Cleopatra Mavhunga

Editor’s note: Good Trouble is a biweekly series highlighting Yale student activists and their work fighting for racial justice in their home communities. With the remarkable convergence of the pandemic and the historic movements that began in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylors’ deaths, many students found themselves working to transform towns and cities that they thought they had left behind. Through these profiles, we hope to celebrate their resolve in the face of racial violence and injustice while exploring how we are shaped by the places that raise us and what it means to shape those places in turn.

A clear September afternoon in Framingham, Massachusetts. Under the gleaming sunlight, the red oak leaves shone like fire. In Farm Pond State Park, young Cleopatra and her white, Black and Latino friends ran through the golden woods. Stepping on the fallen acorns, crunching the drying leaves, they lay down on the grassland by the land bridge and watched the sunset. As the last wisp of sunlight stroked their hair, they feasted on the pastries from the nearby Pao Brasil Bakery and talked. About life, love, friends and dreams. Stars glimmered in the deep azure sky. Cleopatra wished this moment would last forever.

***

Cleopatra Mavhunga (TD ’22+1) was born to a Zimbabwean immigrant family and grew up in Michigan as her father completed his doctorate. After her father secured a teaching job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her family went house hunting and eventually settled in Framingham, a 30-minute ride away from Boston, when she was 8 years old. Ten years and the births of two younger brothers later, she headed down to New Haven, declared theater and English majors and has been doing racial justice work in her hometown’s school system. This year, she is taking a leave of absence and living with friends on Dwight Street. “Well, half of my majors need in-person classes,” she said, explaining her decision to take a leave of absence to me over Zoom while cooking herself lunch and baking pastries.

“Plus, I waited so long to come to college. College was literally the thing that helped me get through high school,” she said, whipping some heavy cream for her tiramisu.

“I hated Framingham,” she added.

***

On paper, Framingham should be one of the last places Cleopatra hates. Located near Boston, a major city in a deep blue state, Framingham is best known for its demographic diversity. Haitian immigrants, central African immigrants, Puerto Rican, Dominican … this list goes on and on. But perhaps more significant is Framingham’s Brazilian influence. According to Cleopatra, it has one of the most concentrated Brazilian populations anywhere in the world outside of Brazil. Some building signs are written in both English and Portuguese, and Framingham High School offers an extensive English as a second language curriculum.

But the presence of diversity does not imply people’s respect for diversity. In fact, if diversity is not respected, it will become marginalization and segregation.

In Framingham’s school system, high schoolers looking to take AP or advanced courses need permission from their teachers and parents, as well as their guidance counselors. Designed to mentor the students inside and outside of the classroom, the eight counselors take care of the 2,400 Framingham High students. Yes, a staggering ratio of 300 to one.

Seven are white. All are non-Black.

A Brazilian friend of Cleopatra’s wanted to take AP Statistics. After securing the permission from her parents and the teacher — who had taught her before — her counselor plainly replied, “I don’t think you are capable.”

“The counselor doesn’t even know her!” Cleopatra exclaimed.

In Framingham High’s main building, most ESL classes were concentrated in the single B Hallway — one of the structure’s 10 wings — together with the vice principals’ offices, and notably, four student resource officers, commonly referred to as SROs.

They are cops.

They are stationed on campus in case of emergencies. However, coincidentally, all of them seem to always stay in the B Hallway. Some students speculate the reason being that B Hallway connects to the cafeteria and is usually crowded. But so is the F Hallway, which also includes all the English classrooms, the school’s main entrance and a day care — don’t the younger kids need stronger, more immediate protection? And probably a more fundamental question: Why aren’t the SROs evenly distributed across the entire campus?

Students make mistakes, and the VPs are the ones that hand down punishments, but in the B Hallway, the SROs — cops — punish the students breaking school rules before the VPs do.

And when VPs do hand out punishments, they aren’t necessarily fair. According to a poll — conducted by Cleopatra — of the Framingham High students who ever felt that their VPs punished them unnecessarily harshly, 53 percent of them were non-white. Other data shows that the non-white students — 43 percent of Framingham’s student body — receive 60 percent of the punishments.

Data can be manipulated and misleading and doesn’t necessarily capture the lived experiences of the students who walk the halls of Framingham High. So, here are a few personal stories, relayed to me by Cleopatra:

She was once given a multiple-day suspension for hiding a classmate’s binder as part of a prank.

A non-white Framingham student missed a day of class during quarantine because of sickness. This friend did not get a call from their teacher or guidance counselor to check if they were okay. Instead, an SRO paid them a visit to investigate why they were missing classes.

A white math teacher once told her class that it was fine to use the N-word. “It takes the power away from the word,” he said. Cleopatra was the only Black student in the class.

A music teacher in an elementary school in Framingham was fired for calling a Black student the N-word and a monkey. “And this is an elementary school!” Cleopatra emphasized.

