Truth, Learning, and Education

Posted: August 10, 2016 by Donna Bivens in Uncategorized

UMN’s education work is focusing still on Boston’s desegregation history but specifically on current issues around systemic racism and class inequity in “public” education.  Stay tuned for more information.

See also: Union of Minority Neighborhoods for other work we are doing.

We talked about student assignment through most of the 1970s (not to mention the decades leading up to ‘desegregation’), then had a bit of the respite in the 80s (though really Judge Garrity’s ‘consent decree’ was omnipresent) before making another major change at the end of the decade. In the 1990s it was all about racial quotas and algorithms. After two more attempts in 2004 and 2009, BPS finally made another major change to how its students are assigned to schools in 2014. And, though that process was highly contested, many BPS parents and advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief. We could finally get to the business of improving the schools for everyone rather than continuing to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic (and deciding who gets in the life boats), right?

Not so fast, Boston: apparently it’s that time again. Not two years later the Walsh administration avows that we’re all clamoring for another conversation on student assignment – this time for a unified enrollment plan which wraps charter schools into the pre-existing public assignment system. Though the mostly poorly attended information sessions so far have not demonstrated this public enthusiasm, Walsh once again rests on the silent majority that wants this (despite this argument not working out so well for him when he used it to justify the city’s Olympic bid, and indeed not working out well for Nixon when he used it to justify the continuation of the Vietnam war). The compact appears to be a done deal, another classic case of paternalism known in the planning community as “DAD” – decide, announce, defend (h/t to Allentza Michel for providing this acronym). Nonetheless, opposition to the plan appears to be heating up.


To many, opposition to a Unified Enrollment plan by BPS parents and advocates looks nothing short of obstructionist. Won’t this simply make it easier for parents so they don’t have to do multiple lotteries? Prevent creaming and hold charters more accountable? As always, the devil’s in the details which are at this point few and far between. Skepticism about the promise of unified enrollment comes not just from this lack of details however, but from a perspective that is both historical and looking to the bigger picture.

The historical perspective suggests that student assignment doesn’t really improve access to quality education for our most disadvantaged students. Though there was a certain logic to the idea that a desegregated system would have to distribute resources more evenly, this isn’t exactly what happened following the Garrity decision in 1974. Institutional racism proved much more pernicious and, not surprisingly in hindsight, the most advantaged families continued to receive the best educations – whether in the city or outside of it. I for one am glad I didn’t come of age in a school system that overtly segregated schools and diverted the best resources to white schools, and am therefore grateful for desegregation. At the same time I’m aware that the opportunity gap between white students and black and Latino students persists into the present and that desegregation fell far short of its promise.

When the Federal Court finally withdrew from the assignment system in the 1980s, satisfied that the days of overt discrimination were done, the city had to face the reality that quality schools were not available in all neighborhoods. The solution was to continue busing students in large zones – so that students in neighborhoods without good schools would at least have a chance to go to a quality school. Once again perhaps not the ideal way to confront the problems of residential segregation and institutional racism, but still a solution with a certain logic. And once again, student assignment just didn’t work out that way, so that when the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission studied the three zone plan during this most recent round of reform, they found that the city’s least advantaged students were being bused the farthest and still not reaching quality at the other end.

In the meantime the plan in 1989 had been to increase the number of zones when school quality improved across the city. By 2012 we were still waiting for that quality when Mayor Menino announced it was time to abandon the three zone system once and for all. We needed closer to home schools quality or no, because, the city claimed, that’s what parents wanted. A chorus of voices arose in response to say, ‘wait a second, why are talking about assignment rather than a comprehensive plan to improve school quality for students in all neighborhoods of all racial and class backgrounds? What happened to all those promises?’ Still the city pushed forward with the home-based assignment plan, making more promises for both a better measure of quality and an equity analysis of the new plan. Two years later the new quality metric has yet to be implemented (it’s coming, we’re assured) and MIT argues they need three years of data before telling us anything about equity.  We have no idea how the new system is working, we still have highly uneven quality across the system, and we’re being asked to talk about a new system? Any student of history, as Mayor Walsh should be, would not be surprised that people aren’t falling over themselves to roll out the welcome mat for Unified Enrollment.

