A Year of Racial Reckoning at CRLS

BSUMembers of the Black Student Union. Photos by Randi Freundlich.

If history teacher Kevin Dua could go back to any point in time, he would go to the room where our country’s forefathers were finalizing the Declaration of Independence.

“I would challenge everything. I would say, ‘Do not leave this room until you change it from “all men are created equal” to “all humans are created equal.” Abolish slavery with the stroke of a feather and ink.’ That moment in time laid the foundation of our country,” Dua says.

That connection between the origins of the United States and current events is a recurring theme in Dua’s classes, where he emphasizes the relationship as a way to help students feel invested in the material.

Dua’s lessons bear little resemblance to the dry, textbook-based history classes some may be familiar with. Once, a class project even grew out of a mistake he made.

“I was teaching my students about slave rebellions from Nat Turner. I created a packet with Nat Turner’s face on it, however I realized that the image was incorrect, that it was Frederick Douglass,” he says. “I told my students, and I was surprised I made that mistake, and then upon further researching I realized that other people had made that mistake as well. We pivoted from that to try to analyze exactly why these mistakes were made.”

The class went on to break with the curriculum and create a documentary called “Reclaiming Black Faces” that analyzed media bias, fake news, and racism.

Dua promotes critical thinking in his courses through lessons that take many forms, from simulations to debates to examinations of current events. He says he enjoys teaching high school because it’s the last stop on the way to the “real world.”

Dua, who began at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in September after five years at Somerville High School, was named the Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year last year, and was one of 10 state winners named as finalists for the National History Teacher of the Year award.

Dua was the first African American educator to win the state-level award, he says.

“Being a black male educator, which is the lowest demographic in regard to teaching in the country, it’s an awesome, surreal feeling,” he told Scout in the fall. “The state award gives me a sense that I have a platform, and within this coming year I’ll use it for the best reasons, for my students.”

Kevin Dua

Kevin Dua. Photo by Randi Freundlich.

Dua was drawn to CRLS after reports of racism at the school, seeing a community where he could make a difference.

That dedication to fighting racism shaped Dua’s first year at the school. He helped revive the Black Student Union (BSU) in September and served as its faculty advisor.

The BSU pushed racism at CRLS into the spotlight throughout the year, frustrated with unequal treatment from teachers at a school that is 30 percent black.

The group put out a video at the end of 2017, Cambridge’s Minority Reports, detailing racist micro- and macroaggressions that members had experienced at CRLS.

“I was physically pushed out of a class by a teacher, and she called me a ‘fucking animal,’” one student recounts.

“The teacher would never be able to remember the names of the students of color who were male,” another student says. “She said, ‘It’s not my fault, I just get all those rowdy boys confused.’”

Many of the accounts involve people being surprised that students of color were in honors or AP classes.

Principal Damon Smith sent out a community email in response to the video saying that the school had work to do regarding “‘microaggressions and the lack of cultural competency in our professional community,’” according to the Cambridge Day. In an email to staff, Smith wrote that the video wouldn’t be used as a jumping-off point in future discussions because of “‘how the video was distributed’” and “‘elements of the video that implicated specific staff members,’” the Day reports.

Smith, who is black, told PRI podcast “Otherhood” that he only wanted to remove details that identified certain teachers, and that he thought those details would hinder the students’ messages.

Follow-up videos and their effects rippled throughout the rest of the school year. Community members questioned whether Dua was putting words in the students’ mouths, according to the May 21 “Otherhood” episode. A teacher at the school says in the podcast that CRLS is the most racist place she has ever worked.

“We kind of just wanted a space where we all felt comfortable, and we all felt welcomed, and we all felt valued, because none of us feel that way in school,” a student says in a video that the BSU released this spring. “We haven’t felt like that ever in school, so I feel like that’s why we started BSU in the first place.”

“We just feel like we don’t matter, we don’t feel the need to come to school, and the worst thing you can do for a student is to lose a student, and you’ve lost many students over the years,” another student says. “So do better.”

Dua intends to step down as faculty advisor for the BSU in the fall, he says, saying the past year has been taxing on him and his family. If no other teacher signs up to be the advisor, the BSU will become defunct.

In the third volume of the Cambridge’s Minority Reports, released in tandem with graduation, students lament the possibility that the BSU won’t continue next year.

“I hope there’s still a BSU, because that’s kind of one of the only things this year that I’ve enjoyed doing,” a student says.

“Even if the actual BSU does not exist next year, if Dua’s room continues to be an open space, and what it is, if he’s still here, I hope that people also gain the confidence to come into that room and continue the open space for years and years,” another student says. “Because finding that open space can bring more confidence than you’d ever know.”

Dua says he doesn’t have any regrets about his decision to come to CRLS, or the work that he and his students did this year. He believes that it is the job of educators to make young people feel empowered, he says.

“We have the capability to reaffirm our reputation of being this academic institution that prides itself in diversity, respect, and inclusion,” Dua says. “It’s work that can take a lot out of you, yet it’s work that requires optimism,” he adds.

This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Scout on Patreon!