To the Editor:
I am deeply distressed to see that the anti-racist work of Ruth Henry, Watertown Middle School teacher, has become the object of so much criticism, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding. For so many of us, Ruth has been a community icon and mentor, representing the highest standards of respect, clarity, and courage in her teachings and activist practices.
Ruth’s commitment to anti-racist, anti-oppression work goes back many years. I became better acquainted with her passion for social justice when we worked together on the World in Watertown committee that planned and facilitated Dr. Bernard Lafayette’s visit to Watertown in 2016. Dr. Lafayette, one of our country’s foremost civil rights leaders, came to our community because of his close relationship with Ruth. His visit was the catalyst for an initial Kingian train-the-trainer program, which Ruth organized and facilitated. Trainees included teachers, students, and three Watertown police officers who have since generously donated many hours to train others of all ages in the community. The effects of that initial program have rippled far and wide in the intervening years.
The impact of Kingian training has literally changed the lives of countless Watertown public school students, especially those in the middle and high school years. I have had the privilege of working with a number of them, and have seen very personally how they have committed themselves to the work of social justice, both in their schools and in the wider community. To a person, these amazing young people cite Ruth Henry as their inspiration and role model.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Ruth organized the Kingian Response Team, from which have sprung a number of extremely important initiatives of benefit to the School Dept., the Police Dept., and the town in general. While gently guiding the work of the Kingian Response Team, Ruth has made a special effort to engage and lift up people of color in every aspect of this work, and create a safe space for those who have traditionally been marginalized to have
their voices heard. On a one-to-one level, I have seen Ruth in the role of close confidante, mentor, and friend for numerous WPS students of color who would otherwise have felt very alone in the world. Over the years, she has volunteered hundreds of hours outside of her school job to work with kids and adult community residents to imagine, organize, and produce programs and events to broadcast messages of peace, justice, and understanding. The beautiful mural on the wall of the Boys & Girls Club is only one of many examples of Ruth’s vision, determination, persistence, and inclusiveness.
While Ruth’s decision to show a particular video may have had unforeseen consequences far beyond her original intent, I believe it would be extremely unfortunate for her to be penalized in any way by the School Dept. for this decision. Not only has Ruth been Watertown’s foremost advocate for racial justice and peaceful reconciliation of differences, she has forged very close working relationships with a number of Watertown police officers, engaging them as Kingian trainers, and bringing Chief Lawn into meaningful conversations about race relations and the role of the Police Dept. in town. Her years of relationship building with Watertown PD officers attest to the fact that she highly values their service to the community.
Any disciplinary action directed at Ruth would send a terrible message to students, school staff, and the broader community: that no matter how hard and how long a teacher has worked for social justice, just one incident can cause the system to turn on that teacher. And for students, the message might be: that if you work too hard for social justice, the price you pay will be crushing, even though you may have had the best of intentions.
I hope that rather than fracturing our community, the opportunity presented by the incident at the Middle School may be the beginning of a wonderful journey of learning for students, parents, police officers, and other community members in which they have an opportunity to meet and listen to people representing all perspectives, ranging from those who wish to reallocate police budgets to social services, to police officers themselves, who could share the challenges of their job and what their hopes are for the future of policing in America. These conversations would reinforce students’ critical thinking skills and help them to make their own informed decisions on these pivotal issues. I hope very much that this moment will be used to bring all sides together, both within the Middle School and in the community, to learn from each other rather than to shout at each other from across an enormous divide.
I realize that school administrators are facing strong competing pressures, but I encourage them to honor Ruth’s lifelong commitment to peaceful dialog, and make decisions that will ultimately unite rather than further divide, and will create a model for students on how adults work out their different perspectives in a respectful and thoughtful way.