Darnisa Amante first set foot in Cambridge when she was an undergrad at Brandeis and took a shuttle bus every weekend to Harvard Square. She fell in love with the city instantly, moved here for five years, and has now returned to help improve the social climate.
Amante is an educational and racial equity strategist, and received her doctorate in educational leadership from Harvard University. She is the CEO of the Disruptive Equity Education Project (DEEP), a professional development and strategy organization devoted to dismantling racial inequity through education and collaboration.
In a new initiative called Cambridge Digs DEEP, Amante is teaming up with the city to facilitate change. The strategy is to develop city-specific community forums and workshops that cultivate cultural competency.
“What Cambridge is struggling with is not an anomaly to Cambridge,” Amante says. “Cambridge is a microcosm to a larger system of inequity. I deeply believe that you cannot ask people to change if you come in with a blame mindset. You have to really build connections to humanity. People have to build empathy with each other, and they have to learn to actively listen to people.”
“These conversations will require us as a community to step out of our comfort zone, to honestly grapple with our biases and approach challenging topics with a willingness to listen to and learn from each other,” Mayor Marc McGovern said in a statement.
Community members were invited to a town hall-style event in late November to kick off the initiative, where they shared their experiences with local racial inequity.
“In our first session, we really thought of it as both learning about key concepts and gathering data,” says Amante. “We asked citizens questions like, ‘When have you felt welcomed? When have you not felt welcomed? When have you been racially uncomfortable? What are topics and ideas that feel most important to you?’”
According to Amante, the responses were broad and ranged from statements like, “I’ve never felt comfortable here, and I was born here,” to “Do people actually feel racially uncomfortable here?” For every person who said they were never aware of inequality in the area, there was another who could not understand how that lack of awareness was possible, she says.
“Cambridge Digs DEEP represents a citywide commitment to the difficult and ongoing work of social justice,” McGovern said in a statement. “From the viral video depicting a negative interaction between a Harvard employee and a young mother living in affordable housing to concerns raised by the Black Students Union at CRLS, we know that despite our reputation as a progressive city, Cambridge is not immune to issues of race and class.”
Cambridge Digs DEEP isn’t Amante’s first time working with the city. She was invited to come into the Kennedy-Longfellow and Cambridge Street Upper schools in the 2017-2018 year, and now continues to work with the superintendent. DEEP aimed to name the inequities seen in schools as a first step in developing strategies to change them. A key component is redefining what equity means, which allows educators to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, Amante says.
Reflecting on her own experiences living in Cambridge while attending Harvard, Amante says that people routinely questioned her belonging in the city.
“I lived in Central Square, Harvard Square, and Alewife right by the reservoir,” she says. “I had the chance to be in three really different places in Cambridge, but my experience there was that people did not think I lived in Cambridge. People questioned how I, as a woman of color, could afford to live in Cambridge. When I told people that what brought me to Cambridge was being in a doctoral program at Harvard, they were left in disbelief.”
The next four meetings facilitated by DEEP will be based on the recommendations of the November gathering, she says. Amante sees her role as someone who can help guide the city rather than change it.
“I really think of it as I am nothing more than the humble guardrails,” she says. “I am not the path. I am here to help people hear each other across the lines of difference.”
One of Amante’s biggest influences is renowned writer James Baldwin, who wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
“I think about that for Cambridge,” Amante says of Baldwin’s words. “I love Cambridge very much. I love it enough to offer it feedback with love to grow. I think there’s a way to be an advocate for change without belittling all of the powerful things that are already happening in the community.”
The remaining Cambridge Digs DEEP events are scheduled for: Feb. 7 at 6 p.m., March 21 at 6 p.m., and April 27 at 12 p.m. Visit digdeepforequity.org and cambridgema.org for the event locations and more information.