currently lacking to “promote cross-racial interaction and understanding.”

Howard L. Wolk

Howard Wolk of Weston is the donor who is making BBI possible. The fact that it landed in Bedford is because he shared the idea with a colleague who knew the school administration would be receptive.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” said Wolk, president of the Cross Country Group, a Medford-based business with a strong record of philanthropy. A 1982 Lexington High School graduate, Wolk recalled that, other than sports teammates, “Suburban students weren’t encouraged to socialize with METCO students, and never went into the city.” He suspects things haven’t changed much.

Wolk said he is “grateful to METCO for exposure to people who are different.” But interactions were limited, and “what a missed opportunity we had to really educate comfortable suburban residents on the African-American experience and make an easier friendlier environment.” Wolk helped produce two films in connection with METCO’s 50th anniversary observance. “Now let’s make it a better experience for METCO students and suburban kids,” he said.

About a year ago, Wolk mentioned to Jessica Castro, a colleague in the foundation world, that he was interested in underwriting activities and transportation to bring urban and suburban students and parents together. Castro, an administrator with the Trefler Foundation, is a former METCO director in the Marblehead schools and a current Bedford METCO parent.

The following weekend was Bedford Day, Castro said. She saw Sills during the festivities and briefed him on the conversation with Wolk. And soon thereafter, BBI was on its way in Bedford.

“Bedford will be where it starts up, but his vision is for all METCO communities,” Castro said. She pointed out that “each district looks different and not every superintendent has the same tenacity. Sometimes people are not willing to take the risk.”

“Jessica knew what Jon was doing in Bedford around building those bridges – like the affinity group for middle school, the hiking group at Lane School,” said Mondesir. “It seemed like a perfect match.”

“The things Bedford was doing were two or three years in the making. We were ahead of the curve in regard to building bridges with kids and families organically,” he continued. “Howard was able to put the finding behind the work we were doing.”

For the past several months, Sills coordinated planning the pilot program, assembling a written model with programmatic and financial projections.

According to the official program overview, “BBI will provide funding to support school staff and administrators’ efforts to create a more inclusive environment and provide opportunities for students to forge cross-racial relationships outside the classroom.”

BBI also would offer scholarships for students with financial needs to participate in overseas school trips, and support service projects or academic competitions “that expressly serve to bring METCO students, resident students of color, and white resident students together.”

Speaking as a METCO parent, Castro remarked, “Sometimes it’s a question of how to educate people on who we are and what we do,” It’s a huge culture shift for us. It’s a lot of work. People don’t realize the time commitments.” She said she wanted her daughter, now in grade 10, to be involved at the high school, not “a student who gets on the bus and gets off the bus.”

Mondesir, a 1998 BHS graduate, is excited about Bedford’s leadership opportunity.  “I feel like I have stock and equity in Bedford,” he asserted. “I want students to come back to Bedford with the feeling that  this is home to them.” He said he appreciates Sills’s “including me and always asking my input.”

Bedford’s Parent Diversity Council will sponsor its second book group this autumn

Bedford’s Parent Diversity Council, which supports the administration’s efforts to diversify faculty, close the achievement gap, and bring students closer together, plays a key role in the BBI package. Council members live in Bedford, in Boston, and on Hanscom Air Force Base.

Indeed, the first activity took place in July and August, with BBI helping to fund it. Dunsmore explained that participants read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You then “talked about it and broke down into smaller groups with an education guide. We got many of them to express feelings and thoughts. This was a good introduction for a lot of parents who have concerns about how to open dialogue with their children.”

The book discussion group continues later in the fall with An Indigenous People’s History of the United States – for Young People.  Click to learn more about the Parents Diversity Club’s autumn book group.  “There will be two meetings of a book group, and then on November 10 Claudia Foxtree will be speaking on Zoom,” Dunsmore said, mentioning the Bedford resident and well-known educator. “Each school has its own chairperson and BBI funding will be beneficial to everybody involved.”

“METCO is about enriching suburban kids as well as education,” Dunsmore observed. “There are many Black faces from all different backgrounds in the inner city. There are so many unique nuances and that should be celebrated. Our aim is to showcase the cultural wonderment that is Boston – not showing but experiencing – go to parks that are different, kids’ spots that we don’t have here.”

“A lot of METCO families that come into our school district are well educated, some with graduate degrees. And a lot of these kids are legacy kids.”

The prospectus defining BBI and its objectives point out that “students of color report experiencing racism and many feel isolated from both peers and school staff, which may limit their extracurricular engagement, social experiences and in some cases academic performance.”

“Most white students are not sufficiently engaged in learning about issues of race and inclusion, and there is little or even non-existent social interaction with students of color, which negatively impacts both their academic and social development.”

The prospectus provides examples of opportunities to support relationship building, carried out with parent groups like the PDC.

Some of the proposals specifically labeled the “Bedford pilot” include the Fifth Grade Boston-Bedford leadership hike and camping program; the middle school ‘lunch break’; and overnight anti-racism leadership retreats for high school students.

The pilot program in the Bedford schools will bring Kurt Faustin, a youth motivational speaker, to speak to BHS students. And there will be social events, community service projects, book clubs, workshops, and seminars for parents.

The prospectus also goes into detail on partnering with METCO and the METCO Directors Association. One component is called “METCO Presents,” learning through art and performance. This will “provide opportunities for students, staff and parents and the broader community to come together for thought-provoking artistic performances that spark meaningful conversations about race.” Outside speakers and leadership workshops are also envisioned.

“What we are hoping to do is trying to partner with directors where they can do their own outreach in their communities,” Mondesir said. “That way we can have parents in Concord and Bedford connected with parents in Boston.  That way it can grow into something bigger.”

“METCO provides a model and infrastructure that will help BBI expand beyond METCO communities,” the report says. There are 30 participating cities and towns encompassing 190 schools, some 3,000 METCO students, and 100,000 suburban counterparts. “This preexisting infrastructure allows BBI to quickly scale from one town in 2020 to 20-30 communities in four years.”

The hope was to grow from the Bedford pilot to an additional two or three communities in a year and eight to ten in the fall of 2022. Wolk noted that since the restrictions caused by the coronavirus has delayed some of the spending targets in Bedford, he may try to spread the money around to launch other towns.


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