“And all these happened in a deep blue area in our country,” she said, “And in a school! School is where kids are supposed to have hope!”

 ***

Cleopatra took a dough from a fridge and rolled it out on a board.

“It’s for breadsticks,” she explained. “With raisins in them.” She would also make breadsticks at home for her two younger brothers, Promise, age 12, and Pride, age 9.

Both of them were born after her family moved to Framingham. Her father was a busy professor and her mother a busy nurse, so Cleopatra was essentially her brothers’ caretaker. “I have a very, very deep bond with my brothers,” she said, “I taught them how to walk!”

And she also cooked for them. When they were at home alone, she would ask them what they wanted, and she would make anything they requested. At first they asked for things like pizza, calzones and pasta. Then things became wild. They would name random dishes they saw on “Cutthroat Kitchen” with 20 sabotages — and she would try to make them. When she cooked, Promise would be standing at a distance. The next day, she would find him standing in front of the stove and cooking the same thing she did the day before. “They literally just wanna be me,” she said.

Outside of the kitchen, they would take walks in the state park and talk about anything. “One thing people don’t understand is how we just get each other. We’re best friends,” she said.

 ***

It was through one of these talks that she learned that Promise was called the N-word.

It was a close friend of his, who was Brazilian and used the excuse that he learned it in a song. He probably meant no menace, apologized and likely forgot about this incident. But Promise didn’t. He no longer felt comfortable around this friend anymore. For Promise, this incident completely cut him off from someone who seconds before was a brother.

Incidents like this prompted their father to have “the talk” with them. For Cleopatra, her father told her that she looked like a thug when she wore a hood to a grocery store. For Pride, the concluding sentence of “the talk” was bleak: “That’s the world we live in.”

The world doesn’t change much as they grow older. Promise’s young Brazilian friend used the excuse that he learned it from a song. Some of Cleopatra’s teenage Brazilian friends used the excuse that they aren’t white.

The N-word is still the N-word. Whoever says it. The power doesn’t go away.

Cleopatra regrets that when she was younger, she didn’t have the courage to call out those using the N-word. She and her fellow Black friends were too preoccupied about fitting in. “Black people didn’t talk to each other,” she said, addressing her early high school experience. “We were all in friend groups that were predominantly white. We antagonized each other. We fed into the stereotype of Black women and Black men.”

She felt that she initially didn’t “have her voice.”

Later, she reflected on and discussed this issue with her Black Framingham classmates, mostly after graduation. They were able to have some brutally honest talks about their Black experiences, but “it was too late.”

She thought about never going back to Framingham after college and just forgetting about everything, but quarantine canceled this option for her. She went back home and was forced to see her brother “changing” and “chipping away,” bit by bit, worn down by the experiences of everyday racism. She eventually decided she needed to do something.

One of the first projects was to push for the abolishment of the SROs. Framingham High’s fine arts department was losing its budget. The school was oversubscribed by more than 50 percent. The student printing center ran out of paper every year before school ended. Why would Framingham invest money planting cops at school that would create nothing but fear for non-white students? Over 700 people signed the petition. But Framingham’s superintendent claimed he had no power. “Literally you are the superintendent!” Cleopatra exclaimed as if addressing him. “And you are acting as if you have no power and gonna make me feel bad for you? You should feel bad for ME!”

The superintendent clearly didn’t get her message that cops should not be present at school. “It’s all about image, you know?” she said. “But race isn’t an image thing.”

She also spread her message on social media, sending infographics and polls.

People — anonymously — tried to attack both her and her ideas.

“This is why I don’t engage with Librex,” she said. “They see this as a game, pissing off liberals, the activists. When I asked them in person, they’d be like ‘Yeah I actually agree with 90 percent of what you’re doing.’ ‘I like what you posted there.’ I can’t take you seriously. Come say the same thing to my face! I bet you don’t.”

She continued, “You’re doing this for fun. I’m doing this for survival. These are very different circumstances.”

***

Cleopatra opened her oven and checked on her ladyfingers.

“Yes, I know. I could’ve bought the prepacked ones from Whole Foods,” she said, popping her batch back into the oven. “But I always like to make every food from scratch. It takes time, and I always struggle. But it always ends up working. And it always tastes better.”

She opened the lid of the cold-brew coffee maker to check if there was enough coffee for her tiramisu. “Everything is from scratch. Step by step.”

***

Three years ago, Framingham’s residents voted to transition a town to a city.

“Probably for money,” she answered when I asked her why this vote happened. “And the city status will be more attractive to companies. Some major companies may want to build a headquarter in Framingham. TJ Maxx has a headquarter in Framingham. Bose has a headquarter in Framingham. But these were both before cityhood. Amazon was looking to build a new headquarter back then, too.”

Amazon did not build a headquarters in Framingham.

But two things did slowly build up as the town became a city: gentrification and bureaucracy.

