2016 Week Two: Neighborhood Improvement
This week, I spent my time getting my lesson plans done for the students in the summer program that begins next week. As my co-teacher and I sat down to review the lesson plans we had made, she mentioned wanting to restructure a “behavior chart” that she had previously made which demonstrated the behavior of the students throughout the day. I came up with a brand new idea for a visual and began explaining it to her. As I unraveled my idea her face, which had begun as a smile, drooped with concern. I had mentioned making a behavior board in the style of Candy Land, but with Baltimore landmarks such as Camden Yards, The National Aquarium, and other kid friendly locations. Her face had fallen because she realized that not everyone in the class would know of these famous landmarks. Her voice changed dramatically as she reminded me that many of these kids were not privileged enough to even be able to recognize them. I knew this going into the program but realized how easily I forgot. Negligence got the best of me as I have the ability to remove myself daily from what the community members of Reservoir Hill refer to themselves as “The Hood.” I have come to the realization that my “privilege” is not something that I can really use to relate to those who are simply trying to survive the conditions they have been engulfed in. I very rarely feel as though I am so lucky to even be alive today, when the members of the community say this on a daily basis. On a separate occasion, my site supervisor and I were having a conversation where, very plainly, me told me that my job this summer is to show these kids that there is far more out there beyond just trying to survive. Then it occurred to me that many of the youth I will be working with may not have ever even thought about going to college, since they feel as though they are lucky to be alive after receiving a High School Diploma. I then felt even more hopeless that my privilege would continue to plague my ability to help the youth in a meaningful way. Then I became conscious of the fact that the biggest reason I am even able to work at the center and try and make a difference in the Reservoir Hill Community is because I am privileged. Without dedicated and more privileged people, there would be no one to help those in need. Privilege is not something that many control before a certain age, but it is the values you develop that truly shape who you are in the end.
“What are you doing?” Be-Bop says, leaning away from his computer games and peering onto my screen.
“I’m writing a flyer.” I say, scooting over so he can balance himself on my armrest. “Wanna read it?”
I am familiar with the concept of Baltimore’s schools being underfunded and inefficient. In the words of many Baltimore residents, they’re just “bad”. But I was unprepared to be confronted by what “bad” meant in Barclay: a child going into the second grade unable to sound out the word “fun” at the top of a flyer.
I bring up this incident with my supervisor, Ms. Lottie, and she reveals to me that in Barclay many children read below their grade level or are unable to read. This is not a new phenomenon: some of the parents we provide employment services to are semiliterate or illiterate. Barclay has been impacted by decades of the Baltimore City Public School system’s failures.
As summer begins, Ms. Lottie and I scramble to find free camps to keep the children occupied. After filling a free arts camp in two days, we move on to recruiting for a free summer sports camp. Again, spaces are incredibly limited.
Keeping the children occupied is something that Ms. Lottie worries about constantly. She takes me to Greenmount Rec Center, one of the few remaining after Stephanie Rawlings Blake shut down over 20 centers in 2013. The rec center is small, dark and full of broken equipment. It is adjacent to a city-owned abandoned building. Ms. Lottie dreams of improvements, but the Parks and Rec Department is impossible to work with. Despite having earned a $20,000 grant to paint a mural on the Rec Center, for months Ms. Lottie has been unable to arrange a meeting between the artist and Parks and Rec due to the department’s unresponsiveness.
For teenagers in the neighborhood, the summer is bleak. Too old for camps and unenthusiastic about the dilapidated rec center on an abandoned block, many face months of video games and boredom. Most of the teenagers did not make it through YouthWork’s bureaucracy, but Ms. Lottie is able to secure a few boys jobs at Boone Street Farm. She reminiscences about a group of teenagers she mentored in 2008, who led a door-knocking campaign to save rec centers and took trips to DC and New York. Although she is retiring next year, she would like to plant to seed for a similar program in Barclay before she leaves.
I was unprepared for how emotional it would be for me to interact with something as universally accepted as the failure of the Baltimore City Public School system. I am not a person that feels anger very frequently, but this is how I feel about our city denying curious, bright-eyed, intelligent children the education they deserve. Nine months of immersion in the utopic Hopkins campus allowed myself to push this anger out of my mind. I am so thankful that my CIIP placement has brought me back to reality.