Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Do words and phrases have genders? What type of people come to mind when the word “war” comes up? How about “sewing circle”? And which one of these do we take seriously? One is organized violence, the other is organized labor. One has countless books and movies, as well as trillions of dollars, dedicated to its analysis and propagation each year. The other is often used in this part of the world as a way to trivialize a group of women socializing with one another. War, despite its unimaginable cost to women and children throughout history, is seen as an exclusively male endeavor. Sewing circles are, as mentioned, a female space. War is destruction by unquestioning soldiers carrying out unquestioned orders. Sewing circles are constructive– not just for the clothing and other articles they produce or mend, but also for the so-called “gossip.” Not to idealize the concept, but socializing in a circle provides a space for an exchange of news and ideas, as well as the time and space for reflection and thoughtfulness. War is seen as a measure of strength. Sewing circles have become a metaphor for pointlessness.

More than a few times since I’ve been involved in the “social justice” non-profit world have I heard meetings described as sewing circles, which not only deride the stated purpose of whatever meeting but also the people participating in it, who are often women. Planned actions, on the other hand, are often framed in war language. “Battles”. “Going on the offensive”. What this adds up to, to me, is the feminization of reflection as a way to discredit it. It plays into traditionally patriarchal notions of leadership and organizing which value speed, hierarchy, and force. It also frames thoughtfulness, slowness, and deliberation as inefficient and wasteful. It reflects the values of the mass culture we live in, where characteristics associated with women– such as gentleness and openness– are seen as unfit for grappling with or wielding power.

It is important to see what this means for those of us doing social justice work. When reflection is feminine, and the feminine is despised, we cut ourselves off from a deep source of individual and collective power. Any discussion of freedom is meaningless if we do not have the freedom to process what is happening to ourselves and the people around us. If we can’t, or won’t, do that, then all we have at our disposal are unexamined ideas given to us through education– an education provided largely by school systems which have been seen as broken as long as they’ve existed, by a media system controlled by a few large corporate monoliths, and by our communities that are often both products and survivors of trauma. Without real, rigorous reflection, it is difficult to do anything through our work except reproduce or escalate the existing conditions.

For two years, this Project held story circles across Boston, inviting neighborhood residents to come into our circle and share their experiences with desegregation. Often, when people told their stories, they would begin by trying to fit their personal details into an already established narrative. For example, that “busing ruined the city” or that “both sides experienced hatred”. Not to say that these are false or wrong narratives, but no matter how “true” they are, they are also the entrenched ones that have allowed patterns of inequity to persist. As their stories went on, though, and they tried to follow both threads (their personal story and the larger narrative) to their ends, you would often see people struggle, or they would start sentences and then trail off. Words would fail them. It was like they had come up against a brick wall. They had reached the limits of both their personal story and the larger narrative. And here was where, in a quiet circle with no interruption, we saw a variety of reactions. Some people would just stop and cede the floor, or get frustrated, or persist and find some new piece of knowledge. Any route can potentially offer opportunities for reflection for both the person telling the story and the people listening. It allows us to see how firmly in place the established narratives are and how challenging it is to uproot them, even if our personal experience tells us they are insufficient. It allows us each to build and play off of one another’s stories, to see things in our own histories we never saw before, and to further our understanding of our place in a larger history.

Learning is an uncomfortable process. It is a struggle. It brings up feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, and weakness. These are characteristics associated with the feminine. But it does us no good to ignore these feelings. In fact, those are the spaces where the most work can be done, because they are also the places where the entrenched narratives steer us from and don’t want us to go. We need to sit there and examine them individually and collectively so that we can work towards the kind of “two-sided transformations” that longtime activists and leaders James and Grace Lee Boggs believed were necessary, where, through our persistence, we transform both our institutions and ourselves.

