The sole Black member of Beverly’s School Committee was singled out and had her qualifications questioned by two parents during a public meeting on Sept. 8 in an exchange that Dr. Kenann McKenzie said left her feeling rattled.
The comments by two residents drew a rebuke by the city’s mayor, who interjected during the meeting that the residents were “not showing any respect” to McKenzie, who has been a member of the Beverly School Committee since January, after officials voted her into the role to fill the vacant Ward 2 seat in accordance with the city charter. Her application was reviewed along with those of multiple others, she said in an interview with the Globe ast week.
During a public comment section at a regular School committee meeting on Sept. 8, Donna Loiacano took to the microphone and brought up concerns about mask-wearing for her two children, according to a video recording of the meeting.
After raising the topic of mask-wearing, Loiacano sharply pivoted to questioning McKenzie’s qualifications for sitting on the committee.
“How does she get on the board?” Loiacano said, pointing to McKenzie. “She wasn’t voted in. She wasn’t on the ballot for school board. Is it because André Morgan’s here? And maybe the person who stepped down?”
Morgan is the director of opportunity, access, and equity for Beverly Public Schools.
McKenzie said she was “confused” by Loiacano’s sudden redirection, and opted to just listen.
“I was thinking that clearly we’re not immune from some of what I was seeing happening in other jurisdictions,” McKenzie said. “I definitely felt rattled. I felt myself wondering what to do in terms of to just wait it out. I felt unsafe at one point, but I felt like I didn’t want to move, and I wanted things to just settle down on their own. I had to trust my colleagues to bring it under control.”
For several minutes in back-and-forth exchanges with members of the committee, Loiacano continued to suggest that McKenzie’s position on the body was illegitimate because she was not elected through a public vote.
“Officially she has to be voted on by the public,” Loiacano said. “Not by the School Committee, not by doctor whoever,” she said, an apparent reference to Morgan, who holds doctorate degrees from Harvard and American University.
Stephen Moloney, who chimed in while Loiacano spoke to echo her line of questioning, then took to the microphone and said he was a parent of a child in the school system. Moloney also asked what McKenzie’s qualifications were for the position and if she will be on the ballot in the next election.
That’s when Beverly’s mayor, Michael Cahill, interjected.
“Neither you nor Ms. Loiacano are really showing any respect for Dr. McKenzie as a human being and as a member of our School Committee,” Cahill said. “I just want you to stop, Steve. Please.”
Loiacano and Moloney each invoked “critical race theory,” an academic concept that argues racism is systemic in American life, and one that Republicans seized on as a political rallying cry over the summer. Conservative anger over the issue has sparked similar scenes in school committee meetings around the country as some parents have demanded an end to such teaching, though the concept is largely studied in higher-education settings.
In a text message Tuesday evening, Loiacano said she privately apologized to McKenzie.
“Although I do not want to keep talking about it, because I feel it would keep so much hate alive, possibly for many,” the message read. “I have extended a private apology to Dr. McKenzie which she kindly accepted. I wish her the best in her new position. For now I would really like to put this behind us, both Dr. McKenzie and myself, and move forward with my life.”
Moloney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moloney’s comments, focusing on McKenzie’s credentials while not raising anyone else’s, caused the group to feel that the meeting was not going to be productive, McKenzie said.
She said in the moment that she was thinking of historical figures and groups of people who have experienced racism and other forms of discrimination in the positions they have held, which made her feel less alone.
“I thought: This is what other people have confronted who’ve been in these situations, and it must feel pretty awful to be on the front lines of some of this work and have people do this to you regularly,” McKenzie said. “So I was really feeling a sense of connection and compassion for people who just do this work all the time with a lot of rancor and aggression pointed towards them.”
McKenzie also serves as the director of the Aspire Institute at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development and is an adjunct assistant professor at the university. She holds a PhD in politics and education from Columbia University.
She said she has received positive e-mails since the meeting, and in its immediate aftermath, committee members supported her in moments that were not shown in the video of the meeting, including walking her to her car and talking with her to make sure she was OK.
Representative Seth Moulton, who represents Beverly, issued a statement on Monday denouncing the Beverly exchange as well as an incident that occurred over Labor Day weekend in Danvers in which an apple-picking farm called police on a Black couple and accused them of stealing apples.
“In just about a week, my office has received reports of at least two incidents of racial profiling in the Sixth District,” Moulton’s statement said. “Both incidents were directed at members of our Black community. I shouldn’t have to say this, but let me be perfectly clear: Racism, racial profiling and any form of discrimination have absolutely no place in our community or anywhere else.”
“Too many of us watch viral videos and think what we are seeing could never happen here. They happened here twice this week,” Moulton added.
McKenzie said she feels like the exchange at the meeting has sparked an effort to ensure respectful, civil discourse, an outcome she views as positive.
“I wouldn’t want that moment to have been just about me being the center of some unfortunate incident,” McKenzie said. “I have feelings and I think that matters and it’s important, but I think for me the bigger thing is, if we can see a way forward, if we feel like there’s progress that can be made as a city or regionally because there’s more sensitivity to how we engage with each other, then I think that’s a win for that happening.”