JFK middle school educator honored with civil rights award

  • Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator, at JFK Middle School in Northampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2021 9:13:10 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK Middle School, has won the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award from the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The award is named after Gaskins, who is described on the association’s website as “a pioneer for the involvement of women and people of color in education,” and that nominees for the award should embody “the qualities of humility, leadership and tenacity that Louise Gaskins has brought wherever she has served.”

“I was really excited. But also kind of like why? It’s just what I do,” Wallace said of receiving the award. “I’m honored and humbled that my colleagues felt that I deserved this award but I guess I don’t do it for the award. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. And there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. I believe in interrupting the isms that are not right and the phobias that are incorrect.”

Wallace has been a paraeducator in the middle school for five years, and currently works mostly with sixth graders. She runs the Students of Color Alliance and has written the school’s Black History Month curriculum.

The curriculum used to focus on the civil rights movement, said Wallace, who inludes information about teh Black history of rock and roll and jazz.

“Black history is so much more than just that snapshot … Let’s present all of it,” she said.

When it comes to civil rights, “I talk about all of these smaller leaders, if you will, that kids may not know,” Wallace said. Students have usually heard of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but they usually don’t know much about Malcolm X or Diane Nash, she said.

When Wallace worked on bulletin boards in schools for women’s history month, Susan B. Anthony was featured, but not prominently, which Wallace said angered some.

“Once she got her rights she didn’t turn around and help everyone get theirs,” she said of Anthony. “Yes she did things … but she did things for white women. Not for all of us.”

Wallace put the spotlight on women like Ida B. Wells, and she wants to help students understand that “there were more women that helped us get women’s rights than just white people,” she said.

District teacher Kieran Slattery is one of the colleagues who nominated Wallace for the award.

“Mareatha has been speaking truth to power long before the term became en vogue,” Slattery wrote in an email. “Behind the scenes without any fanfare, she has dedicated herself to helping JFK students find their voice and harness their own power. Mareatha truly walks the walk, while also remaining one of the gentlest, kindest, most modest people I know.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.
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