Beyond Common Ground

Posted: February 3, 2014 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

At a recent Christmas party I described our project to someone I’d just met as “trying to tell a more full story of school desegregation and busing in Boston.”

Common Ground already did a pretty damn good job at that, didn’t it?” he asked.

So I didn’t know this guy very well and I was at a very loud and crowded party. I did not really feel like debating the finer points of J. Anthony Lukas’ opus. But here’s the truth – one of the first things I learned when coming onto this project is that not everyone does think Common Ground should be the definitive history. After nearly two years of talking to people about this history I am inclined to agree, if for not other reason then it’s too easy to say ‘this history’s been told – Tony Lukas did the hard work for us, now we can move on.’

“Well, I think lot’s of people feel their experiences aren’t represented in that book” I responded, and, much to my relief, he let it drop. Did I mention it was really loud there? Anyways, we moved on to talk about his feelings about desegregation in South Boston, rather than getting into it about Common Ground.

I didn’t think much more of it, but now here we are in 2014 and, as the BBDP has been expecting, the 40th anniversary remembrances have begun. Commonwealth Magazine recently featured an article from the Columbia Journalism Review looking back at Lukas’ work with reverence, concluding that:

Anthony Lukas was a perfectionist in a world that is far from perfect. Common Ground is probably as close to that ideal as journalism can get.”

Ok, now I’m ready to get into it. Common Ground is a sprawling epic – there is no doubt that it covers ambitious history, but it is one man’s perspective. There are multiple perspectives and stories not included in it. One of the most powerful critiques I’ve heard came from Ruth Batson, who was a leader in Boston’s Black Educational Movement:

One of the most devastated and distorted views of the Boston public school history was t2014-02-03 15.19.47he publication in the 1985 of the book Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas…JOHN ANTHONY LUKAS STOLE OUR MOVEMENT… In spite of all his accolades and skills as a writer, Lukas does a shoddy job of portraying the true desegregation era in Boston. It seems to matter little that the contributions of black activists were minimized, omitted, or reported negatively in Mr. Lukas’ book. The book completely leaves out the struggle that was carried out for so many years by black activists in Boston. When the book was first published, many of us who had labored long and hard in the battle for educational equity felt as if we had been cut off at our knees.” (Ruth Batson, The Black Educational Movement in Boston, 2001)

Ms. Batson is not the only one who feels Common Ground got some things wrong, though she perhaps said it the most strongly. In our report from our first year we listed several examples of stories we believe can enrich both our understanding of our history and where we are today:

  • The story of what was happening in Boston’s Latino/a and Asian communities
  • The story of those who went through school desegregation (especially young men during that era – we have heard more from women)
  • The story of communities as viewed by the people who lived in those communities, including the story of South Boston from a South Boston perspective (many originally from this neighborhood feel it has been misrepresented)
  • The story of those who were committed to making school desegregation work, before, during AND after the crisis
  • The story of schools that didn’t experience violence

This list is by no means exclusive and we’d love to hear your thoughts on other stories that don’t fit into the Common Grpund narrative. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this work is that there can, of course, be no single story. As we enter the 40th anniversary year of school desegregation I think the city will do a disservice to this history if we say, ‘this story’s been told – Tony Lukas did the hard work for us, now we can move on.’ There’s so much more to learn and to understand from each other that can not be gleaned from one book.

Emancipated Century

Posted: January 13, 2014 by umnunity in Uncategorized

One fact that the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project didn’t fully appreciate or anticipate about the 40th anniversary of Boston’s busing/desegregation project was that it would fall in the midst of many anniversaries of the history of the struggle for race and class equity. The marking of these anniversaries around Boston have been transformative for the project and taught much about the terrain that must be covered to deepen the conversation on race and class equity.

Most profound for me personally in the many amazing events this past year was the Emancipated Century readings and forums put on by the Trotter Institute in honor of the 150th Anniversary of Emancipation.  The series included readings of all of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the 20th century African American struggle and six forums on key themes and issues addressed in the plays. They offered a profound window into the complexity of race and class and the particularity and universality of the African American struggle for emancipation, for human liberation. It made it clear that the struggle for emancipation –as for quality education for all, for that matter—is not done once and for all. The plays likely left others, as it did me, with more questions than answers. But it left us with a powerful legacy of upholding human dignity and faith in the midst of often unimaginable oppression.

What an joy and honor to be participate in the last forum which is on education. BBDP’s Barbara Lewis has brought her amazing vision to fruition and the city is richer for it. Its gifts to Boston include providing a glimpse of how deep we must go to really understand our history and how committed we must be to—in August Wilson’s words— finding and singing our song. We hope you will attend!