State of the State of the City

Posted: January 15, 2015 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized
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I know from my own life that you can’t move forward unless you reach out and deal honestly with the past. The truth is that when it comes to race and class, Boston has a lot of unfinished business. We must not be afraid to talk about it.” -Marty Walsh, State of the City, 1/14/14

The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, mentioned BBDP’s work on Tuesday in his State of the City address. Well, I’m not sure if that’s what he intended, but he did nonetheless. In the quote above, Walsh namechecks the title of our report, Unfinished Business: 7 Questions, 7 Lessons, while speaking of lingering issues of race and class in the city. Now, would we have liked him to mention us specifically when he uses our language? Sure. It also would’ve been great if, a few moments later, when discussing the City’s brand new grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to hold community conversations around race and class issues, he mentioned organizations like the YWCA, which have been holding similar dialogues for years. But this isn’t really about us or our work. It goes deeper. Mayor Walsh’s speech the other night serves as another way to highlight the recurring patterns that keep us stuck– particularly, the pattern of those in power to talk about race and class sympathetically, while, at the same time, strengthening the barriers that uphold those categories.

Just as an example, early in the address, Walsh gives his administration credit for having the most “diverse” police department and cabinet in Boston’s history. He later spends some time honoring a number of people specifically. The firefighters who died on the job in March. Tom Menino. The police and others who helped guide his response to the protests led by Black Lives Matter and We Are the Ones. All but two of his honorees are men. Mostly white men, individually, though through singling out the Boston Police and Fire Departments, he also signals an allegiance to two traditional strongholds of white male political and economic power. So here we have a place where the Mayor simultaneously celebrates a surface “diversity” while, on a deeper level, re-affirms existing power dynamics.

To circle back, Walsh touts his relationship with Rockefeller over acknowledging the work of BBDP and the YWCA, among others, while still using the language of those groups. This is erasure. His comments (and the initiatives he’s speaking about) overwrite the contributions made, and labor performed, by organizations led by women and people of color in favor of the new programs of his administration (which have no track record). This is not nothing. This is, and long has been, critical work in maintaining the system. Crossing out smaller groups is an effort, conscious or not, “intentional” or not, to retain and increase control of the narrative around racism and class in Boston. By co-opting not only the language and the concepts but also the process, the City and its partners can limit the questions and shape the conclusions drawn, while also appearing responsive publicly. His comments and actions around the Olympics play similarly.

I say all this not to attack Marty Walsh or his administration, but to look at how his address works as an example of how the system we live in can repurpose the work and words of marginalized groups to reinforce its white supremacist pillars. It’s great that, apparently, people at City Hall have read BBDP’s report and liked some of the ideas in it. But Unfinished Business was not to be used as a cloak. If we are to make real headway in resolving issues of racism and class in Boston, as the Mayor so desires, then we need to speak honestly and interrogate thoroughly the words and actions of those in power. What do they mean? Who do they signal? Why can Walsh tout the billions in new construction in town and get applause, while at the same time say next to nothing about the displacement of whole communities happening because of those same billions? How does the idea that Boston is “strong and getting stronger,” as he put it, read to those being pushed out of town? The Mayor told us one story about our city on Tuesday, but, as he must have realized from his familiarity with our work, it is far from the only one.

Race Isn’t Real

Posted: January 12, 2015 by Donna Bivens in Uncategorized
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race isn't real

 

BBDP Year-End Update & Request

Posted: December 18, 2014 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized

Season’s greetings,

If you’re reading this letter, it’s most likely because you have been and are essential to the success of the Boston Busing Desegregation Project (BBDP) and its parent organization, Union of Minority Neighborhoods. Your stories, your time, your critical feedback, your donations, your love and support, your knowledge. All of it has allowed the project to resonate wider and more deeply than the small group that started it imagined possible. Over the life of the project, BBDP has:

  • Created an acclaimed film on Boston’s busing/desegregation legacy
  • Held gatherings with over 3000 people throughout the Greater Boston region to introduce or reintroduce them to Boston’s desegregation history
  • Interviewed dozens of residents who experienced Boston’s desegregation firsthand
  • Held circles in communities and organizations to hear their stories of desegregation in Boston and throughout the country
  • Worked with coalitions and organizations to attempt to raise awareness of links between race and class history and current issues in public education
  • Worked with elected officials to move past fear and hold the city’s first City Hall acknowledgment of the anniversary of the Morgan v Hennigan (aka Garrity) decision
  • Created original resources used by citizens, educators, and media to use this history
  • Presented project findings about race and class equity, democratic access and demanding excellence of public institution at conferences and training sessions.

