Raising Hope: Rivers Teachers Lead Civil Rights Class in Boston

If longtime Rivers Faculty members Jim Long and Bruce Taylor spent the entire summer strenuously avoiding the classroom, it would be forgivable, even expected. But for many years, the two veteran educators have instead opted to spend part of their break teaching. And not simply teaching, but sharing their perspective, their experience, and their knowledge with a group of Boston students from challenged backgrounds.

The students are part of a Summer Leadership Institute run by downtown law firm WilmerHale, which has been sponsoring the program for 21 years. “We designed it to offer young people in Boston a paid job over the summer,” explains WilmerHale public service manager Anne Bowie. “But we didn’t want it to be just filing and photocopying, the things a teenager could do.” Instead, the students—who are admitted to the highly selective program on the strength of their seriousness, commitment, and academic promise—take classes in the mornings, with each of the program’s nine weeks given over to a topic such as public speaking or writing.

Long and Taylor cover the program’s last—and arguably most important—subject: Civil rights. Long has been teaching the course at SLI for 10 years, and Taylor for nine. In that time, they’ve refined their approach and created a program that’s relevant, meaningful, and thought-provoking for the students, nearly all of whom are people of color.

“My first question to the students is, ‘Tell us what you understand about civil rights,’ ” says Taylor. While many students have had some classroom experience with the subject, few have had the opportunity to take the kind of deep dive that Taylor and Long provide. Taylor says that the main goal is to get the students to talk—about their own experiences with racism, about the broader issues facing our country, about the challenges that lie ahead and how they might tackle them. “It’s important,” says Bowie, “to have skilled facilitators like Jim and Bruce, not only to impart facts and information, but to have challenging conversations about race in America.”

One jumping-off point for the conversation is the Pulitzer Prize–winning photo “The Soiling of Old Glory,” taken during Boston’s busing crisis, which shows black civil rights activist Ted Landsmark being attacked by a white teenager wielding an American flag. From there, the discussion covers both the historical civil rights movement and issues of the present day; this summer, the class took place shortly after the congresswomen of color known as the “Squad” were being told to go back to the places they came from. For the students, many of whom are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants, the incident resonated deeply, says Taylor. “When you put the word ‘immigration’ out there, they’ve got many stories to share,” he adds.

Long and Taylor are well positioned to lead the class, not just because of their experience as educators but because of their personal perspectives. Long is white; Taylor is black. (A member of the Rivers Class of ’73, he was one of the school’s first black graduates.) “For me, this is a way of giving back to my community,” says Taylor. “I grew up in Roxbury; I’m an inner-city kid myself who came to Rivers in the time of integration. I know what they’re going through. I’m familiar with their struggles.” For Long’s part, he says, “It's an opportunity for me to work with teenagers trying to better their lives against great odds. My brothers and I were the first in our family to go to college, so I deeply respect the challenges these students and their families face. Each summer during our civil rights class I find myself in the minority as a white man—a profound reminder of the unearned privilege I hold.”

Bowie says the civil rights class is consistently one of the most popular offerings in the program. The students’ follow-up comments bear her out. “You both make a perfect match when teaching, because you make it easy for everyone to freely share their point of view,” wrote one student, Kiara. Another, Carlos, wrote, “I was genuinely excited to go to class each day. You showed a genuine passion for the issue and you acknowledged not only how it was in the past but how it is now.”

That melding of the past and the present is what makes the course particularly relevant for these students, who take that synthesis and use it to look toward the future. “They don’t feel angry,” says Taylor. “They sometimes feel discouraged. But none of them feels hopeless. They say, ‘We are going to change this; that’s why we’re in this program. We’re going to use this knowledge to change things.’ ”