Education, Empowerment, and Excellence: Emancipating Tomorrow

A Public Forum:

January 13, 2014, 6-8pm

Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater

Sponsored by the Trotter Institute, UMass Boston, with funding from

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities


Rallying for Educational Change, Long Over-Due

The theme: “Education, Empowerment, and Excellence: Emancipating Tomorrow” is drawn from the work and example of August Wilson, who wrote a ten-play saga celebrating the resilience of African American culture and community.  His 20th century decade-by-decade focus chronicles the move that emancipated men and women made, starting well over a hundred years ago, to make the promise of citizenship and equality real. Full of ambition, many of them left the fields of degradation and moved to northern cities, where they and their children could start fresh and improve their economic and educational prospects.   Those that remained in the South understood what they faced and they rallied to emancipate themselves and used the schools to create a ladder to success that allowed generation after generation to counteract the status quo.  Then the rules changed, and the century ended much as it began, with the stigma of inferiority still strong.

In the 1960s, Wilson’s genius was almost stymied by entrenched thinking at the hands of a northern educator.  The Brown legal decision officially ended segregation but did not, for the most part, reverse the misguided attitudes and assumptions undergirding it.  Many teachers, especially those in schools where the student body differed in complexion from the teachers, continued to believe in the inherent inferiority of students of color.  In the segregated schools, which Brown dismantled, teachers were often committed to the success of their students. But when Wilson turned in an excellent paper in Pittsburgh, he was labeled a cheater.  It wasn’t in his genes, his teacher said, to be anything other than second-rate.  No one of his heritage could write anything worthwhile, without assistance.  Their brains were just too deficient.  Wilson, who had put his all into his work, was outraged and never returned to the classroom.  In the library, he began emancipating and educating himself and honed his talent as a writer.  In the end, he showed the world that the words he put on paper were indeed worthy and undeniably his own.

The negative perceptions that confronted Wilson in the 1960s are still strong in the 2010s.  After Brown, school districts were ordered to integrate, and the mandate to bus children from one school or school district to another as a redistribution measure unleashed armed resistance.  In Boston, the fight against equalizing education was especially violent, and the city became known as the place where the American flag was made into a weapon of hate.  It has been a hundred fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation, sixty years since Brown, and forty years since the legal ruling that began Boston’s busing era.  The educational advances that the last century sought to put in place have rarely happened, and children of color are often still seen as dishonest, underperforming, and leaning to criminality, like Wilson.  Thus, too many are plucked of promise and herded into public classrooms that are disguised holding pens.

Can we insure, once and for all, that education is the democratic road to parity and excellence, as it was meant to be?  That is what we ask in our Re-visioning Tomorrow: Emancipation for a New Century forum on January 13, 2014.  Inspired by Wilson and remembering the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the 1954 Brown decision as well as the 1974 order to desegregate the Boston Public Schools, we examine how education can be reclaimed and turned into an emancipation engine for real change that steers the future away from past failures.  We also endorse the belief that being smart is the province of all.  Our ultimate goal is counteracting the notion that communities of color have more than their share of backward, underperforming children on whom education is wasted.

This is an old story and an old charge, and nowhere is it older than in Boston.  As far back as the Revolutionary Era, tax-paying black Bostonians understood that public education was indispensable for full political participation, and they rallied to give their children every tool for inclusion.   In 1787, Prince Hall and a consolidated core of community leaders wrote the Massachusetts Legislature asking for equal education for the next generation; but their petition was denied.  Hall and his son would not be defeated; they began a school for community children, and it became an institution, supported by church and philanthropy.  In the late 1840s, that school returned to the center of political controversy.  A parent, whose last name was Roberts, wanted his daughter, Sarah, to attend a school near his home, rather than be segregated in the school that had grown from the seed that Hall and his son planted.  Roberts v. Boston (1850) became the legal platform on which Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) rested and was still being argued in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Remembering the 20th century history of Brown in 2014 and the divisiveness of Boston busing does not tell the whole story of the long fight for educational parity in this city and in this country, and there is no more appropriate setting for this discussion than Boston.  So please join us at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater, on January 13, 2014 as we revisit beginnings and milestones and follow the trailblazing lead that Prince Hall and his son and a latter-day cultural activist named August Wilson set, which is acting strong for tomorrow, recalling past efforts, and answering the needs of today in order to build a new, revitalized educational future.

The education forum, organized by the Trotter Institute, asks:  How do we empower and emancipate ourselves, widen the route to excellence, connect arts and research to counteract entrenched and negative labeling, and tell a bigger, bolder story about yesterday and tomorrow that elevates us all?

Barbara Lewis, Director, Trotter Institute

War on Poverty 50th Anniversary

Posted: January 12, 2014 by Donna Bivens in Uncategorized

mobius stripWith BBDP’s community-developed focus on race and class equity, we welcomed the recent War on Poverty 50th Anniversary and the opening it brings to lift up social class and wealth inequity in relation to the crisis.  As we listen to the stories of “then and now” so often class equity issues seems to lie just beneath the surface of people’s stories.  