At this pivotal time for the nation, this work needs all of us to go forward. Your donation, anything you can give, is critical to the BBDP’s pursuit of Truth, Learning, and Change locally and nationally.

In the coming year, BBDP will be expanding our work around race and class equity, democratic access and demanding excellence. Your donation this season will help us dig deeper into the wisdom of your stories and of our histories. It will help us learn more and take appropriate action as we continue to ask the questions we’ve heard from you, such as:

  • Whose story is it and how do we navigate the power differences that allow a master narrative to continue to reassert itself and drown out more marginalized stories?
  • Whose city is it when longtime residents and communities are displaced by “luxury” condos and cookie cutter high rises?
  • Is it about racism or is it about class and how do we attain the race and class literacy that can help us escape that either/or choice?
  • What is excellence when access to it is such a function of privilege?

Too often still, the race and class dynamics at work in Boston and the nation are unnoticed, misunderstood or concealed due to untested assumptions, unexamined behavior, and coded language. The BBDP report, Unfinished Business: 7 Questions, 7 Lessons, was written in order to bring these questions to the fore. The lessons they offer can help tap more diverse resources for addressing the systemic challenges the questions expose.

Unfinished Business is the product of four years of listening and learning. Hearing each other’s stories. Bearing witness to our wounds and our hopes. It is also our road map forward. We can join our stories and our histories to transform Boston into a city that honors the need to speak honestly about the realities of the color line and concentrated wealthAnd work together to change those realities.

We do not know what we are capable of unless we are open with ourselves and to each other. This was just as true in 1954 or 1974 as it is today. Please make your donation to this work. Our financial resources are limited but with your support we can continue to build on the work we’ve done together.

Sincerely,

Donna Bivens
Project Director

Steve McDonagh
Program Coordinator

P.S. Please make checks payable to Union of Minority Neighborhoods. Or donate online (click here).

P.P.S. BBDP has had the gift of wonderful leadership from UMN staff and former staff/interns and the following who’ve given countless hours of volunteer support: Ann Moritz, Barbara Lewis, Ceasar McDowell, Chris Gallagher, Curdina Hill, Darren Kew, David Knight, Emily Berg, Francis Roache, Gail Burton, Horace FX Small, Jacqui Lindsay, Joan Lancourt, Jose Lopez, Kevin Davis, LaDawn Strickland, Leola Hampton, Marlene Fine, Meghan Doran, Nancy Griffin, Paula Elliott, Rachel Antonsen, Robbie McCauley, Rosa Hunter, Sherry Brooks Roberts, Becky Shuster, Sue Karant, Tom Louie, Trina Jackson, Sharlene Cochrane. What a group!!

P.P.P.S.If you haven’t already, please check out Unfinished Business

“For Truth, Learning, and Change.” This is the brief version of the BBDP mission, and it reflects my experience of the project. Through the story circles and the collected interviews, I have come to learn more of the truth of Boston’s history. Through the meetings and networking, I have gained a glimpse of how change can come to pass, slowly but surely, when we are part of a larger community working together.

I attended my first story circle several years ago, and only became more involved in the last year, as I dedicated myself more fully to the struggle for racial justice.  The project and the (perhaps unintended) mentorship of Donna and others have been important for me in my journey, as I slowly figure out my role as a white person in this struggle.

