This story has been updated.
It began with a teacher’s Facebook post. Marvelyne Lamy wanted the world to know about the harassment and alleged discrimination she and her seventh grade honor roll students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester experienced during a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Lamy's words began a domino effect that eventually led the museum and the attorney general’s office to open investigations, for the MFA to ban two patrons for life, and what Attorney General Maura Healey called a collaborative process akin to that of restorative justice.
In an innovative agreement, the museum has committed $500,000 over three years to community engagement and diversity initiatives. The agreement includes collaboration with the school, the implementation of an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, and hiring an external consultant to study the museum’s broader culture and climate as a whole.
The incident with the students rippled across the city's cultural institutions and begged the question: how can an encyclopedic museum confront its origins as an imperialist arm of colonialism and invite people from all backgrounds to come inside and see themselves reflected in its exhibitions?
In an interview Wednesday, Healey called the agreement with the MFA "the first of its kind, because it really acknowledges that civic racism and unconscious bias persists in government, in business and even across cultural institutions.”
“One way I think about restorative justice is this principle that you empower those who felt aggrieved in this instance, specifically empowering young people from the Helen Davis Leadership Academy," she said. “It's about empowering our local communities of color to shape forward-looking and meaningful change.”
Teacher Marvelyne Lamy said she did not expect the collaboration to be perfect right away, but thought that the MFA's efforts would make the changes intuitive over time. She appreciates the three-year term of the agreement and that it requires a community effort. "So we're holding them accountable, other people holding them accountable. They themselves are holding themselves accountable,” she added.
The school, the MFA, and those who participated in the field trip will also work on an action plan that focuses on ensuring a sense of belonging for all patrons.
“There’s nothing more important to us than making sure everyone feels welcome at the MFA,” said museum director Matthew Teitelbaum. “Working with Attorney General Healey and the Davis Leadership Academy, we have the opportunity to create a new model of inclusion and diversity to serve Boston and we hope to set an example for others to follow. We look forward to our partnership and embracing this important work.”
Even six months after the incident, during the school’s winter formal last year, the students told WBUR that they would never forget what it felt like to be profiled, harassed and insulted at the museum.
The students, who were being rewarded for good behavior with the field trip, claimed they were followed by guards who seemed hyper-vigilant around them, but seemingly lax with other white student groups. The MFA investigated the guards' movements that day by recreating the students' visit with extensive video footage and dozens of interviews with visitors and staff who interacted with the children. The investigation showed that the guards "went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another," giving the students the sense that they were being closely monitored.
Video footage and witness interviews corroborated the students' accounts of two racist confrontations with other patrons. When one Davis student was moved to model walk at the "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition, a visitor allegedly said, “It’s a shame that she is not learning and instead stripping.” Just before they left the MFA, as the students stood near an entrance to a different exhibition, Lamy and most of her group heard a woman walk by and loudly exclaim, “Never mind, there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”
A slate of key community partners, including the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, Lawyers for Civil Rights and the NAACP Boston Branch, developed the agreement announced by the attorney general.
The MFA will provide biannual reports for the public on the progress of these efforts, the press release said. Beyond that, the MFA is seeking to add new programming and enhance existing programs to improve the processes for "building and deepening connections with communities of color." This includes partnerships with local schools and community organizations that primarily serve students of color, partnerships with local artists of color, and leadership programs and internship opportunities for local high school students of color.
“I think the agreement is quite detailed in the role that the attorney general will continue to play over the next few years in ensuring enforcement and implementation,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “And so we are very happy to see that, because in many respects, this was a David versus Goliath struggle between community folks and a major world class institution. And so having the attorney general's role in mediating disagreement and enforcing it is going to be critical.”
The MFA will continue to develop and implement a plan to provide unconscious bias training for all employees at all levels and for volunteers. The museum will also train front line staff, security guards and volunteers on its new policies and how to interact with children in a developmentally appropriate and positive way.
Lamy still teaches English language arts at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, though she's teaching a new group of kids this year.
Sometimes she’s still in shock and everything that happened. She keeps in touch with some of her former students who attended the field trip. Many are off to high school this fall. They remain bonded over what the incident taught them. For many of the kids, it was their first experience with racism.
“It’s been a journey, not only for myself but for my students,” Lamy said. “When I look back a year, I see them turning this situation and making it not about themselves, but how [they] don't want another student to experience what we experienced. How can we then make this better for students that are coming after us?"
This segment aired on May 6, 2020.