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THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Conversations on busing

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / October 15, 2011

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You think of it as ancient history until you hear the pain and the hurt 35 years later, the buried legacy of busing.

“We lost the most important part of our education,’’ said Regina Williams, who said she dropped out of school at the height of busing, demoralized over the anger and hate she was facing. “We lost the experience of the prom and the whole high school experience. Even if you take classes [later], you never get that back.’’

A generation after the city was nearly torn apart by the effort to desegregate Boston’s schools, an activist group - the Union of Minority Neighborhoods - is trying to spark a new discussion about what it all meant. The centerpiece of its effort is a 53-minute film, “Can We Talk?’’ In it, people who lived through the era - students, parents, a school bus driver, a beat cop - reflect on their experiences and emotions.

The project grew out of an effort to organize parents to push for changes in the public schools. Organizers who found widespread distrust of the school system on the part of current parents (and grandparents) traced its roots to unresolved emotions over their experiences in the Boston schools of the 1970s.

The school desegregation cataclysm has been extensively chronicled, most memorably in J. Anthony Lukas’s classic book “Common Ground.’’ Even so, a generation whose feelings about the city - and about race - were shaped by busing still seems anxious to explain what those days were like, and what it feels it gained and lost in the process.

“It’s not a documentary; it’s an attempt to start a conversation,’’ said Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. While the interviews are interspersed with passages from Globe stories from the 1970s, there is no attempt to recap the history in any comprehensive way. Rather than a narrative, it offers unfiltered emotion.

Mickey Roache - then a beat cop in his native Southie, later Boston’s police commissioner - makes an appearance. “For lack of a better word, it was surreal,’’ Roache says in the documentary. “It was very emotional.’’

The film has been screened by groups at Harvard, the YMCA, Trinity Church, and elsewhere. As a conversation-starter, it has been a success.

“Mostly it’s been very positive,’’ said Donna Bivens, who has orchestrated the project. “We show it to people and have them tell their own stories.’’

Audiences have been eager to do just that, she said. “You have to stop them from talking, basically.’’

Of course the city has changed enormously since 1974.

“[South Boston] is a different community now,’’ said activist Michelle Waters-Ekanem. “I think there’s a tremendous difference in folks’ ability to move beyond the stigma. It’s not good for any of us for Boston to have a reputation as a racist city.’’

Virtually all the interviewees who were students during busing think it was a bad idea. For decades, the question of whether busing improved anyone’s education has been debated; they seem rightfully dubious.

Busing transformed the Boston schools, though not in the way its champions predicted. White families fled the school system in droves, while leaving many black and Latino families feeling as though they had been part of a social experiment with no real benefit. The practice of educating children largely outside their neighborhoods has endured, though it is now driven, at least in part, by the laudable goal of giving parents some choices.

That isn’t to say that the upheaval was all for naught. If nothing else, it forced the city to face its divisions and demons head-on, marking the start of a process that ultimately left Boston, a city that wears its diversity more easily, even with pride. Whether that justified all the pain is an open question for the people who lived through it.

“When I was young, I thought it was all about race,’’ says Robert Lewis Jr. “As I got older I realized it was all about quality education and access and opportunity.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.