“Victoria, how many weeks do you have left before you leave us?” asked Ms. D.
“August 5th is my last day, so I have two more weeks here.”
“That’s so soon! I can’t believe how fast this summer has gone. Before we know it, we’ll both be back at school studying and forgetting to eat!”
Whenever I have some free time, I like to walk around the center and talk with the other staff members should they have some time. They’re all very welcoming and enjoy it when I make conversation with them. Six weeks into the internship, I can say that I’ve gotten pretty close with some of the staff members. Ms. D is one of those staff members.
Ms. D works in the computer room where she helps our clients learn how to use the computer, write resumes and get jobs. Although she has started her family and worked at the Franciscan Center for several years, she is a student. Because she was a student, I was able to relate to her more than the other staff members.
Today after working in the food line, I walked over to the computer room to say a quick hello. We exchanged some words before I went up to my “office” to finish some work for my supervisor. But before I left, Ms. D told me that even after I leave in two weeks, I would always have a place at the Center. “You’re family now” she said. “If you ever need anything, you can always come to one of us and we’ll support you.”
It really meant a lot to me to hear Ms. D say that. I’ve gotten to know some staff members really well after working with them for so long. I’ve even got the chance to know some regular clients. I’ve been able to recognize regular clients and when I call them by their name, they grin from ear to ear. I really feel like I have become a part of this family at the Franciscan Center. I only have two weeks left at the Center, but I will be a member of this family for years to come.
“THE EDUCATION SYSTEM IS BROKEN”
As I pack away the leftovers from the lunches we serve to our students every day, these words ring out from the other side of the wall, like an unexpected crack of thunder on a quiet afternoon.
Actually, hearing such statements is not uncommon at HEBCAC YO. The woman who has shouted this particular phrase is a visitor for the day – a graduated student who has returned to speak to current students (at the center, “graduated” refers to a previous YO! attendee that has successfully passed their GED test and has been consistently employed or attending college since). The center frequently asks its graduates to return and motivate current students to meet their personal goals, or to encourage them to continue attending their GED classes.
Having finished with the lunches, I reenter one of the classrooms – class is in session and the students are hard at work, surrounded by motivational posters and quotes written on whiteboards. A personal favorite around the center is “Education is the fight for your life.” It was actually written on the white board by last year’s CIIP intern, and I hear it quoted at least a few times a week by teachers and students alike.
I have had the privilege of growing up in a household where education was not just emphasized, but prioritized. The students who come to classes at HEBCAC YO are all high-school dropouts, most of whom have not had access to the same quality of schooling that many people (myself included) sometimes take for granted, and many who have not received the lifelong support from their schools and families that I often do not think twice about but consistently benefit from.
Later that day, I am lounging on a big plushy couch with K, a 23 year-old student with a “Cherish” tattoo snaking around her wrist and a natural affability. Out of the different roles I play around the center, my favorite has without a doubt been the moments during which I find myself sitting on one of the couches with one or two other students, and we’re just talking. I love these moments because of the random anecdotes the students share – some hilarious, some heartbreaking, but all a little glimpse of the lives they lead outside the walls of HEBCAC YO. As I sit there listening to K, I am blown away by the things she has experienced in her 23 years: a childhood of emotional abuse by the grandmother who raised her; reaching a breaking point, rebelling, and getting
With two weeks at the mayor’s office under my belt, my level of comfort with the environment and the projects that I am responsible for has grown considerably. The reason for such a swift transition lies in the manner in which the full-time employees have accepted me into their workgroups (divisions of Human Services that target specific social issues such as housing for the homeless population, facilitating hiring of the homeless or the at-risk population, and improving the collaboration and data sharing between the dozens of non-profits who use their resources to assist the homeless population). In particular, the discussions between the policy makers who develop the policies and procedures for the homeless programs and the social workers who interact on a daily basis with our brothers and sisters who are struggling to provide for themselves further highlighted the dire relationship Baltimore has with its homeless population.
For one reason in particular, the most notable meeting I observed this past week took place at the Saint Vincent de Paul Beans and Bread Shelter on 402 S Bond Street. I walked into Beans & Bread just as they were opening their doors to the public and had to wait in line to sign in along with 25-30 other men and women. They could see from my dress shoes and button-up shirt that I wasn’t signing in for the morning meal and client engagement, but that didn’t stop them from asking my name, where I was from, and what brought me to Beans & Bread. The elderly man in line before me especially took interest in what I was doing over the summer and we ended up having a 20-minute conversation covering everything from why I grew up overseas to our expectations of the Raven’s upcoming season.