I haven’t experienced all that has happened over the years with the project, so I can only write about what I have experienced.  For me, the project has demonstrated a great model for connecting people of the Boston area: bringing people together for story circles and other events, including them in the learning network, involving facilitators with different strengths and styles, and establishing an environment where people listen to and learn from one another.  Through caucusing by racial group and small group meetings based on shared experiences, people are able to speak more freely and be pushed by others who share something in common.

Every individual who comes to the project is included as having something to share.  They may not have experienced Boston’s school desegregation in the 70’s, but they bring their own experiences, knowledge, skills, connections, and access to resources.  For example, today’s teenagers weren’t there in the 70’s, but they can share their experiences of the schools now.  People have hosted the group conversations in large, wonderful spaces, others have shared their expertise and care in leading groups, and many people have helped make connections that expand the community.  These things and more all add to the project, and the project gives back valuable connections for the community, bringing us together and empowering us to make change happen, bit by bit.

On Thursday, November 20, WBUR ran a piece on-air they called “’A Fear of Going to School’: 5 Former Boston Students Reflect on Busing.” In it, they played clips of a conversation between 5 former Boston Public Schools students who were bused as part of the desegregation plan put into place after the 1974 court decision. The personal stories shared on the program spoke to a lot of the personal and community trauma that occurred at the height of the crisis, and how that trauma has lingered since then. Each person’s story encompassed a lot of emotion and evoked the intensity, fear, and uncertainty of the period. The five participants should be thanked for being willing to share their stories with a larger audience, and, in fact, some of them had already participated in BBDP story circles prior to this piece. What drew my attention, though, in listening, was the way the program framed these stories. In our work, which has focused in part on collecting personal stories from before, during, and after desegregation, local and otherwise, we have always found the focus on the violence of the period to be a way of limiting how we talk about what happened. When we speak about desegregation and only talk about the extreme instances, we run the risk of losing track of historical context and the relationships to power of the groups involved. Listening to the WBUR program, it was discouraging to hear not only the lack of context provided to the listener, but also repeated uses of misleading language that serve to fit the same old story we’ve been telling for forty years, as well as the interests of power today.

What does it do to our perception of public school desegregation in Boston (and by extension, nationally), when the producers of the program, positioning themselves in an “objective” role, repeatedly refer to the desegregation plan as an “experiment” or “an uncontrolled experiment in social engineering”? And, further, as the producers of the segment are tasked with editing the conversation and selecting which clips to play, what do we make of them giving significant airtime to one participant, Tom Murphy, a white man who spoke at length about how the court order “artificially disrupted the environment of an otherwise vibrant city”? What picture does this paint historically? If desegregating the schools was social engineering, then how do we characterize the social order that existed beforehand? The producers do not address this themselves, but Murphy is given time to talk about how population movement occurs “naturally” and that government shouldn’t get involved.

I think that the timing of this radio piece should also be noted. In Boston, currently, if we are still “in the process” of gentrifying, we are pretty far along in that process. Simultaneously, the public school system locally (as well as nationally) is under assault from “school reformers”– one being bankrolled by noted grassroots activists like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Goldman Sachs. So how does looking back in the manner WBUR has chosen resonate today? For example, whose interests does it serve to paint being a student in the Boston Public Schools as akin to being “embedded in a war zone,” as one of the participants in the story recalled? Does that encourage listeners to draw connections to images of today’s public schools, which are commonly painted as “broken” by the media? Similarly, how do we view people fighting their displacement from the city when we’re encouraged to look at population movements as “natural”, with no consideration of race or class?

