Luminaries of Change Introductions
The following are self-submitted blurbs for the inaugural members of the Luminaries of Change Exhibit. The exhibit will open during the People’s Gallery Opening at Leisure Labs at Mahoney Center on Friday, June 18 at 6:30 PM.
The Cobb Family
The Cobb Family moved to Manchester in the late 1800s, taking a risk and becoming the first Black family in an all-white town. The Cobb farmhouse was nestled on Hillstown Road, the site of the present-day Botticello farm stand. The family made a living from their farm which included growing strawberries and tobacco among other products. Lacey and Isobel Cobb were early members of the Cobb family in Manchester who were described as always caring for anyone in the neighborhood who was in trouble or unable to care for themselves. Lacey and Isobel had one son, Richard “Dick” Cobb, who later married to Bernice “Bunny.” Bunny taught kindergarten at Verplanck Elementary School for 30 years and was a member of the Board of Education. She was also on the Manchester Memorial Hospital Board of Incorporators and an active member on the Lutz Junior Museum Board of Directors. Richard “Dick” Cobb Jr., a well-known physical education teacher at Manchester High School, was the son of Dick and Bunny. One of the gymnasium’s at MHS was named after him, recognizing his great impact on students and the community. The Cobb family were historic pioneers who moved into town in the face of great discrimination and segregation. Their actions were catalysts for greater change and the first step toward diversification of the town, leaving an important legacy. Yet their contributions go far beyond moving into town. As previously described, the Cobb family members left their footprints on neighbors, students, communities across town, the local education system and more. Without the courage and leadership of the Cobb family, the town we live in today would not have been possible.
John E. Rogers
John E. Rogers was born in 1907 in the North End of Hartford. He was the first Black man hired by the Hartford postal service in 1928. Ten years later in 1938, he moved his family to Manchester and became one of the handful of Black families in town. Not too long after his move to Manchester, Rogers became a historian of the Black Prince Hall Lodge of Masons, eventually rising to become Grand Master. He was known throughout the state as “Doctor John” and is considered “The Father of Black History in Connecticut,” as he was a self-taught scholar and expert on the colonial history of African-Americans in New England. He had an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Hartford where he started the first Black History class and in which he was Black history consultant emeritus. He also taught at Greater Hartford Community College. His impact was not only felt in Manchester and Greater Hartford, but he traversed all over New England, lecturing at virtually every college in Connecticut and sharing awe-inspiring Black stories that no history books had yet recorded. In addition to his impressive scholastic achievements, Rogers strove to make change through his position on the state Freedom of Information Commission as well as on several civic organizations including Community Renewal Team, the Connecticut Council on Human Rights, the Urban League, and Hartford Neighborhood Centers. His honors include the St. Benedict Award of the Catholic Interracial Council of Hartford and the Charter Oak Medal. John E. Rogers had a lasting impact beyond Manchester and into greater New England, spreading knowledge of Black stories often omitted from the history books and increasing recognition of the importance of Black History. “There’s no such thing as white or black history. It’s all together.”
Lou Irvin was the first Multicultural Coordinator in Manchester Public Schools, acting as a tenacious advocate for multicultural education and for the recruitment of staff of color. He founded the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Tour Consortium to encourage students of color to attend Black universities. In addition, he was founder and president of the Greater New England Alliance of Black School Educators (GNEABSE), committing himself to creating network opportunities for Black teachers. The organization still stands today with a mission of promoting and facilitating the education of all students, Black students in particular, and establishing a coalition of Black educators. Lou focused on providing resources for students of color who were interested in attending local and state colleges or universities. He devoted the last 20 years of his professional life to promoting diversity and enhancing multicultural education in CT. This included initiating the first “Celebrating Tour Commitment – A Connecticut Welcome to New Minority Teachers,” a conference cosponsored with the CT State Department that worked toward establishing a statewide support network for new minority teachers. Lou was a firm believer that increased recruitment and retention of educators of color would enhance the quality and standards of education for all children in CT public schools. The organizations and policies founded and shaped by Lou are his legacy, and they continue to work toward his dream of greater inclusion and support for educators and students of color.
