F ive MTA members were honored recently for their commitment to civil rights and human relations during a gala event that featured
testimonials to their contributions to the common
Mary E. Custard, dean of students at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, and Margaret
Costello, a culinary arts teacher at Shawsheen Valley
Technical High School, each received the Louise
Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award. Kevin Dua,
Amber Jackson and Cynthia Massillon, teachers
at Somerville High School, received the Kathleen
Roberts Creative Leadership Award.
The awards were presented during the 2017
MTA Human and Civil Rights Awards banquet,
which was held at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel
in Norwood on June 16.
Human Relations Committee Co-Chairs Dale
Forest and Denise LaPolla welcomed the crowd
of educators and other guests to the event. The
awards, Forest said, are intended to publicly thank
the “leaders, activists, advocates, role models,
risk-takers, organizers and innovators” who make
the world a better place.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni said
the recipients were being recognized during a
“particularly anxious and uncertain moment” in the
struggle for racial equality, but that honoring those
who act with “profound integrity, with courage, and
with a deep faith in the possibility of human beings”
is particularly important during difficult times.
Madeloni recognized longtime MTA leader
and activist Louise Gaskins, who was present at
the dinner and for whom the Lifetime Civil Rights
Award is named, and she sent “deepest regards and
good wishes” to former MTA President Kathleen
Roberts, for whom the Creative Leadership Award is
named. Roberts was unable to attend.
Custard serves as dean of students and is
a former athletic director at Amherst-Pelham
Regional High School. Forest noted that she has
impacted the lives of her students in countless
ways — whether by inspiring them as an adviser of
People of Color United and the Minority Student
Achievement Network or by attending their games
As a member of the Northwestern District
Attorney’s Citizen Advisory Board, Forest added,
Custard helps drive conversations about eliminating
discrimination in schools and making them safer
places in which to learn.
Custard voiced her gratitude to those who
supported her nomination and the staff of her school,
and she thanked the MTA “for the work it does
every day.” She also expressed her worry about the
shortage of educators of color across the nation.
“As I contemplate retiring,” she said, “I worry
that there will be one less educator of color in my
school and in my district. All of our students need to
have educators who mirror the diversity of our nation
and our world.”
Custard said that educators can counteract the
negative messages that students are receiving in
these confusing times by being “warriors — for
kindness and caring, truth and justice, social justice
and antidiscrimination, for learning and leadership,
for community building and service, for the rights
of undocumented students, for LGBTQ rights, for
Black Lives Matter, for education as a right and not
Costello was described by Forest as an activist
and a teacher with a long history of advocacy on
behalf of her students.
Before there were laws on the books protecting
LGBTQ youth in Massachusetts, he noted, Costello
was “an outstanding role model for students” on
LGBTQ issues, student safety, justice and equality.
One example of this, he said, was that Costello
fought for Shawsheen students’ right to wear the
uniform of the gender with which they identified.
Costello is also known for her compassion, he
added. After Hurricane Katrina tore through New
Orleans in 2005, Costello traveled to the city to
provide food for the displaced and the volunteers
helping them. She returned in 2007 and again in
2008, each time bringing along students to assist.
I n accepting the award, Costello thanked those who have “provided me with help, inspiration and happiness along the way.” She credited her
husband, David Costello, with “lighting the way for
me with your own incredible service in Mississippi
post-Katrina.” She referred to Ruth Allen, her sister
and a member of the MTA Board of Directors, as
“my champion and oldest friend.”
Costello said her students “continue to renew
my faith in the inherent goodness of people every
single day,” and she thanked her parents, “who lived
their lives with open hearts and minds and inspired
the same in their children.”
In presenting the awards named for former MTA
President Roberts to Dua, Jackson and Massillon,
Forest referred to her as an “extraordinary and
who has promoted volunteerism, creativity and an
appreciation of diversity.”
The three educators are the creators of the
“Matter Speaks” series at Somerville High School.
The series provides a place for students and staff to
openly and honestly discuss and share issues of race,
ethnicity, self-awareness and identity.
Dua said students inspired the idea for the series.
The students “are the reason that — in the midst of
a tense nationwide climate, where it seemed that no
one wanted to touch on such issues — we started to
talk on these topics,” he said.
The series has turned people of all ages into
empathetic learners. “Today, more so than ever before,
it is important to us as organizers, educators, adults
and people to continue to be on the right side of
critical thinking, expression, truth, civic engagement,
education and human connection,” Dua said.
Massillon said she has seen Matter Speaks instill
a sense of “radical hope” in the students. “There
are many truths, many ways of knowing, and many
perspectives of the same event,” she added. “Our
students are resisting the verbal hegemony that tells
them every day that their lived truths are false. This
series is an affirmation of their voices.”
Jackson said the award is “for the kids.”
“This whole series has been so much fun
because we’re seeing the kids really start to feel that
their voices matter, and that’s why we go to work
every day anyway — to see the kids empowered,”
She continued, “I have spent so much time after
the event, more time after the event than the event
itself, just talking to kids and seeing them excited.
That is huge.”
As much as the recipients appreciated the award,
she said, “I really hope that there comes a day that
we don’t have to give awards for these things —
because they are just what we do.”
To read more about each of this year’s honorees,
visit massteacher.org/hcr. To see more photos from
the event, go to http://masstea.ch/2uCXCGW.
The five honorees
their awards at the
conclusion of the
evening. From left
to right are Mary
E. Custard and
Lifetime Civil Rights
Awards, and Cynthia
Massillon, Kevin Dua
and Amber Jackson,
Photo by Jean Conley