In 1979, I was chosen to participate in Project Concern, one of many desegregation social experiments implemented during the sweeping idealism of the 1960s. Based in Connecticut, Project Concern was a program that bused minority students living in impoverished inner cities to wealthy communities in the suburbs. From the third to the 12th grade of my education, I was bused nearly 25 miles from the city of Bridgeport, CT to what seemed like a completely different world–the affluent town of Westport, CT. Even today, the disparity between Bridgeport and Westport remains the same; by 1991 Bridgeport was listed as 5th in the nation for cities with the highest homicide rate per capita while Westport remains one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. It was my experience in Project Concern that taught me the true meaning of "the other side of the tracks".
Today, researchers and scholars’ evaluations of Project Concern suggest a number of positive outcomes. Program participants pursue higher education at higher rates, perceive less discrimination, and feel more comfortable in predominately white environments. (Check out the following links for more expected outcomes: “ Finding Niches: Desegregated Students Sixteen Years Later" and "School Desegregation and Black Occupational Attainments: Results from a Long-Term Experiment")
In many ways, I am a living testament of these positive outcomes. Nearly 20 years after I was bused daily from Bridgeport to Westport, I am an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I certainly recognize the significant contributions Project Concern played in my ability to achieve key milestones in my life.
With all the positive outcomes of Project Concern, you would think that I would be a fervent endorser of the program. Ironically, this is not the case. When asked whether programs like Project Concern should be replicated in urban cities across the country, my answer is always a hesitant "I’m not so sure?" Why? Simply put, with the benefits come the tradeoffs…and the unresolved question in my mind is always, "was it worth the trip?"
In the example of Project Concern, the city of Bridgeport funded the buses to transport inner-city children to schools in Westport but did not monetarily contribute to the Westport school system. Despite the busing program, Westport schools remained financed solely by the taxpayers of Westport. Needless to say, Westport parents expressed a little more than frustration over having to spend their tax dollars to have their children socialize with inner-city kids. Let’s just say that they had strong views on the subject.
Besides backlash from the "receiving" communities of busing programs, programs such as Project Concern have other problems as well:
- Logistics: Imagine yourself as an 8 year old Project Concern kid catching the bus to go to school in Westport, CT. You arrive at the bus stop a little after 6 a.m. to catch the 6:15 school bus. Once on board, your bus then takes approximately 60 minutes to pick up the other Project Concern kids. At 7:15 a.m. you begin the 25-mile journey to Westport, which takes approximately 40 to 45 minutes in rush hour traffic. At 3:00 p.m., the process is reversed and you arrive back at the original bus stop around 4:30 p.m. (traffic’s a little bit better in the afternoon). Oh, and don’t ask what happens if you miss the bus because you arrived at the bus stop at 6:20 a.m.
- Participation in extracurricular activities: Since there was no funding for a "late" bus to provide transportation back to Bridgeport, participating in extracurricular activities was nearly impossible for Project Concern kids. Limited extracurricular opportunities and lack of time to socialize with fellow classmates amplified the differences between Project Concern kids and the kids resident to Westport.
- Lack of strong advisors: The presence of mentors or counselors to help Project Concern kids and Westport resident students deal with cultural differences was nearly nonexistent. While coordinators were available periodically, I personally do not recall a strong support structure to deal with adjustment issues. Survival skills were acquired over time, and the experience was more difficult for some than others.
- Alienation from home community: Arriving home at 4:30 pm (best case scenario) didn’t facilitate the bond between the Project Concern kids and the Bridgeport community. There was always a sense of being between two communities but belonging to neither.
- Being a desegregation pioneer: Very difficult stuff. Given.
Regardless of these tradeoffs, my experience with Project Concern has shaped who I am. "Crossing the tracks" on a daily basis for 10 years provided me with a broad comfort zone socially, lead to excellent educational opportunities, and allowed me to navigate within different racial and socioeconomic worlds with ease—an invaluable skill that I am glad to possess.
So the question I pose to this community is what’s your opinion of busing programs? Do the long-term outcomes of busing and similar social experiments outweigh the short-term sacrifices? Are busing programs really worth the trip?