But you have to combine that historical understanding with a look at the bigger picture to understand some of the outright hostility towards the proposal. Unified Enrollment is a Gates-funded initiative, which those concerned about issues of funding for PUBLIC education and the privatization of our schools have much to worry about. In other cities such as Denver, Newark, and Philadelphia, unified enrollment plans have led directly to public school closures and an increase in charters. The debate continues about whether charters are the answer for low-income students of color otherwise stuck in struggling district schools, but the evidence is certainly not a clear cut yes. I, along with many others, am not willing to give up public resources to privatization on a hope and a prayer, because the beneficent new captains of (service) industry of the likes of Gates, the Walton family, and Zuckerberg tell us we should.

Student assignment is about a lot of things: real estate values, residential racial and class segregation, the distribution of educational resources across the city, parental choices and lack of choices among others. Forty-plus years of struggles over how students get sorted into schools should teach us, however, that technical assignment processes are not a good way to ensure the most vulnerable students in our education system have access to a high quality education. Of all the assignment systems we’ve tried – a race-based neighborhood system, desegregation, ‘controlled choice,’ and ‘home-based assignment,’ the bottom line has remained that students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English Language Learners all continue to struggle to have their needs met while privileged students thrive. Forgive me if I’m highly skeptical that a new system, Unified Enrollment, pushed by deep-pocketed ‘reformers’ rather than a grassroots movement of families, will have any significant impact on this status quo. This isn’t to say there aren’t some amazing things happening in Boston Public Schools – there are dedicated teachers, families, students, and school communities working with limited resources to make amazing things happen. It is to say, however, that it’s time to make a bigger pie bringing more resources to students in public schools, and to fix a broken system plagued by racial and class disparities. That’s what we want to talk about. Not assignment, AGAIN.


Going off of yesterday’s post, this is a video that we used not only during our workshop with MIRA, but also used during our planning and discussion about what we wanted to cover.  It brings up a lot of questions on personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels.  It shows how racism infects and deforms even our most intimate relationships, how it can be passed down generationally, and the lasting trauma it can cause.  We had a great discussion after watching this together at our workshop, and we hope Ise Lyfe‘s amazing performance can be a resource to you, too.

History and Learning With MIRA

Posted: April 7, 2015 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized


A couple of weeks ago, members of BBDP held a workshop for MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The topic of the workshop was systemic racism, immigration, and migration. Over the course of two days, we discussed the development of white supremacist systems, how they effect our work, and what we can do to combat racism in our respective organizations. As part of our presentation, LaDawn Strickland, one of the designers of the workshop and a longtime BBDP contributor, had developed a historical timeline that was posted on the wall on the second day of the event.

The points on the timeline marked the arrival of different immigrant groups to the North American continent before and after the establishment of the United States. These included the first large-scale arrivals of English colonists, captive Africans, and Irish, German, Chinese, and Mexican immigrants, among others. The timeline included points, too, marking the history of migrations within the country, noting especially the way indigenous groups were forced from their land through violence and legislation (enforced with violence), first westward, then, upon the “closing of the frontier,” onto reservations. Participants were asked to make the timeline their own by adding their personal and family history to the points marking the passages of laws, the movements of groups, and the changing definitions of who gets to be a citizen and who gets to be “white”.

In all the feedback we got from people at the end of our time with MIRA, the thing we heard the most was an appreciation for the history and the desire to learn more. Our audience, which was international and cross-generational, really wanted to go deeper on not only their own personal ethnic and racial histories, but also how they developed in this country, how whiteness was constructed over time, and what forces have shaped the movements of populations. As the workshop designers, I think we were surprised a little bit at this. Being involved with BBDP for so long, perhaps we took the history for granted, as that is our focus much of the time. But what we heard back is that there is a hunger not being satisfied. People want to know the history, not just to be able to spout trivial names and dates, but to learn how we got to this moment, today– geographically, economically, racially, and politically.

Over the course of our project, we’ve seen the power that is tapped into when we change our conception of history from a static, finished process that takes place in books to a dynamic, unfinishable one that we live every day. We empower ourselves to investigate our individual and collective pasts so that we may understand more fully our present and impact our future. What we learned with MIRA is that this need for historical knowledge is an urgent one still today, and brought to mind a line from Michael Beckwith that comes up often in our discussions: “Choice is a function of expanded awareness.” The more we know of our past and present, the broader our options become for the future. As Boston’s skyline gets ever more crowded with cranes and luxury condos, as wealth inequality widens daily, it is crucial that our learning and understanding of history inform and expand the choices we can make.

