BNN News Interviews Boston Busing Desegregation Project
In a wonderful recently posted TEDx Roxbury Women talk, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks to the power of story. As she says, “behind every statistic there is a person, a story, a testimony begging to be told”. This could be a motto of BBDP!
She lays out beautifully the power of our K-12 education stories and how our lessons there can deeply influence our life trajectory–our values and passions, our commitments and life purpose.
This so aligns with what BBDP has encountered in story circles and interviews. The more we listen the more we begin to make out the tapestry of experiences and understandings that have led us from Morgan v Hennigan to today.
We hope you enjoy the talk as much as we did.
When the BBDP listened to stories from and read about the era of Boston’s school desegregation crisis, transportation —“busing” –became the flashpoint but the struggle and any resulting gains or trauma was about so much more. As we learned early in our process:
Today, Boston is in conflict around an issue deeply symbolic in this year’s anniversary of court ordered desegregation: ending yellow school bus service for 7th and 8th graders and putting them instead on public transportation. How ironic in many ways to have a heated meeting about the transportation of students during this anniversary year. But at the June 2nd meeting at Madison Park High School, parents, students, bus drivers and monitors, education activists, and community members came out to challenge the decision. Though the focus was busing, the feelings vented and points raised were also about so much more. And they were totally aligned with the three areas BBDP’s work pointed to as issues lifted up but unresolved then and now: race and class equity, democratic access and demanding excellence.
Race and Class Equity: Members of the Black community, other communities of color and people from less wealthy neighborhoods raised concerns those more privileged do not have to worry about –or a least have more resources to address–for their children. Participants asked about physical safety beyond cross walks, the implicit racism marginalized children face on public transportation and moving through life, having even less contact and interaction throughout the school day with adults from their own community and culture like those who serve as drivers and monitors.
Democratic Access: What marginalized communities face is so often invisible to those with privilege. Those present at the meeting pointed out multiple issues impacting equitable access to schools, including the fact that BPS has closed many schools in communities of color, that the exam schools, which serve the most privileged students in the system, are among the easiest schools to access by MBTA, and that less privileged parents struggling with this change do not have the luxury of flexible work schedules. Increasingly in our restructuring economy and culture, access is a function of privilege instead of a function of justice as imagined by those who pushed for Brown and Morgan.
Demanding Excellence: Those with tremendous financial resources have an increasingly disproportionate voice in the future of public education and everything else. Too often they do not seek out a wider range of racial and class perspectives, believing, consciously of not, they do not add value, i.e. that they have nothing to learn from those most negatively and directly affected by their decisions. People were infuriated that effective outreach to their communities was not done earlier and with more intention and cultural proficiency. They were frustrated by the limited places for their input in finance-driven decisions being made by bodies with no direct accountability to them, their communities, their People.
This is not an indictment of anyone. It is an indictment of a system that is still failing too many. It is clear that those committed to race and class equity, democratic access and demanding excellence are everywhere— in all communities across race and class barriers, in community organizations, and in public and private institutions. It is also clear that these issues are more pressing for some than for others. In many ways having such conflicts arise during this anniversary year provides a tremendous opportunity for all committed to race equity, democratic access and demanding excellence to be more transparent about facing the increasingly complex barriers to the goal and vision of quality public education for all. It is a chance to deepen dialogue and action.
There’s been a bit of an uproar as of late surrounding some reorganization in the BPS, and a perception that history would be taking a back seat/ folded into English Language/Arts. Superintendent McDonough has responded strongly, even signing a petition that has been circulating. Forty years after school desegregation in Boston we believe every child in Boston should learn this history of all the communities in Boston, but for this to be possible, the Boston Public Schools needs a strong History department focused on providing content relevant to the young people in the city today.
The most common refrain we hear from young people around the city is “Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t we learn about this in school?” It is our understanding that Facing History does have a curriculum around school desegregation, and some teachers do make an effort to include this history, but the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks require Little Rock’s school desegregation be taught, rather than Boston’s. If nothing else this perpetuates the belief that school desegregation and racism was/is a southern problem, rather than a northern one.
Why is it so important that young people have a strong sense of history, and learn Boston’s school desegregation story? For us, history is a critical sixth sense – a way of understanding and knowing the world around us. In a public hearing about the BPS budget where the consolidation of the English and History departments came up, Councilor’s Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey both brought up the importance of teaching history that is culturally relevant to young people in our city. This means we need both a global history and a local one – one that helps students understand how we are where we are today, how the past has shaped our current experiences.
What we’ve heard is that learning about Boston’s school desegregation crisis (including the events leading to and stemming from that crisis) helps young people to better understand the system and city they are in today. This came up most recently at an event organized by the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association, in a talk by Lorrayne Shen, a community organizer who wrote a senior thesis on the Asian experience during desegregation in Boston:
I think if I heard this story when I was young it really would have changed my life. It’s really important to know about our history as Asian Americans, and know about our involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
We’ve heard this perspective again and again – from young people, from educators in training, from adults working in BPS – we need to know our history, and we don’t know it very well. We’re glad for the advocacy efforts around strengthening history education in the BPS, and we hope that some day soon we hear that BPS students are graduating with a strong sense of history and their place in it.
Is anyone surprised this is our favorite quote? We’d love to hear how YOU think Boston can face its painful history with courage.
Across the country, the recent 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education created an opportunity for cities across the country to affirm their commitment to equal public education for all. In Boston an effort to do that last week went awry when 3 city councilors – Bill Linehan of South Boston, Sal LaMattina of East Boston, and Stephen Murphy of Hyde Park–declined to support a city council resolution honoring the Supreme Court order. It got a lot of media attention. Some like the Globe sought to shame them, others like the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter sought to educate. At BBDP, we’ve heard history and outrage but just as importantly we’ve heard story, including this email from Charlotte Spinkston:
I am avid advocate of inclusion, including desegregation and it grieves me to know and hear of the creeping return of desegregation of our schools and am dismayed to witness the edges of its return even here in my place of birth. As a High School freshman, I was bused to Charleston High School in 1975. I must admit to feeling conflicted still, as are many others about busing because of that experience. As my mother told me when I left for school that morning “I didn’t think we’d have to do this again, but remember, you’re not just doing it for you.
That being said, it is SHOCKING that City Councilors Linehan, LaMattina and Murphy chose to remain silent rather than stand in support of the commemoration of Brown V Board of Education. Regardless of Boston’s convicted past, it speak volumes that our elected representatives remain silent rather than commemorate the liberation of an entire race of people. #wherestheoutrage
Those at BBDP who’ve been listening to stories, histories and legacies of the busing/desegregation era were not entirely surprised by the anxiety this Brown anniversary raised given that it comes just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Boston’s court-ordered desegregation. We agree that the two cannot be conflated. At the same time, most of us know that Brown is in a process of being dismantled in what one writer described a couple years ago as Brown devouring Brown (and the feast continues). The truth is we –as a nation – are in struggle about that decision, our commitment to race and class equity and the way forward as we were forty years ago and sixty years ago.
BBDP has learned that there’s a lot of listening and learning we collectively must do to get beyond the repeating cycles of justice and inequity in education and in life for Boston residents and our nation. To paraphrase local writer and activist Kathy Dwyer, “We cannot move froma history we deny we share”.
We encourage residents in these councilor’s districts (and that’s everyone for Councilor Murphy – he’s citywide) to let them know your story and what you feel and think about their votes. We look forward to continuing to engage together the dialogue surrounding these potent anniversaries and take this time to renew our commitment to fulfill Brown’s and Morgan’s (and Robert’s and Plessy’s et al’s!) quest for justice.
Donna and Meghan