Brookline for Racial Justice and Equity agitates for change


Valentina Rojas/Sagamore Staff

Members of BRJE at one of its weekly meetings. Members include junior Anthony Saunders (second from right) and retired SWS teacher Abby Erdmann (fourth from left).

Sophie Hafner, Staff Writer

“BRJE seeks to identify and clarify issues of social and racial inequality in Brookline and to build a multiracial coalition in order to dismantle structural racism and everyday prejudice,” is the mission statement of Brookline for Racial Justice and Equity [BRJE], a coalition formed last August that is a powerhouse of town educators, parents and residents fighting for equality in Brookline.

BRJE was formed by a generation of like-minded individuals who hope to create positive and effective progress. Extremely organized and driven, BRJE is clear on their goals and strives to make Brookline a center for racial equity.

Retired School Within a School [SWS] teacher Abby Erdmann worked in Brookline for 38 years and founded BRJE with some of her past students who were also interested in racial equity. A long time social justice advocate, Erdmann began fighting for her beliefs in college during the Vietnam War and has continued this work through her teaching.   

“When I retired, I thought, I know generations of Brookline people. The race work is not yet done,” Erdmann said. “And so I began circling around, talking to my former students, and we started having conversations about what we felt needed to happen. We came to the idea that we needed an anti-racist organization.”

Erdmann said she felt compelled to create BRJE after seeing so many problems around Brookline. She was plagued by the memory of the Adrian Mims decision. Mims, a person of color, was a candidate for headmaster five years ago, but he was not hired by the School Committee and Superintendent William Lupini. Deborah Holman, a White woman who was Mims’s student, was hired instead. Erdmann said Mims held a PhD, was head of the Calculus Project and was a fabulous administrator and man.

According to Erdmann, Mims went on to sue Brookline for racial discrimination and was awarded $80,000.

“This brought me to the realization that there was something fundamentally wrong, and I carried that for all these years,” Erdmann said.

BRJE meets weekly in the SWS classroom where Erdmann used to teach. Each meeting is organized and focused. The group begins with everyone stating their name, race and gender pronouns, and the members then discuss their ideas and create tasks and jobs to assign to different group members.

BRJE recently teamed up with the Brookline Parents Association [BPA], the Brookline Educators Union [BEU] and Brookline Political Action for Peace [PAX] to form an “alliance” with the goal of getting a slate of three new pro-racial-equity candidates elected to the School Committee, Charles Morgan, a Brookline parent, writer and member of BRJE said.

Morgan said that with the alliance, BRJE will create a questionnaire and vetting process to find, interview and select three new superb candidates to run for school committee. BRJE is just a small part of the alliance, but it hopes that through the questionnaire, it can ensure that racially aware and progressive candidates are chosen.

Abigail Ortiz is a doctor, Brookline parent and another member of BRJE. Ortiz said she joined the group to improve her community by fighting against the structural racism and wealth gap in Brookline formed by 500 years of redlining and White supremacy.

“In Brookline, there has been so much of a focus on how policing happens and the overt racism, like people using the N-word. But that’s just the manifestation of all the stuff that’s been built into the cookie. We’re still looking for intentionality like racial animus, and that brings us back to just a diversity thing as opposed to a structural problem,” Ortiz said. “So that’s why I was really excited to talk to Abby, because she was thinking school curriculum and hiring and bigger policies and practices, and that’s the stuff I’m interested in.”

BRJE plans to work with Government Alliance On Race and Equity [GARE] to accomplish its goals, Erdmann said. GARE is an organization that works with local governments all over the country to supply them with a racial equity training curriculum that governments can use in policy, program and budget decisions to ensure racial equity.

According to BRJE member Jen Kiok, GARE will create the progress that Brookline needs. Kiok, who is the Executive Director at Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, said that when a town signs on to GARE it joins a regional cohort and has access to a powerful racial equity tool.

“[GARE] is used to come through every policy in a department or ideally an entire city to look for ways that policy might inadvertently hold up racism where it could be changed to hold up racial equity,” Kiok said.

Kiok said that GARE is a way to make change that is structural and long lasting.

“I think of it as a left think tank that has brilliant policy people and academics who are really thinking about how to make structural change around racial equity and who are doing that by working with local governments across the country,” Kiok said.

According to Morgan, BRJE is fronting the fight for racial equity in Brookline and hopes that their organization and continued work with the Alliance can create a more equal and progressive town.

“We were once a leading school progressively, and we can be that again,” Morgan said. “But it’s a problem now, and that aligned all these folks to say we need to do something about it.”