Why Look Back?

Posted: February 7, 2012 by Donna Bivens in Uncategorized

With the passing of former Boston Mayor Kevin White, it was clear that there is still much energy and passion when Boston reflects on our busing/desegregation crisis.  There was hardly an article or report that didn’t mention this era and the profound impact it had on Kevin White’s legacy and the city.

One refrain we heard on the Callie Crossley Show about Kevin White’s passing  was “we don’t know this history”.  Names and events that had a huge effect on the city were clearly new to many who were not here then—or even to some who were.

As we do this project we are often asked, “Why go back”. Many say it’s important to go back because if we don’t know the past we will repeat it.  This is a huge reason for looking at our history. What happens when inequity runs rampant? What happens when a decision is made for all that fails to find and address the wisdom or kernel of truth in marginalized voices and communities?  What can we learn about democracy and about systems change by looking at the gains and failures of that time?

When Detroit seated a Truth Commission to look at its history of racial inequality, one of the panelists, Professor Thomas Klug,  addressed the “why go back?” question by saying that history is a sixth sense. If we don’t understand what the history was that got us here, we think the status quo has always been. We don’t understand how our current reality was put in place and so we cannot imagine that we can really make change. This is another reason to look back: the trials of that time –especially racial and economic segregation and inequities  in public education and the city—continue to haunt us and only by understanding how we got here can we really make systemic change.

A third reason for looking back can be summed up in the picture above (click for larger view). It is a simple model by William Bridges for understanding complex change. The goal of our change was quality education for all regardless or race and class. Desegregation was one strategy for reaching that goal. And “busing” was a tactic that tried to push Boston through its resistance to that strategy.

The transitions model cautions that often we think change is going directly from the old to the new. We forget the stages of making a true ending, entering a transition period of trial and error, and allowing new beginnings to emerge from what we learn. Too often, we want to move past the emotion and trauma that often accompanies change.

Moreover, there is a “marathon effect” in which some are reaching the finish line before others have heard the gun as happens here every Patriots day! Some have certainly moved past the traumas of that era, some are enjoying economic and racial well-being. But many are not. We have not heard the full stories of those for whom the just “ending” has not come or who are still caught in the legacy of that era.

Boston has the intellectual, spiritual and material resources to look back and learn. We can make the changes that can lead to the highest quality public education system and to race and class equity in the city. Kevin White couldn’t do that for us. No one man or woman can. But our city together can –and needs to– do it.

  1. […] era – but we’re also interested in helping move through and beyond such comparisons (think Transitions). Can you imagine a Boston in which we’re not comparing ourselves to the desegregation era […]

  2. Janessa says:

    I litalelry jumped out of my chair and danced after reading this!

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