Education NYC

On Tuesday March 17th, 2015 I had the opportunity to attend a Boston City Council Committee on Education working session. The hearing was to discuss recruiting and retaining educators of color within Boston Public Schools. Below is a testimony from my short experience in the BPS class setting.


March 17th, 2015 

Working Session: Joshua McFadden Testimony Document   

Docket #0274

Order re: hearing to discuss recruiting and retaining educators of color….

“Education happens when you learn something you did not know you did not know.” – Daniel Bornstein

Being marginalized, and yet acclimated to color blindness because of somewhat privileged settings led me to believe that any compassionate or “caring” person can leave an equally impactful imprint on a child’s life. This premise is entirely wrong. I came to Boston, MA Aug. 2013 to embark on a year of service through AmeriCorps City Year. I was blessed to be able to serve in Mattapan at the Mildred Ave. K – 8 School.  I was, in fact, the only person of color on a team of roughly sixteen people assigned to an institution where 100% of the students were “minorities”. Nearly all of the students at The Mildred are black students. The percent of black students enrolled at The Mildred far exceeds 8.7%, which is the statewide average of all African American students in Massachusetts (Enrollment Data MA Department of Ed 13-14).

I was amazed to witness the degree to which the socio-economic levels and other variables seemed to be identical for the great majority of students at The Mildred. In my view, this lack of diversity…this sameness was a direct result of bussing and the re-segregation of schools and communities. After familiarizing myself with the history of Boston’s considerable efforts to eradicate its “dual school system establishment,” I was even more astonished. In Morgan vs. Hennigan, Judge Wendell A. Garrity Jr. ruled in 1974 that there was in fact de jure segregation which was at that time perpetuated by the school committee, Board of Education, and the Education Commissioner. Sadly, since that time, there has not been substantial change in either the diversification of our teachers or students enrolled in many of Boston’s Public Schools. Today, schools are predominately black while educators, especially in the lower grades are not educators of color. In John Dewey’s essay, “Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal,” he tells us that education is not preparation for life, but that education is life itself! Through the absence of educators who look like they look and perhaps share similar backgrounds and experiences, what are the most fragile and vulnerable of our students being taught?

With Dewey’s words in mind and with statistics about the monolith nature of both the students (black) and the teachers (white) in Boston’s public school system, I strongly feel that granting adequate funding for non-traditional recruiting for educators of color as well as instituting effective retention strategies for current and future educators of color will be the catalyst that can produce increased positive results in terms of academic performance, progress towards graduation, improved attitudes about learning and education, and raised student self-esteem levels for the overwhelming number of Boston’s public school students.

What I did not know I did not know was that my students did not care how much I knew until they knew how much I actually cared about their well-being…until they realized that I, too, was one of them. The “face” of that administrated care can make a world of difference in the lives of young people.  Because I fit the same basic physical description as most of my students, the initiation and cultivation of mutual positive high regard was immediate and trusted. A stronger and quicker student-to-educator bond developed that remains to this day…more than a year after leaving The Mildred. I specifically remember a student named Du’Shard who one day said to me, “Mr. Mac, I swear doe, I never actually met anyone that look like you who is doing something positive. For real for real.” In me, Du’Shard was able to see a professional educator who was far removed from what he had been exposed to. In the young black male educator with “dreads” and visible tattoos that worked with him on a daily basis, Du’Shard and other students, both in this class and outside of this class, were given a different face for educators and a renewed value for education. Because I spoke the language of caring, high expectations, and responsibility, this student began to show he cared about his life through improved academic performance. I strongly believe that by granting adequate funding towards non-traditional recruiting and retention methods for educators of color will be the catalyst that turns mirrors into windows for so many of Boston’s Public School students.

Joshua A. McFadden 

Community Organizer

Union of Minority Neighborhoods

Boston Bussing and Desegregation Project & Howard Rye Institute

42 Seaverns Ave, Boston, MA 02130

Cell: 386 – 852 – 0740|Work617 – 830 – 5082

Twitter: @JOSHgeneration8







Image  —  Posted: February 2, 2015 by Donna Bivens in Quotes
Tags: , ,

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.