Tom Stringfellow has been attending and contributing to town board meetings consistently since the late 1980’s. He is known for passionately sharing his views and providing important resources when addressing public officials. His public comments bring attention to the often overlooked, whether that be the experiences of a marginalized community or a reminder of an important historical anniversary. Tom was born in Queens, New York before moving to Germany and later France eventually moving to Manchester in 1963 when he was 7 years old. Tom credits his father, an Army Recruiter from Mississippi, and his mother, an activist of Bermudian decent as largely influencing his drive to be socially and politically conscious. He grew up in the Manchester school system, attending Washington, Keeney, Bennet Junior High, and Manchester High School. He furthered his education while attending Manchester Community College earing an associate’s degree in liberal arts, UConn-Storrs where he earned a BA in Sociology, and UConn-West Hartford where he earned a masters degree in social work. After a few jobs at state agencies, he took a position at the US Post Office on Weston Street in Hartford, where he worked for 36 years. “I’m just an educated, African-American man trying to make a positive difference,” said Tom in a feature of Humans of Manchester. An early member of the Manchester Interracial Council, Tom brought attention to inequities when commenting at board meetings, always prepared with a list of recommended readings, documentaries, or other resources to help further educate those in positions of influence. Tom has also participated in Youth Commission meetings to educate on issues that pertain to the younger generation. By providing this education and commentary, Tom does a great service to Manchester by amplifying the voices and experiences of marginalized communities.
Reverend Josh Pawelek
Reverend Josh Pawelek began serving as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East (UUS:E) on West Vernon Street in 2003. He has been an outspoken advocate for confronting racism both in Manchester and at the state-wide level. As such, he offers a model for faith-based anti-racist leadership. He and UUS:E have been active in campaigns to address racism in healthcare, education, employment, immigration, the criminal justice system, and in environmental policy. One clear example is the group’s creation of the original draft of Connecticut’s 2008 “An Act Concerning Environmental Justice Communities” to address environmental racism. As a leader with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice, Rev. Josh was involved in successful campaigns to increase statewide funding for early childhood education in 2007 and establish Connecticut’s earned income tax credit in 2011. In addition, Rev. Josh acts as a leader in the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Healthcare and participated in efforts to establish Sustinet, a state-based healthcare public option originally established in 2009. Rev. Josh also plays an important role in Moral Monday CT, in which he has engaged in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and been arrested four times to bring public attention to police brutality in Black and Latinx communities. Under Rev. Josh’s leadership, UUS:E passed a 2015 resolution declaring its support for the Black Lives Matter Movement and in 2017 became a sanctuary congregation for asylum seekers. Rev. Josh is a self-described aspiring antiracist, feminist, queer ally; a liberal, suburban American minister practicing a modern version of New Englands’s old “congregational way,” a loving husband and father; and a spiritual leader dedicated to transformative preaching, teaching, healing, and social justice ministries. His contribution to anti-racism is intersectional, inclusive, and spiritual, creating lasting change for the local community and beyond.
Pamela Floyd-Cranford’s gateway into politics began as a mother advocating for her sons to be given the same opportunities as others at their predominantly white elementary school. After recognizing these great inequities, she began SOC (Students of Color) Parent and Teacher organization to advocate for students of color and make positive changes within and outside of the school system. Her true calling is to serve people, as reflected in her career as a social worker at the Department of Children and Families where she is now a program manager. In 2017, Pamela Floyd-Cranford made history when she became the first African-American to be elected to the Manchester Board of Directors and in 2019, she was overwhelmingly re-elected. Pamela does not view herself as a “politician” but sees herself as an activist and public servant who sits in a political seat as an elected official. As a Town Director she is the highest ranked African-American official in Manchester which comes with a set of unique demands. Town officials must know the communities they serve and advocate for equity for every citizen. Pamela initiated the push to make voting accessible to every Manchester resident by championing the return of a polling station to the Bennet/Spruce Street neighborhood. She initiated efforts to diversify all town departments, specifically the Fire Department, which had no Black firefighters on the force in 2017 and, in January 2018, she helped Manchester make history again by getting Black residents voted onto Town Boards and Commissions that never had people of color. In 2020 she spearheaded the ordinance to make Racism a Public Health Crisis and championed the efforts for Juneteenth to become a municipal Holiday in Manchester. Pamela leads with compassion and integrity to ensure that every voice is heard and represented at the table.
Yolanda Castillo is the first Puerto Rican woman to serve on the Manchester Board of Directors and in 2019, she was re-elected to the board. Yolanda worked for the State of Connecticut’s Department of Rehabilitation Services. As a part of this work, she served on several commissions addressing community concerns. In 2017, she chaired the Connecticut Commission on Equity and Opportunities. The commission focuses on issues affecting underrepresented and underserved populations, including African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinx and Puerto Ricans. The goal of the commission is to focus its efforts on ensuring that these marginalized communities are healthy, safe, achieve educational success, free from poverty, and free from discrimination. Yolanda also co-founded the CT Hispanic Democratic Caucus in 2004, and later served as its vice chair and then chair. The mission of the caucus is to promote the political empowerment amongst Latinos throughout the State of Connecticut. “It’s so good for young people and women to run for leadership, it’s important… especially in the Latino community where we don’t think we can [run for office] but there are plenty [of Latinos] that are doing it.” Yolanda has received various recognitions and awards for her work in the community and has held numerous political positions throughout her years. She is a true political trailblazer who empowers others and focuses her work on creating greater accessibility and equity for marginalized communities.
