Photo Courtesy of: Manikka Bowman

Manikka Bowman, School Committee Candidate

Register Forum: What distinguishes you from the other eleven School Committee candidates?

Manikka Bowman: What distinguishes me [is] I am a mother. I work full-time in addition to my service on the School Committee and I get things done. I get things done by leveraging the systems and the functions of the Committee to move very important work forward.

RF: And when you say leveraging, what do you mean by that exactly?

MB: The School Committee has a sub-committee system in place and so when I first got elected, quickly I had to realize: OK, how do you move policy in a very complicated bureaucracy? And so for me, as a School Committee member, I decided that I would put my energy into actually doing the function of the Committee and that is making sure that any committee that I was the chair of, that I would call those meetings and make sure that I had important discussions in order to move important work forward, and so that’s how I was able to move forward with expanding feminine hygiene products in all of our schools. It started at the high school, but it’s now in the middle schools, and then [it] will be implemented in the elementary schools.

Normally, across the country, you don’t have this type of work that takes place, and if it does, it’s only in the high schools, so I’m really proud of the fact that I learned very quickly how to actually change policy within the school district by making sure you actually do your job, which is [to] call these meetings. So for the Buildings and Grounds Committee, which was the body that I led for the feminine hygiene products, it never met the time before me. So I think as a School Committee member, [a basic] function of the job is leveraging those committees to call those people together, and leverage it to move very important work forward within the school district.

RF: With the feminine hygiene products especially, a lot had to do with students, and with students cooperating with the Committee, if I’m correct?

MB: Yes, it was a joint effort. So before the students came to the School Committee, I started having conversations with the administration just trying to figure out what the costs would be. So we had an initial meeting through the Buildings and Grounds Committee about the preliminary cost to move it forward. Shortly after that meeting we got an email from students saying that they were really excited about it. I was really excited about it.

I reached out to the now Student [Government] President, Sophie Harrington [Class of 2018], and said, “Hey, let’s just partner together to get this done,” and it was really a great partnership and it just kind of shows that, you know, traditionally people see the School Committee as a body that you always have to agitate to get things done, but in this case, myself and the students, we really worked together to move a process forward. For Sophie and the students at the high school, their focus was “let’s get it in at the high school,” and I said, “Yes, let’s do that.” And I also think it’s important for us to get it in at the middle schools and the elementary schools, and so we decided to leverage each other to make sure that we got it in the high school, as well as the middle and elementary schools. It was just a great partnership, I really enjoyed working with the students to get it done.

RF: That was actually one of my questions, so you had that experience with student voices, but how do you, going forward, hope to include more teacher, student, and family voice in the Committee?

MB: Yeah, I often say that systems are not sexy, but you have to use them and understand them to get things done. I think that, going back to what I learned in my first term, in order to have meaningful conversations before you get to that body of the whole, that School Committee meeting, you have to be able to call those meetings and engage people on some of the issues that people just need to take a step back and talk about before they get to those big meetings.

So for me, that’s how I would like to move forward. It was very effective for me in my first term. I was able to do the feminine hygiene work, as well as the district-wide planning efforts that led to the district-wide framework that we now have in place. All of that took place because I did the work before I got to that meeting that takes place on the first and third Tuesday of the month. And so that’s going to be my strategy, you know, moving forward and listening to all the different ideas and concepts that come to us, whether it’s through an email or phone or talking to us on the street, you know, wherever we engage with people, but really being able to organize all of those concepts, and putting it into a structure that will allow a concept to become a reality. Or at least be able to talk about it.

A lot of times in Cambridge, we don’t create the space to talk about it, we just argue about it at a main meeting. So my leadership style was create the space so we can have meaningful conversation that can create change. And I’m really proud that in my first year, a lot of first-timers can’t point to things that moved the district forward, and I can. That is something I’m proud of and what I want to continue to do.

Photo Courtesy of: Manikka Bowman

RF: On that note, and it’s OK if what you just mentioned is your answer, but during your first term on the Committee, what would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? Or the School Committee’s greatest accomplishment?

MB: Well, I feel like two of the School Committee’s greatest accomplishments come from some of the work that I’ve done. So definitely the feminine hygiene piece. Some people may think, like, “Oh, that’s just common sense.” It is, and it shouldn’t even be a conversation to move forward within the School Committee body because it just should be incorporated into the facilities budget the way we did. But the reality is, most districts across the country, they don’t do it and they don’t cover it, so we’re a leader. And I’m very proud to have led the district and worked with my colleagues in order to move it forward.

The second piece would be the district-wide planning efforts. And the reason it’s a big one for me, and the School Committee as a whole, is it’s changing the behavior of our district, because we test a lot of things out. However, the ability to hold ourselves accountable through measurable outcomes [so] we can then go back and say, “OK, how will we evaluate this, how will we hold ourselves accountable?” and then be able to look at those results and then change our behavior or budget allotment based on just assessing that.

Traditionally we identify the initiative, we won’t even identify outcomes that are measurable. However that last piece about having to be measurable and then being able to look at that information to inform decisions, just historically we never get to that place. So I’m excited that the work that I have done as it relates to the district-wide framework is laying the foundation, particularly because we have a new leader with Dr. Salim onboard, to change that dynamic within our school district. And change is hard. It’s hard to change a system. So I’m just really proud that I was able to do those two things that I think are significant as a first-timer.  

