Black and Brown People Creating Systems Change
Taheera, Mike and Christian Massey
Longtime Resident Partners with
When you think about the next 10 years, what goals do you have in mind for Boston?
Taheera: My hope is that there is more representation within the Boston Public Schools system and within school systems as a whole throughout the country. Just as we want police officers who live in the neighborhood to police our streets, I think we should have teachers who live in the neighborhood teach in our schools, so that they’re immersed in the culture and the community and are spending their money in the community. Right now, we have a lot of teachers who don’t live here and then they go and spend their money in other communities.
I also hope that all of Boston’s public schools have yoga and mindfulness offered. Mike trained me. I’m a yoga teacher too. I practice yoga and mindfulness in my classroom. Every Friday we do yoga and every day we practice mindfulness.
How might we go about getting more people from the community to teach in the schools?
They’re already here. In my community alone, there are people tutoring students. Over the summer, during COVID, when their parents just can’t quite get those letters down, I’ve been doing play-based tutoring instructions. People are already here. We have to make it less scary for them.
I started as an assistant in my school. My supervisor was a young, 25-year-old White girl. She talked at me; she didn’t talk to me. And I just let her have that, but I was thinking, “I may not have graduated from Harvard, but I know more than you.” There is a level of respect that’s missing when younger teachers come in, especially with the assistant teachers, who often look like the kids they’re teaching. So, I think we need to start there. We also need to do more anti-violence training. We need to throw out the curriculum, and stop treating kids of color like they’re the minority. We are the majority here and we should start teaching as such. That’s my goal. That’s what I want the decade to bring.
We’re in such a strange time now, but it feels like it might be a time of opportunity as well as hardship. Are you feeling that at all?
Michael: This is me being a yogi, and a person who grew up here. That’s a cosmic storm and an anomaly. I study a lot of energy and whatever has attracted this energy, I still can’t put my finger on it. Jhana mentioned to us a while back that we were going to have this talk with you. And I’ve tried to figure out what is the source of the energy I’m feeling. I feel like it’s the culmination of a lot of chaos. Myself and Taheera come from families that had issues and I think about how we raise our kids is trying to combat the negatives coming up. We’re not going to raise our kids that way. We’re not going to take away their voice. We’re always going to listen to them and let them teach us as much as we can teach them. And we took that into the community and into the schools.
I think the solutions to our problems are here. There’s something that goes on where people bond together. But you never hear about that. You hear about the disparities or when someone gets killed or robbed. But you never really hear about people collaborating and that’s the future. That’s how we’re going to get to it. On the ground level, people are coming up with real and spectacular ways to put their resources together and build something. I think Christian has seen that his whole life. He saw the struggles. Me and his Mom have never hidden anything from him. We’ve always been really honest with him. There were points when his older sister [Alesia is 20 now], were going through her teenage transition, I would be pulling my hair and saying, “What kind of a monster did I create?” But then, after she pushed through the developmental stages, she’s a really well-rounded, good-thinking and visionary person. I think she’s set the bar really high for her brothers [Christian, who is 17, and Jimmy, who is 13]. We ask her why she never takes a break and why she’s working so hard. She said, “You and Mom are the nicest and most intelligent people I’ve known in my entire life. And you don’t have anything that you deserve in life.” So, she has a drive that has trickled down to her brothers. Christian is next up and I think he’s really excited about what the future holds for him because he has a special bag of tools. He has honesty from us and from the neighborhood he lives in.
I told him about the history of Roxbury and how his grandfather bought a home in 1949 off of tips from being a waiter on a train. The insanity of that. He would go to work every day hoping for a future with kids he would never meet: Christian and Christian’s children. So, he would go on the train every day and be called the N-Word and have kids half his age calling him “boy” and “bring me a sandwich,” or “bring me cup of tea.” He had to put up with that so that he could build a future for a foundation for generations. And that’s the kind of leadership we instill in our kids and that’s what we bring to the streets. And that’s how my wife and I have become staples of education. People come to us and ask us to work with their kids. We have that extra elbow grease, because we come with our yoga background and training. We understand that whatever we do individually, it’s designed for the greater whole. And I think, by osmosis and just by general mantra—repeating this over and over to our kids—we created avenues for them to have bright futures.