Probably due to Framingham’s proximity to Boston, new condos were built to attract residents. The older parts of Framingham were torn down, forcing out old businesses and, as a result, the diversity, the heavy Brazilian influence and the community.

“This is making me sad,” she said. “Downtown Framingham was amazing. A lot of family restaurants. And one of our recognizable things: If you want good Brazilian food, go to Framingham. Now, all of these are disappearing.”

A lot of Framingham’s current residents are in Framingham for the same reason as Cleopatra’s family: for the education and the proximity to Boston. These residents are likely to eventually move. In the nearby towns Marlborough and Worcester, houses are much bigger and cheaper. Some immigrant residents have already moved away, bringing their diversity and cultural influences further west in the state. Cleopatra’s family likely won’t move, because of her two younger brothers. They will have to remain in this newborn city for the foreseeable future and witness their hometown slowly losing its charm.

Bureaucracy is an even worse issue. Now having to go through city elections, the residents are slowly learning to deal with politics for the first time. “Now it feels more corporatized,” she said.

“Can you handle it?” I asked.

“Nooooo,” she said. But corporatization wasn’t nearly the biggest problem. In the past, when there were no politics involved, people were personal. She recalled her childhood, when her family hung out with their neighbors all the time. Everyone watched out for each other, and race was never an issue. She said, “The dynamics between childhood friends and parents — I almost considered them like my own.” But now, because of politics, she and her neighbors can be on “complete opposite sides, over things like — race?!”

But how could race be a political thing?

“It was an uncomfortable growing pain,” she remarked, “we all were so close. None of us saw Framingham like this.”

She coped with this pain on an individual level by talking things out with friends, some on the opposite sides over race. Some of these conversations happened in the state park, and some didn’t go well, resulting in the collapse of friendships. “As much as I care about you, this is my life we are talking about,” she said as if speaking to these ex-friends. “You can’t be harmful to your friends.” From those conversations that didn’t work out, she understood that dialogue could not be forced.

But there were also the conversations that did work and strengthened her friendships. Those non-Black friends realized their insensitivity in the past, apologized and took the initiative to spearhead these conversations with even more people around them. Step by step.

“This is what the word ‘ally’ means,” she said.

Her larger projects have been trending the right way, too. She worked with her favorite history teacher, who is white, in high school and redesigned the U.S. history curriculum, centered around “the repressed, not the white supremacists.” But she also made sure that this curriculum provided a nuanced telling of Black history that included the triumphs of people of color in America. “Don’t mention Black people just like they were slaves, then sharecroppers, then fighting for rights. Poor Black people and poor Native American people — they are thriving today.”

She is still pushing for the disbanding of SROs in Framingham High. Besides more conversations with the police department, she has also found criminology professors at Framingham State University and planned a discussion panel to bring people together, address hard topics like the psychology of policing and answer people’s questions.

It will be an uphill battle for her to fight against racism. But what she can do: educate people. Inform them and let them change. Start from scratch. Step by step.

“Baby steps, but smart ways,” she said.

***

Near the end of our Zoom call, she told me about an encounter on Instagram.

A white high schooler reached out to her and told her that he disagreed that police should be defunded and race wasn’t the reason Black people were disenfranchised. She was not happy to hear this, but after a few minutes of chatting, she figured that this guy had probably never interacted with a Black person and genuinely wanted to ask her where her viewpoints came from. She calmed down and told her a few incidents she and her Black friends had experienced, like aforementioned stories from Framingham High. His reaction: “Wait, this really happened?”

He still wasn’t fully convinced at the end of their conversation, but she could clearly tell that his beliefs were challenged, and he was willing to change. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not expecting people to get it after one conversation. It took me years to understand it, too.”

But neither side approached this conversation with hate. Both wanted to understand where each other was coming from.

She felt hope.

She confessed that despite how much she despises Framingham, she still loves this place. Without Framingham, she wouldn’t have become who she is today. The theater program in Framingham’s school system prepared her for her theater studies. Some people there are her best friends. She had the most personal growth there. Her biggest realizations happened there.

“Really a lot of potential there,” she said, reminiscing about the sunset by the land bridge, with the fallen leaves, the Brazilian pastries and her friends. “When I see the beautiful sunset, I realize this place is full of potential.”

Our call lasted for two hours. She was cooking the entire time. From scratch, she made a tiramisu, a big batch of bread sticks and a meatball pasta dish. A feast. Step by step.

She will devote so many more than two hours for Framingham. Already started from scratch. Step by step. Baby steps, but smart ways.

Tony Hao | tony.hao@yale.edu

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there are eight Student Resource Officers in Framingham High School. There are four SROs in the school. Additionally, the earlier version misstated the race of the student who was denied the chance to take an AP class and the subject’s relationship to the student who was visited by an SRO when absent. The article has been updated to reflect these facts accurately. 

TONY HAO
Tony Hao is a staff writer of the YDN Weekend desk. He is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in English.