RF: This is kind of a big question, but how are you aiming to close the achievement gap?

MB: That is a big question. You know, I say this a lot when I’m campaigning: We’re all progressives in Cambridge. We all voted for either Hillary or Bernie or an independent, probably. You know there’s a very small percentage of the city of Cambridge that falls on a different political ideology. So for me, if we’re in a city that talks about equity and access and celebrates diversity, but when we look at who is benefiting from our school district, you don’t see that level of diversity as it relates to the people accessing the richness of resources that we have, I think it’s time for us reevaluate how we define progressive.

For me, closing the achievement gap is forcing myself and my colleagues to go past the talking points about what it means to be in a progressive city, to celebrate diversity—we say it all the time—but in order to change the systems that allow a 30—well, really—a 40 on the high end and a 15% academic achievement gap between kids of color and/or kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s just hard for progressive people to live into their values.

For me, holding us accountable to really look at how are we living into those values is really important. And for me, that’s just doing my job as a School Committee member. It’s holding a meeting to have conversations, and being able to push a system to live into its values. It’s a big question, but it’s hard. It’s holding ourselves accountable in a way where I don’t take myself out of the equation from the district. The district’s success is my success and the districts’ failures are my failures because I’m the person that has to vote on budgets and these really important issues. And the more we feel connected to it, the more it’s like, you know “my child’s education”, “I equate it to my child’s education”, then I think our behavior will change and we’ll have a sense of urgency around changing these systematic issues.

RF: You kind of talked about this, how the Committee’s successes are yours as well as its failures, but what do you see as a strength of Cambridge Public Schools that the Committee could emphasize, and what do you see as a weakness that it could fix?

MB: Strength is we have the money. We cannot complain about not having money. There [are] plenty of school districts across the country that would love to have over $108 million to do the work that we do within the school district. Resources alone is one of our greatest assets. But, with great wealth comes great responsibility … When you have lot of resources, it makes you a bit, what’s the word…you lose a sense of urgency because you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’ll have the resources to pay for a particular initiative or project, so sometimes it makes you less focused and less strategic because the money is there.

When you’re part of a school district, or any organization, and you know that your budget is tight, it forces you to make really difficult decisions. So I would like our school district, even though we do have a lot of resources, to be more strategic around how we use those resources. And it’s OK to tell people no. Like, as a School Committee member, you know, it’s very difficult as an elected official to be able to say no, but the reality is all money is finite. And as a School Committee. we have to have the courage to tell people we can or can’t do that, and then explain to them why that connects to a strategic plan in terms of where we want to go as a school district. I think people appreciate leadership like that, particularly if it leads to results.

RF: You talked on your website about universal early childhood education, and you mentioned that money isn’t the problem, so what do you think has hindered universal Pre-K efforts in the past and where do you see that initiative going in the future?

MB: It has to be a joint effort between the School Committee and the city, that’s all it boils down to. As chair of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, just from a capacity issue of space, we simply don’t have the capacity to be able to meet the needs of all the kids in the school system, just space alone, and that doesn’t get into some of the debates around academics. Once you’re in the school district, you’re very much so orienting kids towards academic achievement and really, do you want to do that with a three-year-old? You know, have that level of pressure on them as it relates to testing and things of that nature? So there’s a whole academic component to that that may work for some kids and may not for others.

So in order to meet the needs, it has to be a joint collaboration between the city and the school district where we take an assessment of all the resources, whether that is within the school department, city programs because they do want an early childhood program, as well as private providers, and be able to have that assessment of the resources that we have and then put the program in place to make sure that we can direct people to a slot, and be able to subsidize that. It’s really building off of what the city of New York did. Mayor DeBlasio, he came in, he saw what the needs were, he said we need universal Pre-K, he assessed the community, and then within a year, it was done. So really at the end of the day, we need political leadership within our city both on the City Council and on the School Committee side because one entity in and of itself can’t solve the problem, just the way our government is set up.

RF: My last question is also a broad question: What do you believe the purpose of the School Committee is?

MB: … I [think] the School Committee’s responsibility is it sets the climate by which people engage our school system. So if the School Committee, as a body, can’t come together, can’t agree, is a bit dysfunctional, well, leadership starts at the top. It affects the culture of an institution. So I have to say, anyone that is running for office [and] voters really need to pay attention to how a School Committee member carries themselves as it relates to engaging the public as well as their colleagues, because it lays the foundation of how we then impact the moral of our administration, that’s the Superintendent and his staff, and then that just trickles down.

And, you know, this is not Congress. When you pick a fight and can’t resolve things, it directly impacts children. So I personally believe that it forces us to try to work together and behave differently because we are literally setting the culture by which our kids will be able to enjoy their educational experience and have a joyous, rigorous, learning experience in the city of Cambridge. And if we can’t set the example at the School Committee level, then I don’t think it’s going to be a good experience for our administration, our families, and our kids, honestly.

This interview was conducted via phone.

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