Taheera: With the yoga, that’s physical and it pushes you too.
Christian: Yeah, I used to be like almost 300 pounds a couple of years ago. Over the last year I’ve cut that by 100 pounds. That whole journey—the working out—I took a lot of the stuff I did there and started applying it to my regular life. When I was working out, I had this mentality like: I just have to keep going. I got to keep moving. I don’t care what people are saying to me, like talking bad on me, like they’re downing me, I’m going to keep going. And the Guild helps me with that too.
Tell us about how you got involved in The Guild and what it means to you.
Mike: When I first started doing my yoga back in 2014, I had $200 and had been training down at South Boston yoga, which is one of the best in Boston. Because of COVID, they had to shut their doors. I got my certification there and I was so pumped and excited because, partway through the training, I felt that I didn’t even belong, so I was going to quit the program. And the instructor, who is one of my mentors to this day, had a talk with me. He said, “Everything I know tells me we can change the world. I’m 6’4” and I’m White and I’m gay. And if I came into Roxbury or Dorchester or Mattapan and tried to teach yoga, it probably wouldn’t penetrate as much as you could. Because I’m sure you, with your personality and your knowledge of those neighborhoods and the people—you can take everything I teach you and bring it there to make change. So, I said, “Well, now that you put it that way—put that weight on my shoulders—I’m ready to answer that call.
Did he know you were thinking of leaving?
Mike: Yeah, he knew that I was being singled out and discriminated in this field. And I said, “Yes, I’m with a bunch of privileged white women, and I listen to them talk about their “problems,” and my problems seem like miles and universes away from things that they see as problems. So maybe I’m in the wrong place. And that’s what made me want to get up and go. He said, “I understand what it feels like. I understand what it is to be discriminated against.” That’s how the topic of being a homosexual came up. He said, “I’ve been homosexual my whole life and when I was a kid, there weren’t as many protection agencies and support groups that there are now, so I know what it’s like to be made fun of just because you’re different. I can help you with that. I can relate.” So that kind of broke the ice for us. We talked about how you can use yoga to change the world. So I started working immediately in the community. I quit my job and said, “I want to do THE work.
I started at Whittier Health Center and this woman that was taking my classes brought a flyer about this group in the community that was offering a share of a grant and it turned out to be The Guild. And The Guild was having this meeting with a bunch of people who all wanted to help the community. It made us think about the passion behind what we do. That room was probably filled with about a hundred people. When they told us the money breakdown had to be split, a lot of people stepped off. They thought they were going to just take a chunk of money and go. But I was really impressed with The Guild about doing it like that. They had everybody discuss what they were doing so that the money could be dispensed equally and evenly among the people who needed it. I thought that showed a lot of moral fiber. It told me to stick to them. And I stuck to them. There are some programs that aren’t consistent. But what’s consistent to this day is that we offer free yoga to the community. You can donate if you want, but there’s no charge. If you don’t have the funds to donate, just give a hug and say, “Thank you.” We’ve been offering that for years and, over time, a relationship has been built.
Taheera: I graduated from Dr. Linda Nathan’s and Carmen Torres’ program The Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership. And so I started a family yoga program, where my husband, Mike, teaches the adults, and I teach the kids. We’re in separate rooms and it’s pretty amazing. Saturday, we did a thing where we did yoga and a discussion. Our first one invited families from my school because I wanted to connect with their homes. Because The Guild is set in the heart of a place where people from many different neighborhoods can come and, being a charter school, we have kids from all over, so it was easier to connect with my students at The Guild.
Mike: So Christian started helping out and one day Jhana said, “You know, Mike, I know your heart is in the community and I want to see if that trickles down to your son.” And I said, “Of course.” So that’s when him and his brother Jimmy started working in the gardens.
Christian, when you think about the future, do you have a goal of some kind that you’d like to see Boston reach?
Christian: I feel happy for the future. We’re starting a new decade and that’s a good time to reinvent yourself in a good way. For my community, I want to see more property not being owned by the city and then just putting up a bunch of apartments that no one around here can afford. There’s a lot of violence around here and I’d like to see that go down. I feel like it’s not going to change unless more people start getting jobs and more people start hearing about the good things in this community. I go to a school in Marblehead and the first thing those kids think about is that I’m from the “hood” and it’s crazy out there. People are getting shot all the time. And there are drug dealers. And what I say is that my family owns a house and it’s nice around here. I haven’t had a bad experience—with my uncle and my Dad and my Mom.
