The Gender of Reflection

Posted: January 26, 2015 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized

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.

Burning house meme

Image  —  Posted: January 19, 2015 by Donna Bivens in Unfinished Business
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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’”!)

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.