Chairman Darryl E. Thames, Sr.
Chairman Darryl E. Thames, Sr., a Hartford native, has lived in Manchester for the past twenty nine years. He is the married father of four and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Howard University where he graduated alongside Vice President Kamala Harris. Currently, he has two grandsons that attend school in Manchester and two sons that have attended Manchester Public Schools. Mr. Thames has extensive experience working with public school systems as he was formerly a grants administrator for Danbury and Hartford Public Schools. He collaborated with superintendents, department heads, administrators, teachers and community based organizations to acquire grant resources to improve the quality, and increase the quantity of educational programs and services. He also served as COO of the Urban League of Greater Hartford which provides programming in the areas of Youth Development, Adult Education, Workforce Development and Economic Enrichment. This background peaked his interest in actively serving the Manchester community. He assumed a vacated seat on the board in 2012 and ran successful campaigns in 2013, 2017 and 2019 to maintain his seat on the Board of Education. In 2017, he was elevated to the position of Board Secretary and became Chairman of the Board in 2018. As a board member he has served on School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited (SMARTR 1) along with the Personnel and Finance, Policy, Residency and Communications Committees. “As Chair I seek to work collaboratively to make an impact in the areas of improved academic outcomes, social and emotional development, decreased academic achievement gap, school climate and life after high school. The academic process should focus on educating the whole child such that he or she is prepared academically, socially and otherwise, for college, trade school, or entrepreneurship. Educating our youth is not a one- size-fits-all undertaking and the school system must continually stretch to reach the needs of all children. The system must meet children where they are, considering their values, their cultural norms, needs and their emotions, and connect in a way that is impactful. Parent and family engagement is a critical component to this work. Yes, it is a tall order, but it is the essence of the work!”
Dr. Diane Clare-Kearney
Dr. Diane Clare-Kearney is considered by many to be the conscience of Manchester Public Schools, ensuring that education is seen through the lens of race. Her work fosters an educational community where racial understanding becomes the norm and where racism is actively combatted. Diane has been instrumental in developing programs for young adults, as she witnessed the great disproportionality among students of color. Early on, she designed a daytime and after school program, Student Actively Reaching for Success (STARS), to provide a safe space for students to seek academic and social support. She was founder and director of Graduating Students Actively Determined to Succeed (GRADS) to empower students in all of their classes. She wrote an African American Literature course to lift student voices and co-authored a Race Relations class to engage all 9th grade students through important conversations about race. In addition bringing racial awareness to teaching staff through trainings on difference, she developed a Young Women’s Leadership Group and school-based Equity Teams. She also helped to create the SOC (Students of Color) Parent and Teacher organization and co-authored New Horizons, an alternative to the Expulsion Program. Although these conversations around racial equity have not been easy, Diane remained steadfast despite ongoing opposition. From classroom teaching to serving as the Chair of the Board of RE-Center, Diane has been steady in her commitment to ensuring the community prioritizes equity. She has been received several awards for her work, including P-12 Multicultural Educator of the Year, the 2018 Honoring Friends award, and the 2019 George A. Coleman award for Excellence in Equity. Diane’s accomplishments still do little to fully convey the impact that her strong convictions and tireless efforts have had on not only her colleagues, but most importantly on the children and families of Manchester.
Rhonda Philbert, MPH
Rhonda Philbert, MPH grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. during the civil rights era. Throughout childhood, her family often talked about racial justice and supported the civil rights movement and racial justice, sparking her passion for helping others. Rhonda moved to Manchester during the 1990’s. While working in Hartford, she supported health equity by advocating for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS as well as providing resources to women of color with high risk pregnancies. She also volunteered with The National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, which examined infant mortality experienced by Manchester residents. Locally, Rhonda also served as co-chair of the Manchester Interracial Council, which demanded action for the racial injustices in town. She carried her experience into her work for Manchester Public Schools in 1996, where she eventually became the town’s Equity Coordinator. Rhonda is instrumental in providing leadership and guidance to educators, administrators, students and families. One of her contributions as Equity Coordinator was the development and implementation of Race and Equity training for MPS faculty and staff. She also created leadership conferences that centered race and cultural relevance for students and established Equity Teams in the district schools to dismantle systemic inequitable practices in education. In addition, Rhonda is the first African American co-chair of the Manchester School Readiness Council. She has focused on deepening the council members’ understanding of race and equity by facilitating training. She also is the co-founder of the African American and Black Affairs Council of Manchester (AABAC), which aims to uphold all aspects of African American and Black culture and to eliminate the injustices experienced by Black people in Manchester. Through her many contributions to racial justice at the local level, Rhonda has established long-lasting programs and organizations that will continue to make a difference in the lives of communities of color.
