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Boston-based attorney group Lawyers for Civil Rights presented the Museum of Fine Arts with a demand letter on Tuesday as a way to hold the museum accountable for the racism suffered by a group of children of color who visited its galleries on a field trip last month.
The attorneys say they're representing students, parents and an educator who were directly affected by the May 16 incident. The seventh graders and their teachers from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester allege they were harassed and racially profiled by other visitors and museum guards.
Among their demands delineated in the letter: creating a standing exhibit showcasing local student work, paid summer internships at the MFA for Davis students, plus lifelong memberships for them, their families and Davis staff.
“We want the demand to be the beginning of a dialogue, a constructive dialogue with the MFA,” said LCR attorney Lauren Sampson. “What we laid out in the letter we think is eminently reasonable and really just represents the beginnings of what the MFA could do to repair the public trust that it has breached.”
The letter called the MFA’s initial internal investigation and actions — banning the two visitors who confronted the kids and vowing for more rigorous internal training on bias — “perfunctory” because it appeared to solely fault external sources, while ignoring problems in its own ranks. The MFA has said it may have appeared museum guards followed or profiled the kids, but that in reality the guards were walking in and out of galleries because they were going on break. The students and their teachers said they would not have confused shift changes for racial profiling.
“We, in the very beginning of the letter, call it like we see: This was racial and gender discrimination, harassment and public accommodations discrimination,” Sampson said in a phone interview. “Our clients have used that language when they've described to us the experiences they've endured. Their parents have used that language to describe how hurtful it has been to have their children in 2019 come home and talk about the racism they suffered. We felt it was very important to put that front and center and to ensure the MFA can't run away from the harm that it caused.”
The letter spells out ways for the parties to come to a resolution, but states that if the museum is not open to discussion that they will proceed with litigation.
The letter asks for “a formal apology for the MFA’s involvement in the racial and gender discrimination that occurred on its premises.” The lawyers group explicitly states that though museum officials have voiced regret “in a general sense” for the negative experience, they’ve yet to apologize for the museum’s “own role and its staff’s role in the incidents.”
The letter said this failure to apologize in plain terms “exacerbated the trauma and harassment” students and teachers endured both via mail and social media.
Another request of the letter is lifetime memberships to the MFA for students, families and staff. The lawyers write that anyone with an ID card from the school should have free access to the museum in perpetuity.
“One of our students actually made a really interesting comment when we were speaking with them about going back to the museum,” Sampson said. “Their initial response was, ‘I'm not sure if I ever want to go back. But at the same time I don't want to let the museum win. I don't want them to feel as if they succeeded in making me feel unwelcome and pushing me out.’ ”
The letter also asks that a college scholarship fund be created for students from the school, specifically those who dealt with racism as they were part of the seventh grade honor roll and were brought to the museum as a reward for good grades and good behavior.
Broader requests for the community at-large include creating a direct and anonymous reporting text-for-help line for museum visitors that deal with similar issues, greater diversity in hiring — which the museum has said it has been working on — and staff training programs led by an experienced diversity and inclusion specialist.
The students and their teachers said they were discriminated at the MFA when one visitor called them "[expletive] black kids" and another called one of the students a "stripper." The MFA's investigation confirmed the children had been confronted by the two visitors, whom the museum banned.
On Tuesday evening, museum staff acknowledged in a statement that they received the letter from the lawyers group.
"This afternoon, the MFA received a letter from Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, on behalf of students, parents and an educator at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy," the statement said. "The MFA is cooperating with Attorney General Maura Healey in all aspects of her investigation and is also in the midst of an independent external investigation by Casner & Edwards LLP. When both investigations are complete, the MFA will take the appropriate next steps."
"Since the school’s visit, and in fact long before, MFA staff and volunteers have been working to examine and improve all aspects our operation to ensure that everyone feels welcome," the statement continued. "We know that we have work to do to achieve that goal, and we are committed to doing so."
Sampson said the charter school families, students and educators will hold them to that.
“This is an institution that is one of the oldest and most prestigious in Boston,” Sampson said. “And the fact that museum staff felt as if they could make students of color feel as unwelcome as they did is a stain on the city and a stain on the reputation of the institution.”
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