Chelsea Kuiper | Nov 5, 2018
In Studio B at Q Division Recording Studios in Somerville, a man steps up to a microphone and begins a story. “Mid-Seventies Boston lay sharply divided by race, class, and mobility…”
If cities had voices perhaps his would be Boston’s. The deep baritone of the voice reflects the sounds of Boston itself—the power of rush-hour traffic, the melodies of a block party, and ever so, well, intellectual.
This commanding voice is the product of an eclectic Cuban-born, Boston-raised, and thespian-trained heritage. Today he is rehearsing the narration for Interlock Media’s latest documentary, CodeSwitching. The film will be an intimate portrayal of five African American alumni’s experiences in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a voluntary school desegregation program that has bused Boston and Springfield youth to better-resourced suburban schools for over 50 years.
Interlock Media Director Jonathan Schwartz was fortunate enough to borrow the talents of stage and film actor Naheem Garcia to workshop narration concepts for CodeSwitching at Q Division. The METCO story requires a narrator whose voice reflects empathy and understanding for those navigating the complex interplay between equity and education in Boston area schools. Naheem goes a step beyond this criteria. As someone who lived through the busing crisis in Boston Public Schools, he is intimately familiar with the opportunities and challenges often involved for minority youth living within this system. Naheem sat down with me to share history.
Busing for Desegregation
In 1968, one-year-old Naheem migrated from his native Cuba to the Boston area with his mother, aunt, and grandmother.
Naheem speaks with pride as he shares fragments of his parents’ immigration story, noting that “They worked very hard to have something,” including a Victorian home in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain where Naheem spent his childhood.
As a child, Naheem’s grandmother and parents frequently reminded him of the values they had acquired growing up in Cuba, including working hard and not taking things for granted.
Despite the strong sense of self and identity imparted by his parents, Naheem was still affected by disparity and discrimination as a black Hispanic immigrant growing up in the midst of the backlash to mandated desegregation efforts in 1970s and 80s Boston Public Schools. These disparities were evident in the basic task of getting to and from school.
Detailing his memories with busing, he shares, “The ride home could be anything.”
He remembers people throwing things at his bus, including stones and even cinder blocks, as well as walking home in groups for safety, with the ever present threat of attacks.
“We didn’t want to go to school because we didn’t want to get hurt.”
These kind of experiences were not unique in 1970s Boston if you were a minority youth participating in mandated busing.
A brief encounter with the METCO program provided Naheem with insights into his own neighborhood school’s failure to deliver a quality education. Naheem remembers having the opportunity to ride the bus with his friends to Newton North High School. Sitting in one of the classes at this suburban school, he was encouraged, even as a visitor, to ask questions and participate in the classroom. He recalls wondering, in that moment, how his life might be different if his school had better supported him. After being forced into a special education program, Naheem became disappointed with his school’s failure to provide tailored educational support. As a result, Naheem decided to stop his formal education after ninth grade.
Naheem applied the lessons of his own childhood struggles at school to ensure his daughters would not experience the same disappointments. For one of his kids, that has meant participation in the METCO program. Naheem notes that when his daughter previously attended a Boston area parochial school, resources for a supportive educational experience were not available. Since joining METCO and moving to Bedford High School, she obtained the one-on-one attention she needed to excel.
Not only has Naheem tirelessly fostered his own children’s academic success, he also nurtured his own education through his chosen career paths as a teacher and an actor. Working as a theater educator for much of his life, Naheem has willingly taken on a variety of educational roles, even acting at one point as the Dean of Discipline in a Boston area school. In this capacity, Naheem provided extra support to students facing obstacles impeding their overall educational achievement.
The unexpected nature of his life trajectory is not lost on Naheem.
“I would never have been able to tell you that later on in life I would be somebody’s Dean,” he says.
I get the sense that for Naheem, being a theater educator has involved more than imparting his passion for acting. As an educator, he has helped others find their own passion, while working to prevent the same kinds of obstacles he faced at school.
Becoming a Household Name
What began years ago as a part time career in stage acting has, in recent years, blossomed into a full time film career. Naheem has appeared in many Hollywood and independently-produced feature films, most recently Equalizer 2, Daddy’s Home 2, and Jungleland. He has also expanded into television work, appearing in Showtime’s SMILF and doing voiceover work and appearances in commercials for such major brands as Dunkin’ Donuts and Visa. Naheem’s success has come from equal parts determination and patience. Rather than move to Los Angeles or New York to pursue an acting career, Naheem has remained committed to the Boston area, waiting for the right projects to cross his path in the community he has worked so hard to better.
Having a Voice
For all his success as an actor, educator, and community advocate, Naheem still experiences social inequities acutely.
“It is important for you to know that I am a black Hispanic man.” He tells me, “We don’t have a voice.”
Asked why, he says, “We don’t have a voice because we get mixed up with the rest.”
For Naheem, getting “mixed up with the rest” has meant frequent false assumptions from people regarding his cultural and linguistic heritage, therefore masking his particular experiences as a black Hispanic man.
Naheem’s story evokes the question of our responsibility to ensure our students feel heard, understood, and valued, the same debate explored by generations of METCO students in CodeSwitching.
Interlock Media is grateful for Mr. Garcia’s time, voice, and perspectives in support of the film CodeSwitching.