Matt Geary is considered one of the most progressive Superintendents to have served the Manchester Public School system. He has been the Superintendent in Manchester since July 2014. He started his career in Manchester as the Principal of Manchester High School in April 2012, during which he worked to ensure that students of all races and ethnicities had access to honors and advanced placement courses. He introduced Imagine College, a mentoring program for first generation college students. These efforts were supported by a New Approaches in Urban Districts Grant which was awarded to the district based on the work being done at MHS. As Superintendent, Matt collaborated with school and town officials to achieve the approval of both phases of the School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Renovation Plan which ensures all students in grades K-6 will be in racially balanced schools by 2025. He has led district staff in an effort to improve family and community partnerships in support of equity, resulting in his recognition as Connecticut PTSA Superintendent of the Year in 2018. Matt has also worked to decrease the disproportionality in school discipline for students of color through the strengthening of relationships between students, parents, families, and staff as well as the implementation of restorative practices across the district. Matt has diversified the leadership team at MPS and ensured all staff are engaged in anti-racist efforts. These efforts included the implementation of the Equity Informed School Climate Assessment in 2016, race and equity training for administrators beginning in 2016-17, and professional learning days for all staff added to the school calendar in 2019-20. During his time in Manchester, Matt’s journey toward a deeper personal understanding of race and equity has made him a better leader and person.
Jim Spafford served as Principal of Manchester High School from October 1989 to July 2003. During his first year, in concert with Lou Irvin, the Multicultural Education Coordinator for Manchester Public Schools, Mr. Spafford recognized that there were a disproportionate number of students of color placed in lower level and less challenging academic courses. To address this issue, he mobilized newly formed decision-making structures for the high school, including the creation of the school’s first Race Relations Council with the ongoing charge to oversee policies and practices regarding access and equity to Manchester High School’s academic programs and support services for students of color. In this regard, he issued administrative instructions to all departmental leaders and provided professional development workshops to ensure that equity issues were integrated into teaching and learning strategies. In addition to appointing staff of color to administrative and leadership positions, he proposed innovative solutions and programs such as Students in Transition Actively Reaching for Success (STARS), Graduating Responsible Academically Determined Students (GRADS), and a Race Relations class for all grade 9 students taught by Manchester community-at-large volunteers. Jim supported the annual Historical Black College Tour and wrote letters of credit on behalf of students of color which allowed them to enter college at the start of the first semester of the academic year. These letters of credit, which reached a total of $ 38,000 at one time, guaranteed that the students’ first semester would be paid if they did not qualify for financial aid by the start of the second semester. All these students were able to enter college without any academic time gaps, as well as receive financial aid retroactive to their first semester. Jim was instrumental in creating educational programs that focused on family and community Involvement and student equity. He also supported the work of other racial equality leaders and made a lasting impact on students of color in Manchester.
Ryan Parker is and always has been an essential member of the Manchester community. After graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University with a Bachelor’s degree in English, he joined Illing Middle School as an English teacher. Motivated to engage the minds of youth, Ryan used his exceptional poetry skills and positivity to help students excel in their education. By initiating school-wide inclusive programs such as Cool to be Kind, Paper Voices, and Write Out Loud Poetry, Ryan has developed opportunities for all students to gain confidence and form meaningful connections. After fourteen years at Illing Middle School, Ryan moved his skillset as an educator to Manchester Middle Academy, as a coach. His new position allows him to work with students providing additional social and emotional support along with underrepresented students. Outside of the classroom, Ryan can be found leading educational conferences on inclusivity. Some of his audiences include UConn’s NEAG School of Education, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, and the TEDx Talk hosted at Manchester High School. As a member of the African American and Black Affairs Council, his presence at social justice rallies cannot be missed. His guidance and poetry skills have allowed younger audiences to spread awareness through their art in the Paper Voices program. Ryan was also officially named Manchester’s Poet laureate in 2019, making him the first Black candidate to receive this title. Ryan’s passion and commitment to education, poetry, diversity and joy is felt by each person he encounters. He is a youth empowerment activist that Manchester is grateful to have.