However, what I’ll remember most from that morning conversation is his story. He spent most of his adult life in Guinea but around six years ago he and his wife wanted a change. It was the appeal of the “American dream” that drew them to sell all their possessions in Conakry and to make the leap of faith. They arrived on workers’ visas where he started as a security guard and she became a waitress at the local Applebee’s. They were enjoying their new life, until his wife grew sick and was eventually diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. She passed away just a few months after her late diagnosis, but in those few months, he had to spend all they had, in addition to borrowing from the bank, to pay for her medical bills in hopes of a miracle. That was three years ago. He’s been jumping from shelter to abandoned building to park bench ever since. Yet, as our conversation came to an end he shook my hand firmly and said with a smile in French, “Son, I will be praying for you and all that you will accomplish. You will be rewarded for your hard work. May God bless you.”. That conversation constantly reminds me that the applications I am processing are far more than just PDFs and keeps me falling into a robotic frame of mind. Individuals and families in desperate situations are on the other side of the computer screen.
Each day around 4:00 pm I pack up my desk and catch the circulator towards Charles Village to walk into a house with a full fridge, running water, and a comfortable bed. Where does Michelle go? Where does Deshawn go? Where do Pamela and her three children go?
I Finally Went Out and Bought Dairy-Free Ice Cream Y’all
If Buzzfeed can get away with a title like this for an article dissecting Taylor Swift’s recent break-up, then I think I can title this blog post with *my* most pressing concern since beginning an internship on an empty stomach.
This is not the first summer that Ramadan has overlapped with my summer plans, but it is the first time I’ve completed two full weeks of meeting people on a completely empty stomach. Pro-tip: avoid this if you can. Unless you know how to play off the obnoxious rumbling of your stomach as if it were a delicate sneeze (who knows, perhaps some people can do this). Regardless, I think I fared pretty well–maybe more butterflies to fill up the empty space, but introductions went something like this, “Nice to meet you, I’m fasting—I mean, Ayesha.” So it’s not like it was on my mind or anything.
But in all seriousness, to circle back to the title of this post, it really is relevant to something important we covered in training last week that ended up influencing my first week more than the job itself: self-care. I’ll be honest, I’ve been running pretty long days and even longer nights. This Ramadan I wake up around 3 to eat my first meal and break my fast around 8:30. Add in some extra time for prayer and spirituality and there’s a lot less sleep in there. When your fasting, even though your brain is doing pretty amazing things (I’m serious, a JHU professor even did a study [hyperlink] http://www.cosmicscientist.com/ted-talk-neuroscientist-shows-what-fasting-does-to-your-brain/) your body can get a little slow and there’s a lot you find yourself pushing yourself to do that you would normally just do. Saying hello to someone you haven’t met before? For me, that’s usually a no brainer. But for me fasting, it becomes “Hmm standing? Do we really need to do this? And the talking thing? Sitting and smiling feels nice.”
Just to clarify here though, fasting is something deeply spiritual and beloved to me. It may tire me physically, but really does give you more clarity of mind (all that brain science). Especially in these last few weeks finding myself in so many new environments, I’ve had the opportunity to be introspective about where I am right now, what I’m doing and how I’m feeling about this and everything around me.
And I’ll be even more honest, the Pulse shootings last weekend—that shook me hard too. I wish more than anything that the media didn’t make it another “Muslim thing,” that they didn’t hijack the pain and grieving of the LGBTQIA and Latinx community to once again discuss everything from gun rights to proposals for religiously specific immigration laws from “certain quarters” instead of how as human beings we stand in solidarity: we hurt together but we will heal together too. I didn’t want to be another Muslim that felt like she had to stand up and condemned this atrocity “as a Muslim” so I kept silent. But the truth is, my allies—my Muslim community’s greatest ally— have been the LGBTQIA community. For years, our respective struggles have been the same as we fight for basic rights in an unreceptive environment—I can’t claim to share this struggle and remain silent. For those of you affected right now, your pain is my pain and may what strength I have be yours at this time as yours has been mine.
So as silly as it seems, I finally went out, after a week and a half of just thinking about it and not finding the time and bought myself ice cream. Self-care, I’ve learned, is as much or as little as we can do for ourselves to just check in, remind ourselves that it’s okay if we need time for processing. It’s okay if we just need to not process just now. It’s okay if we decide we’ll explore these complicated feelings more deeply with a carton of vegan Chunky Monkey.
I apologize if this blog post makes anyone feel uncomfortable, or seems like I am taking a serious subject matter too lightly. For myself, and for all of us really, we process the same event differently whether it be our unique backgrounds or experiences. I welcome anyone to speak up and call me out—I’m willing to listen, and I hope you are too.