People talk about the class dimensions of the changes in their neighborhoods, changes in public school access and the role and impact of private and charter schools without really mentioning  the concept of class that seems almost as taboo as racism in polite Boston company. As with race, as we clarify our personal stories in the context of our histories, we increase our collective ability to see the patterns that hold systemic inequities in place. One of my favorite quotes in doing equity work is from Michael Beckwith “Choice is a function of expanded awareness”. As the parallels between racial and class inequities and between struggles for racial and economic justice get clearer we expand our awareness. But those parallels must become links–or better yet a mobius strip with race on one side and class on the other–in order to really access and make new and better choices.

With  new, recommitted and emerging city leadership, most prioritizing race and class equity, democratic access and demanding excellence are hopeful that these issues will be named and engaged in creative new ways. Grounding in history and story is one such way. In the programs below–especially the Tavis Smiley program–the power of story meets history is evoked even as analysis and “data” are analyzed. We look forward to more of this and to bold links of race and class truth that brings real learning and powerful change.

Tavis Smiley round table the War on Poverty anniversary

Click logo: Tavis Smiley round table the War on Poverty anniversary

The War on Poverty, 50 Years On

The War on Poverty, 50 Years On

Learning from, Not Dwelling in History: 1974-2014

Posted: January 6, 2014 by umnunity in Uncategorized

Happy New Year! It’s  2014 and Boston begins a new era of leadership during this,  the 40th anniversary year of its busing/desegregation crisis. And all this takes place in a time when many are digging deep for new insights for the future that are grounded in knowledge and understanding of the past.

BBDP ended 2013 with some powerful story circles with people who work in and with Boston Public schools in different capacities and who are committed to public school education. A recurring theme is the critical need to learn from the past in order to discover a future that does not unwittingly recreate it. At the same time, we heard a need to be aware of and celebrate the strides that have been made.

There is something powerful that happens when people weave their stories together. Some things that are shared are difficult but people also touch the root of history that binds them to each other and to their every day lived commitment to create something different.

As we listen to the promise of possibility for the new Boston, let’s also practice hearing the wilderness cries that still stand between us and our becoming the city that works for all so many of us imagine and are working to make a reality.

History kind of follows if we don’t unpack it, if we don’t really investigate it because my mother again was a part of the 1974–she has this story about the rocks and I always thought she exaggerated until I learned more. Marcos 

We’ve got to step up our game but in the same breath how do we make people believe in the system? How do we get folks on board to acknowledge the past but change the future? Sue 

It’s funny how with trauma I can sort of block it out and then all of a sudden to hear that and it’s like “well, wait a minute, actually you did have that experience”… I think about history and I think  in the United States in general we don’t tell our history, we don’t tell our full history. Ben 

 When you’re in that system and you’re younger you don’t see the structural things that are at work, that are influencing what your everyday experiences are like so you just see things as they are and it’s hard to connect them to that history and to the structures that are shaping what you’re experiencing.  Anna 

Story Circle with Boston Community Leadership Academy

Posted: December 10, 2013 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

We had a wonderful circle with a group of young people from Boston Community Leadership Academy this morning. After watching the “Eyes on the Prize” the young people told candid stories about their own lives and experiences around race and education in the city. We had a wide ranging conversation about language, ethnicity, experiences of race and racism, and our relationship to history.  We look forward to working with them more in the future!


BBDP Fall Presentations at Community Change

Posted: December 3, 2013 by Donna Bivens in Uncategorized

This fall,  BBDP has had several opportunities to participate in the  historical reflection that surrounds us as the nation marks significant anniversaries of the ongoing struggle for race and class equity. Community Change Inc. sponsored two programs that BBDP was part of.

The first featured journalist Gary Younge whose recent book The Speech tells the behind the scenes story of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago this year. The book discusses the problem of oversimplifying the words and context of the speech and the march and gives insight that is very helpful for those seeking not to make the same mistake about our current reality.

Gary is a fabulous story-teller and his fascinating talk resonated deeply with BBDP’s quest to gather the complex and diverse personal stories and collective histories that make the upcoming anniversary of Boston’s busing/desegregation crisis so vital. Donna shared connections to BBDP as part of the responding panel.

Also , Meghan and Donna ended up unexpectedly leading a discussion about BBDP at a Community Change Inc Brown Bag lunch.  In a first for us, the event was streamed live and at least one Learning Network member tuned in!



