Why a Circle Can’t Be at the Table

Posted: January 15, 2015 by Donna Bivens in Unfinished Business
Tags: ,

Education Happens when you learn something you didn’t know you didn’t know.          

 —– Daniel Bornstein (oft quoted by my friend Paul Marcus)

 

While it is beautiful  to see Boston city government acknowledge and put resources towards addressing the city’s race and class legacy, the way it is going about it points to  their challenges ahead.  Most pressing for Union of Minority Neighborhood’s Boston Busing/Desegregation Project (BBDP) is that for the second time recently city officials have taken language from BBDP without mentioning its existence. This is done to a Boston-based, African American-led organization that has made a film about, listened to stories about, studied and learned about Boston’s desegregation crisis for over four years with a small staff and a legion of amazing volunteers.

As director of BBDP, I have to say that this is not being written because we are proprietary. It is being written because we don’t want to be proprietary but know that being in a system –one many young people name as a white supremacy system* —it is critical that you claim your work in order to avoid being disappeared by those “at the table”.

When we first started on BBDP with our tag line of truth, learning and change, more than one person questioned the use of the word “learning”. Their concern was that people would be insulted by the word–that they might think we assumed we knew something that others didn’t.  This fascinated me since our assumption was just the opposite: that there was so much others knew that we didn’t.

That certainly turned out to be the case. What I am most proud of about BBDP is that we have listened well and we have been eager to learn from everyone. We’ve tried to honor all the voices we heard and to learn from our fiercest critics. From the beginning UMN decided to explore Boston’s difficult desegregation history because so many stories and unprocessed feelings from that era were shared during our organizing for CORI reform in Massachusetts and for increased Black parent involvement in the schools.  UMN put those voices at the center –not  experts, not  activists, not  politicians. We got many complaints for doing this but we knew those were the voices to start with to ask the questions that would forge some new learning. (And I can’t imagine working on education without being hungry to learn).

 Our first task was to ask those stakeholders and others throughout the Boston area, “Is it important to revisit this history?”The answer we got back was “Yes, but only if it is relevant to our experience of the present and not just a rehashing of the past.”  So our second audience was not people and communities who were content with who was being served today. It was people from communities that were under siege or who with few resources were trying to address the problems of a society that looked at people of color and impoverished white people as the problem and lifted up systems of greed and excess as the answer.

We understand the need to be “at the table”. UMN does that very effectively and honors political process and policy making. However, we chose circles as our form in this particular project.  One must earn and fight to keep their place at the table. There is a head and a foot. Not everyone can fit. It is assumed that people can speak for others. The circle, however, is ever expanding to stay alive. Each person or community has something unique to contribute to figuring out the problem, determining the solution, implementing action for transformation and evaluating where to go next. 

Though educated some in the white privilege system, I have had the good fortune to be educated not just in dominant white society but to learn how to learn from different systems.  I have studied a small amount with indigenous West African (Dagara) teachers. I have also learned so much from Asian thought and practice by way of Buddhism. I have learned from and about indigenous U.S. (Native American) traditions.  I have had the honor to learn for years from womanist/feminist/ Asian / and mujerista theologies.  I don’t claim any expert knowledge but I do claim a deep appreciation for the wealth of real diversity that exists in all traditions. I don’t think I can speak with authority from any of them but I am an “author” in the tradition in which I was raised: African descended —“Black” —U.S. culture and history.

In being part of this project in particular and UMN in general I have learned or remembered so much more about that culture and what it has to offer if it does not have to fit into the tiny box offered by white privilege society.  As Ta-nehesi Coates so brilliantly points out it is not a “better” culture but it is definitely as good as any other.  It can only come to the circle as its authentic self. There is something I’ve had the honor of learning, relearning, remembering though this work.

We desperately want Mayor Walsh and the city to succeed in the work they’ve undertaken on confronting Boston’s race and class legacy. We know there is support for race and class equity, democratic access and making demands of public institutions at all levels in the city and in all social locations. We just ask for respect and to be allowed to bring our authentic, diverse, loving Black-led selves “to the table”.  And of course no one has to earn a place for anyone in the circle—it is a birthright. We hope you will join us in our upcoming circles to explore Unfinished Business.

 

Footnote:

*I actually think I’m talking more about white privilege culture that continues to be problematic due to its failure to understand that it is grounded in white supremacist culture. Many thanks to our Tufts intern last summer Fabrice Montissol for helping me remember how crucial it is to acknowledge, learn about and confront the white supremacy system for the sake of us all. We’ll be writing more about this but are so glad it’s so prominent in discussion about current racial conflicts.

P.S. Being slow at many things, I am writing this post much quicker than I usually write so it may be edited if I can get back to it. Also this is me writing as me not as the project. Steve did the same, in his authentic voice (which I promise I’ll no longer try to tone down as I practice Horace’s way of “letting Loddy, Doddy, Everybody ‘play’”!)

Comments
  1. Writer, Conflict Coach, Advocate says:

    Hi Donna,

    Great to see another meaningful, right-on-time post! I imagine it will receive some response because of its specificity about who deserved mention and was overlooked. Well said!

    I notice always in Walsh’s speeches, and even Evans – that they refer to Boston in generalizations, joining the fear of upsetting (who?) some, by never directly referring to “black” issues as distinct. That perpetuates the code of silence and vagueness that left room for so much confusion – which then gets blamed on the most vulnerable, whose complaints are often left out.

    Your letter addresses that vagueness head on, and with a specific example of merit, one that deserved credit to BBDP.

    Walsh did not mention other organizations in that fairly short speech I think if I remember right – so he may believe that he wanted to speak in broad, general terms deliberately.

    But considering that he really did talk of a value and specific need that you guys addressed 4 years ago, a mention was due.

    Good point, to stand up for small black community-led companies since the pols and media always rush to some black Pastors for insight, which may be fine but is not sufficient.

    I hope you have heard some feedback – I would think someone will be sure the Mayor will see your post – and if he is considering any citywide replication of the circle stories process, I hope he will use you guys in the process.

    it could also be a piece in the Globe if you sent it there. I liked the end part also, different legacies of wisdom, all valuable, and distinct. Glad to read it.

    If you sent it further, I would insert one sentence for clarity: “A table has right angles and corners.” Inserted, see what you think:

    “However, we chose circles as our form in this particular project. A table has right angles and corners. It has a head and a foot. Not everyone can fit. One must earn and fight to keep their place at the table.”

    The article as a whole is profound in encouraging people to speak up, as a circle does.

    Cassie

    I’ve generally been quite sick through the holidays and struggling to write my large/deep cultural examples into a format that can work with the many and valuable protests (not yesterdays, in my opinion) – that was annoying). Dialogue has increased so much – attention and research at least, with the protests across the country since Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, NYC – and research and articles on prisons, the next steps needs to be more conversations.

    Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2015 22:52:19 +0000 To: cass-q@msn.com

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