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Musings on race and privilege in preparation for Waterville Rotary Club’s Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast

Something happened when I was nine years old that is still growing and bringing me to this place. I grew up far from here in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball and Sr. Seuss, a city with 57 elementary schools, public and private. These schools were not all the same. I didn’t know this, because my school and my neighborhood were all I knew. But some people could see how different school experiences were for all 9 year olds, and so they tried to make it more fair for everyone. 30 of the 36 public schools made a change. It was called forced desegregation, or busing.

For 5th grade (1974)I now was to attend Glickman School, (duh-duh-duh) and it was 2 miles away. On a bus. And all hell broke loose. Many of my friends shipped off to Catholic School, it being the only option to avoid this peril. My parents, being broke and pretty obedient, put me on that 20 minute bus ride instead of the 20 minute walk. It was New School Nervous with a layer of There May Be Trouble of an Unknown Variety on top. And when we got there, those kids were grumpy. We didn’t know which kids were from where, though, so it was hard to say exactly who “those kids” were. But it turned out to be quite a letdown over time. Teachers were still boring or nice, kids were still smart, funny, mean, cute; and new friendships happened, and we were fine.

Now that I’m a grownup girl, I wonder if anyone tracked any data on us. Did that experiment work? I certainly feel richer having had it, but I know it wasn’t quite enough to just throw us in together and hope for the best. I had a birthday party that year, and some girls didn’t come and wouldn’t talk about it. Was it race? Or was it poverty? Was I the one in poverty? I didn’t even have the vocabulary to ask, a person to ask. Who would I ask? Why couldn’t we talk about it?

But now I know what to ask:
Who is not thriving consistently?
Whose life is not getting better?
What would it take to change?
What is the crossroads we are at right now, TODAY?
What is possible?

The crux of the conversation in Waterville is about equity. Who gets to say what happens next? Whose voice matters? How do we include and keep including more and more people? If we ask the kid who works at the Big Apple or Downtown Smoothie, “what’s good here?” or “what do you think about the exciting new changes?”, what will she tell us?

Just for fun, I googled “was busing a success?” and Wikipedia told me that yes, it was. In Boston the change was sometimes violent, but in Springfield, schools became more equitable, peacefully. Then, I went to Facebook and Linked In and found some childhood classmates: Billy Porter, Arenzo Washington, Marcella Spruell, Jennifer Barrett, Candace Jones (whose Minnie Ripperton rendition of “Loving You is Easy Cause You’re Beautiful” was flawless, btw) It was nice to see them and their families thriving. You see, we also had 7 junior high schools and 5 high schools, so our time together was brief.
So when my friend Mark Wilson asked me if I would give the invocation for the Martin Luther King Breakfast this year, I said, “sure”, but later considered what I might possibly have to say on the topic of race. Which, if you know me, I am very prone to question what authority I have on anything…to the point of nausea. Upon reflection, I was on the front lines of a movement with this experience!

My word for the year 2017 is integration. To integrate the head and heart. The self and other. Work and play. Movement and rest. Teaching and learning. Silence and speaking up. And art and food as medicine for it all.

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