A program that uncritically uses the familiar narrative of “busing pitted everybody against each other” and that “violence was endemic” on all sides serves to erase the larger patterns of history and power that the desegregation period came out of. It does the work of creating and evoking a pre-desegregation past that was free of problems before an activist judge and government forced unwanted changes down the city and country’s throat, “pitting everybody against each other.” This image erases hundreds of years of Black activism around education. It erases practices like redlining and blockbusting, as well as federal government policies that subsidized the suburbs for new white homeowners while tightly controlling where Black people could rent or buy. The WBUR program provides an interesting look into some personal stories, but frames them in a way that does a disservice to the social location of their participants and recycles the same conversation we’ve had about education, turf, and money since long before Judge Garrity made a decision. What we need is to see these patterns, so when we see the cranes hovering above Roxbury and East Boston, or hear the supposed benefits of the Olympics, or hear the “low-performing” rationale behind another public school closing, we can ask critical questions and take critical action.

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently interviewed Roger Abrams, who was part of the plaintiffs’ legal team that tried Morgan v Hennigan in 1972.  He had a lot of interesting things to say, some of which were included in the other post, but I wanted to put up a few more excerpts.  Abrams’ focus in the case was proving that the Boston Public Schools discriminated in hiring and placement of teachers and administrators, and hearing his story was very valuable in understanding the tools the school committee used to create a segregated system, and relevant to questions today about access, equity, and excellence.

On teacher evaluation:

“So I went to School Street and I went through the teacher files, and one thing they would require of the applicants for teaching positions is a birth certificate, a copy of a birth certificate. The birth certificates of people who were born in the South contained racial data. And I was able to convince the folks at Foley that I needed a whole bunch of secretaries to record this data, so I made up a form where we would put the person’s name and background and race and scores on the teacher’s exam, the National Teacher’s Exam, which was created by, administered by Educational Testing Service in Princeton. And I didn’t know whether we had enough data, but there was a statistician that the Harvard Center had affiliated with, not sure exactly what his status was. He looked over the eventual report that I wrote and he said, ‘It’s perfect. It’s great.’ And he so testified for me at trial. And then I went to visit the folks in Princeton who were appalled at what I had found because their directives to the users of their exam, because of the foreseeable racial disparities in outcomes on the teacher’s exam was, ‘Do not use this as the sole criterion for hiring,’ because it would be foreseeably racially discriminatory. What I was able to show, with the help of the statistician, was that all the other factors: the interviewer of the teacher, their prior credentials, their prior teaching experience, all became null factors, because everyone got the same score or around the same score. The only score that made the difference was the National Teacher’s Exam. And so they said, ‘What could we do to help?’ I said, ‘Come to Boston and testify.’ And so one of my witnesses was the administrator of the National Teacher’s Exam from ETS, who explained why Boston was misusing it.”

On building schools and busing:

“And so in Dorchester the [attendance] line would move as the people moved, so as to keep students apart by race. They would choose to build, they were still building schools back then, small schools in homogeneous neighborhoods, both Black and white. But it was a small school because it was a larger school that would draw from a larger attendance area which would cut over racial boundaries. And then, of course, as often as we could, we would show information about bus routes. This is a big city. Students can’t always walk to school. The question is not whether there were buses. There always had been buses. The question is where did the buses go? The buses would drive white students past Black schools to white schools. The only thing that happened with the remedy was that the routes were changed, and they would take white students to schools that had been predominantly Black and Black students to schools that had been predominantly white. This wasn’t a case of busing. There’s always transportation in every urban school system. But it’s a question of the routes. And we finished presenting our case. [J. Harold] Flannery and Bob [Pressman] had taken depositions of their own. I was not involved with those. They were mostly fact-oriented—what did you do then, what did you do then, and they would alert the witnesses as to the questions they were going to be asked. The question was not, ‘Why’d you discriminate this way?’ The question was ‘What did you do?’ Not to alert them in any way that what they were doing happened to be unconstitutional. Violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. There were a lot of individual incidents that are set forth in Judge Garrity’s opinion that [Flannery] put witnesses on that were indicative of the repeated decisions to segregate the schools.”

On white flight:

“People often say that the school case created white flight. Not true. If you look at the trends, the decrease in white population in schools continued at the same level. That is, an increasing decrease. The people who could escape, whether to Catholic schools or out to the suburbs, continued to do so.”