Pamela Sussman-Paternoster

b. 1953

Pamela Sussman Paternoster’s work with the Algebra Project helped teach thousands of disadvantaged students math skills that could open up the possibility of a college education. Sussman Paternoster’s involvement with social justice began when she became the first white teacher assigned to an all-black school in Cleveland during desegregation. In 1982 she moved to Massachusetts and took a job at the King Open School, where she met Bob Moses, an icon in the civil rights movement. Passionate about mathematics, Moses asked teachers to pilot a curriculum he developed which would help middle school students transition from arithmetical to algebraic thinking. Those pilot lessons became the Algebra Project, a program that aims to help disadvantaged and minority students develop math skills that are vital for entering college. As a program manager for the Project in Cambridge, Sussman Paternoster’s work ranged from program design and implementation to community organizing across the country. She and her colleagues have helped the Project reach approximately 10,000 students and 300 teachers across the United States.

Scope and Content Note

Paternoster-Sussman shared her experience growing up in a blended family in Canton, Ohio. In her childhood, she had a strong Jewish identity despite not having easy access in her community. She was bat mitzvahed at forty-five. She discusses her family’s movements between Conservative and Reform synagogues, including her parents’ experience in Europe. She reflects on the antisemitism that was rampant in her childhood community and the internalized antisemitism she felt in college at Ohio State University. Paternoster-Sussman discusses her introduction to activism, which involved the women in her childhood and her upsetting job as a playground supervisor. In 1976, the first year of the Desegregation Act, she entered a grant-funded library position to aid minority students in visual literacy. She worked at eight different schools in five years through this program. With this, she reflects on the discrepancies between the racist treatment of white students versus Black students, the desegregation of schools, and the bussing process. Paternoster-Sussman’s Jewish values inspired her teaching of marginalized students whom she felt connected to because of her own othering in her childhood. After teaching, she returned to graduate school in Cleveland, where she got her degree in Curriculum and Foundations. Through a teaching fellowship, she taught retired Air Force members so that they teach high schoolers aviation. She concludes by discussing her husband, Paul, and their move to Cambridge while she attended Harvard for graduate school and he attended MIT.

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How to cite this page

Oral History of Pamela Sussman-Paternoster. Interviewed by Julie Johnson. 1 March 2005. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/oralhistories/sussman-paternoster-pamela>.

Oral History of Pamela Sussman-Paternoster by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.