Educating the Eyes

Posted: November 12, 2013 by barbaralewis2013 in Uncategorized

Slave owners feared education.  They knew that an educated slave would not endure bondage.  Solomon Northrup used his education much like a sword.  After many trials, he finally cut himself free with his pen. Commentators are suggesting that this film represents a high-water mark in slavery’s cinematic depictions. Whether we are about to witness a spate of films about the twists and turns of slavery remains to be seen but the word is out that another British film will be released early next year which looks back at Britain’s complicated racial and sexual history. That film features a marriageable young woman named Belle, who lives on a country estate, far from the common crowd.  The story is informed by a portrait of a well-dressed young woman touched by tawny, as Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair.  Looking forward to reviewing that also.

Slavery no Featherweight

posted by Barbara Lewis

I wasn’t going far, just one stop. On my way out of the door of the red line train, I was astonished. A large white feather was in my path. It seemed very much out of place. It was dazzling in its whiteness, very long, pristine. The quill was robust. The kind, it seemed, that might have been used to write documents before there was a fountain pen, a ball point, or a roller ball.

As I walked up the stairs to the exit, a memory flashed in my mind. About ten years ago, I visited the Trinity College Library in Dublin. There I saw illustrated pages from the Book of Kells, a multi-volume medieval manuscript. The care and beauty and coloring as well as the creativity of and investment in the ornate cursive transported me back to a time when writing was seen as a special talent, an art, a way of consecrating meaning and communicating beyond one’s present time to the future, even a kind of worship.

Seeing that feather made me think of another aspect of writing: its sometimes soaring quality but also the authority that words can wield, how they can make things happen, how they can bring realities into being. That is certainly true when we think of legal, religious, and political documents.

Sometimes documenting the personal can be groundbreaking and enduring, with far-reaching public effect. This weekend I went to see the film that was made from Solomon Northrup’s autobiographical narrative, published in 1853, a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Stowe novel was serialized, dramatized in numerous versions, and filmed, not once but at least three times. And that doesn’t count the cinematic reworking in The King and I. Nor does it count Thomas Dixon’s rebutting of the novel in his writings about the South, which were translated to film in The Birth of a Nation (1915), America’s first blockbuster. Then Quentin Tarantino turned Birth inside out in Django Unchained (2012).

Published a hundred and sixty years ago, Northrup’s story of being tricked out of freedom but working his way back into its embrace through long-suffering ingenuity is finally getting wide, international notice. His story and its cinematic treatment might be revolutionary, some are saying, likely to change the way we, in the 21st century, a hundred fifty years post Emancipation, think and talk about slavery, now that the post-racial era has dawned and there is a black man in the White House. Then there are others who laugh at the notion of post anything and say it’s going to be awhile before the American ship of state turns around in its wake and gets past its entrenched hierarchical habits.

Northrup, who is renamed Platt in the film, knows how to write, think, reason, plan, and solve problems. At first, he thinks that he can use his smarts to create a better circumstance for himself. On behalf of his first owner, a Mr. Ford, he figures out how to increase profits. Having an unduly smart slave on the premises is not a pleasant prospect for the plantation work boss, who decides to cut Platt down to more manageable size. They come to loggerheads and Platt ends up with a new owner, Mr. Epps. His wife is a very hard and vindictive woman but a virtual saint compared to her husband, who sees himself as lord and master of all he surveys, a virtual god. When it comes to the slaves, she is hawkish, ever on the lookout for transgression, and she suspects that Platt has more learning than most. He admits that he knows a word or two but assures her that he can’t really make sense of much when she sends him on a shopping errand. She warns him not to learn anymore because any slave that is literate would be severely punished for knowing and acting above and outside his station.

We see Platt looking at and carefully studying some blackberries. He is considering whether he can make ink from their juice. He decides to try. To create a writing implement, he whittles a twig to a fine point. His first attempt at writing with crude tools is unsuccessful. The ink is not dark enough. He is willing to try again, but he needs someone to post his letter. A potential friend is located but proves unworthy. Not one to give up, Platt makes a third attempt, but he has learned that the knowledge he possesses is too dangerous to reveal. So he figures out how to achieve his end through a proxy.

Slavery has been a school for him, and he has learned to survive in hostile circumstances, with violence and the threat of reprisal and punishment as constant taskmasters. The film makes clear that writing does not just happen with pen, ink, and paper. Skin is also a surface on which writing, leaving an impression, often permanent, can occur. Slavery, we see in this film, is etched and gouged into the backs and imprinted on the faces and bodies of the enslaved, male and female, with paddles, with whips, with fingernails, with thrown objects, with boot heels, with tightened nooses, and with the brutal force of bare hands. Blood was slavery’s ink, but unlike blackberry juice, it ran dark and thick and heavy on a regular basis, and it besmirched the whiteness it proclaimed.

It’s hard to imagine that the codes and practices of slavery were canonized and written into existence by anything as light as a feather and quill, but then dark deeds are sometimes construed as light and written into time’s book of ledger as natural, righteous, and in accord with the will of God and the law.