We need to change the narrative of how people see this whole community. And that’s really my goal for these next 10 years. I want to start building that. I’m into art a lot and I want to be able to get out of the hood by doing something that not a lot of Black kids do. They always say, “There’s only two ways you’re ever going to get out of the hood: either you rap or you play a sport.” So you have all these kids thinking, “That’s the only way I’m going to get out.” I want other kids to look up to me and say, “He got out by doing something other people aren’t doing" and looking up to that. I feel like our community would be so much better if we had more kids involved in art or something. I feel like for things to change, we’ve just got to start changing the narrative ourselves. It’s not like we can’t do it. It’s just that the scenario is broken.
Taheera: I think the part that Christian is starting to get to is not just to get out of the hood, but to come back and build up the hood. Because you can’t just get out of the hood and leave the hood and then be made when it’s gentrified. You need to come back and build it up. That’s why this house, for us, provides a sanctuary. It’s been in this family since 1949 and I just want to change the narrative where kids are building up the hood and saying, “It’s not such a bad place. We can have businesses. My husband is a business owner. Through COVID, he started a nonprofit and our kids have an LLC now. We’d like to build businesses in this community. Our wealth in the form of health and mental health.
So, you’re living in the house that your grandfather bought?
Mike: Yes, and my Dad used to invite kids in the ‘90s. It makes my heart skip a beat about Boston, because my Dad was getting a lot of pressure from other adults in the neighborhood about why he would open your house up for different crews or different gangs. How do you open your home to that? That’s like putting fire next to a powder keg. And he would say that he was giving structure so these boys could put away the violence. He was our coach. He would go to BJ’s three times a week just to feed all of us who were ball players. But people thought it was foolishness. His response was, “I would much rather have all of these guys in the house with full bellies, happy, taking naps, than standing on the street corner so the police to roll up and hurt them and kill them. And things haven’t really changed that much. My sons are bigger than me. They’re obviously beautiful Black men, but some people won’t see them that way. I had a five-year plan to plant seeds in the neighborhood and they’re just starting to sprout and I’m glad I did it. For us to be in the neighborhood, it takes a love of the grassroots and the fight. There was an article in the Boston Globe that proved that the average worth of a Black family in Boston was about $8. So we have to change that narrative. How do you own businesses? How do you build stock portfolios? These were things that my grandfather and father’s generation couldn’t talk about. Because to be a man of color, you didn’t want to own a bank, we just wanted to get a bank account.
When my father sent me to college on a football scholarship, he said, “You’re not just going there to bang your head against people. Use your head. Figure out a better way that me and your grandfather did.”
But it’s hard to think about opening a business in the hood. Trying to build a business is for me like going through a jungle with a machete. I’m just feeling my way through. But my kids are so intelligent and we’re just opening the box for them and allowing them to play around with these ideas. They have Google and YouTube at their fingertips and so we’re encouraging them to continue to try to do whatever they feel is right.
I was talking with my wife earlier about the young girls that she tutors. And one of the girls has what would be considered a sassy attitude. We have to be careful not to shut that down. Because far too many families of color try to cut an attitude out right away. I don’t think kids necessarily have malicious intent in their attitude swings. I think they’re just feeling out the environment. We as adults have to understand the psychology. Instead of shutting the sassiness down right away, we have to put it on the table and spin it around. That was an experiment that worked well with our kids. We never stopped them from expressing themselves. If they wanted to wear a certain color, or wear their hair a certain way or paint their fingernails, whether they’re a boy or a girl, we just let them flow and be free. For yogis, we want freedom, but it’s the type of freedom you have to fight for.
Christian, do you know what you’d like to do as far as a major or a profession?
I really like art and painting, so I’m looking into something I could do with design or art—especially incorporating that into designing buildings or creating a company.
If you go away to school, do you imagine coming back to your neighborhood?
Yeah, for sure. There’s no other place like home. I can’t go anywhere else and feel safe.