When I was learning about geometry, the adage “all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares” was thrown around quite a bit. This summer my own mantra is tattooed in my mind the way the outline of all the countries of the world is tattooed on the top of my boss Charlotte’s foot: to be black is to be a person of color, but not all persons of color are black.
I grew up in a idyllic small town in the suburbs of New Jersey with large houses on hills and a population as diverse as a bag of rice. As someone put it for me once, I was a “cocoa puff in a bowl full of rice krispies”. Much like class or money, we grew up learning that race was a topic you do not talk about, but the fact that I was an Indian girl in a white town was brought up subtly and consistently. Never more so than when I was told, “oh, but you’re practically white” regularly. Almost, but not quite, and no amount of the right clothes or a voice devoid of an accent could ever close that gap between myself and the speaker.
Unlike how I was raised for 20 years, race is brought up daily at my summer job at Code in the Schools, a local Baltimore nonprofit whose aim is to bring computer science education to the under served and under represented youth in the city. Charlotte, the communications director, recounts how a black man with an enormous pitbull was about to go into her house to see her roommate as she was exiting and she jumped. “I had to go back and tell him two months later that it was because of the dog, not because he’s black. Why would I be afraid of him because he’s black? I’m not afraid of myself.” Someone else is trying to get new grants and mentions rich, white donors, and in particular, a cool rich, white, donor who talks to his other rich, white, donor buddies and says “here are some awesome people doing great things for kids who don’t look like us. We should help out.”
Race is brought up so much in part because of the CitS mission. As our executive director, Gretchen, a petite woman with trendy tech glasses and long blonde hair says, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. This summer, I’m helping CitS coordinate a 5 week coding bootcamp for 17-21 year olds in Baltimore, and we’re bringing in panelists every Friday to talk about their careers. Charlotte repeats Gretchen’s words at a meeting we take with Betamore, a “hub for entrepeneurship and education”, to throw around ideas about who could be featured on career panels. On the venn diagram of Charlotte’s names and Betamore’s there is little overlap. Betamore wants to bring in celebrated white names in the tech sector. Charlotte almost exclusively mentions black entrepreneurs from the Baltimore community and beyond. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and these kids need to see themselves up there in these panels, talking about their strides in tech and entrepreneurship.
I feel some solidarity in all of this. I am not white, so I can relate with all the talk about “rich, white, dudes”, I think. I, too, can sit at the table and talk about not being white and add my own field notes that I’ve collected over the years. My darker skin gives me this free pass here I assume. I feel like I fit in. Until I don’t.
I start to realize it within the office. A man comes into the office to discuss the documentary he’s filming about women of color in tech. There’s no quick darting look my way, like the ones my friends shoot me for a millisecond if someone mentions an Indian person and I’m around. I expect the same look when he says “women of color”. I figure this doesn’t happen because everyone in the meeting has dark skin. I mention I’m studying engineering and think maybe he’ll want to talk to me about being a woman of color in tech but no questions come my way about my experiences.
Outside, when I’m waiting for my JHMI back to campus, a man in a vibrant blue shirt a long dreads says hi. He stops by my bench and asks “what are you?” This is actually the second person to ask. A woman that same morning had asked me the same thing as I was getting off the JHMI to go to work. “I like your dress,” she said, “and also, what are you?”
“What am I?” I ask the man, to clarify, even though I know exactly what he’s asking. “What are you? What are you? Like black, white, whatever, what are you?” he repeats. I don’t fit into the two options he gave me so I tell him. He seems surprised.
I have another moment of realizing I don’t quite fit in when I have a conversation with a woman at work about BAMF café, a locale which has cartoons of all kinds of superheroes crowding their walls. “Yeah, I like the food there,” she tells me, “but I have a problem with the fact that there aren’t more action figures of color on the walls.”
“You should say something,” I tell her. And she says that she will never. I almost say that I’ll say something. I have color in my skin, too, don’t I? But I don’t interject. I’ve heard a lot about the savior complex lately and I’m 20. I don’t think I know enough to swoop in and save anyone just yet.
“I won’t tell them. I need a white person to tell them for me for them to change anything,” she says, matter of factly. “If I tell them, sure, they’ll feel awkward, but that awkward isn’t going to make them do anything. And I can educate black people about black people, but I don’t think it’s my place to educate white people about black people.”
That’s when a realization hits me. I understand what it’s like not to be white. But I don’t understand what it’s like to be black. I feel at a loss. I am not a black woman who can stand in solidarity with her and say, “yes, superheroes who look like us should be seen.” I am not a white woman who can talk to the storeowners and say that the walls are washed in white, we should change this. In Baltimore, there seems to be black and white. There isn’t really an in between. But here I am. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so I don’t know what role I’ll play in all of this just yet. But I know by the end of the summer I’ll have found that out.