2017 Week Four: Criminal Justice & Government Agencies
Working for the government is strange. I remember hearing the names of non-profit after non-profit being announced during orientation week, collecting in my mind a list of places my peers would be working over the summer. “The government’s policies oppress us,” was one of the running themes of the week — rightfully so. It was the same thing that lied in the subtext of what Paul, who took us on the Injustice Walk, said with each municipal building we passed or the parks, trails, areas that the city patrolled (so, everywhere). They actively worked to make people experiencing homelessness feel unwelcome, whether that was signage, regulations, or police.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but the Benton Building on 417 E Fayette St., where the Department of Planning is located, has a paper sign on the front door that says “No Public Restrooms”. I walk through this door 3/7 days of the week, but I’d never noticed it before. This was one of the symbols that discouraged entry from people experiencing homelessness.
I am realizing there are many things I’ve never noticed before. I actually seem to forget that Baltimore is a city on the water whose manufacturing and business base used to center on that very physical characteristic of the city. I went to Fell’s Point on Wednesday to watch a movie on the pier, and more apparent to me ever were the brilliantly ivory colored neon lights that spelled “UNDERARMOUR”, all caps, all intimidating, all overwatching the city from afar. Was this new? I had never noticed it before.
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting things that I’ve done in Zeke’s office is be his “voice.” By running his Facebook and Twitter accounts, I’ve tried my hand at mimicking and channeling my inner Zeke in “WWZD” (“What Would Zeke Do?”) kinds of moments.
The other day, I was innocuously drafting a Facebook post about a community cleanup event that Zeke was hosting with District 13’s Councilwoman Sneed. I think I wrote something pretty basic in the opening line, something along the lines of, “We can all do little things to help create a cleaner, greener Baltimore.”
The next day, he called the interns into a mysterious meeting and told us that we are his voices in the community, his front-line staff. He wanted to make sure we were all on the same page in terms of how we communicated to his constituents. I realized this meeting was about my less-than-satisfactory wording in the Facebook post.
Our office often gets phone calls where white residents continue to push our office for zero-tolerance policing and harsher sentences as answers to the violence in Baltimore — all these things which I personally believe breed fear and fracture any sort of understanding. In that meeting, Zeke told us that we have to constantly communicate to constituents that our office is trying break apart segregation in Baltimore. Predominantly white District 1 teaming up with predominantly black District 13 to beautify neighborhoods in Baltimore is an example of that.
That day, I went back and changed the first line of the social media post: “My office is committed to building bridges across lines of difference.”
At that meeting — which was supposed to be 10 minutes but stretched out into an hour — I began to reflect on what it means to intern for a councilman whose constituents are primarily white in a predominantly black city. I remember going through CIIP orientation and feeling a little bit of anxiety at the fact that my internship catered towards people in the “white L.” District 1, home to Canton, Little Italy, and Fell’s Point among many others. I was desperately itching to feel some sense of fulfillment and have a hand in chipping away at the racial, social, and economic inequalities that plagued Baltimore. How could I do that if I wasn’t out there in the trenches? Would I just be watching from my ivory tower, City Hall?
I’ve realized from this social media post incident that it’s about creating an ideological shift within people who don’t necessarily see the other side. Yes, we can continue to try and eliminate food deserts and invest in Baltimore’s children, but as long as the ideological power dynamic between black and white exists in Baltimore, true equity won’t exist. I think we start leveling out the playing field by consistently trying to convince more privileged Baltimoreans to see the underlying issues of crime – racism, poverty, and segregation. And as I see it, the answers to those things aren’t incarceration and more police. It’s rehabilitation, support, counseling, and understanding.
So yes, of course bike lanes in Canton are a huge deal to District 1. And yes, districts with more black residents are less vocal. Many of them can’t care about issues like that when they can barely feed their families. It’s just not a priority.
On the flip side, I can’t begrudge people for not wanting to talk about racism and segregation. When there’s crime in Baltimore and you feel that you and your family is not safe, it’s hard to think about things like that. But I’m glad that Zeke’s office continues to be progressive and pushes me to think about whiteness and blackness in Baltimore critically. I can only hope to understand where I — neither black nor white — fit into this puzzle.
As we move past the midpoint of the CIIP experience, I find myself tired of talking.
To be clear, I’m not tired of ALL kinds of talking – chatting with my YouthWorkers continues to be one of my greatest joys and shooting the breeze with my friends at the end of a long day is my favorite way to unwind.
Instead of saying that I’m tired of talking, I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’m tired of having the same conversation with the same people over and over again.
After having given the stump speech about my work at YouthWorks for the umpteenth time with someone in the cohort, after having explained my hopes and my frustrations, after having shown them a beautiful picture of my YouthWorkers and told them how precious they are to me, I’m asked to be more specific about the challenges that my youth are facing. I politely refuse in the interest of confidentiality. They want to engage me in a conversation about how hard it must be to live as a poor inner-city kid, but I find myself so completely drained and devoid of the motivation to continue.
In social justice contexts, I have found that it is nearly impossible to avoid talking in circles about the injustice that the marginalized face every day. I participate in these conversations in part because I fear leaving my voice unheard, and in part because I feel that I should. But the truth is that I’m exhausted and bored. I don’t want to talk about why it’s important to recognize prejudice anymore – I already know, I’ve known for a long time, and I’m working on it. I don’t want to talk about the forces standing in the way of my YouthWorkers, I want to do something for them.
Maybe I’m tired because I am at a loss. What comes next? I can work on my personal prejudice for the rest of my life, and I will. I can gently call other out when I see traces of their respective prejudices, and I will. But I would be lying if I said that I would be happy with just that. The conversation is the beginning, not the end, and it feels pointless to keep having it, to keep restarting instead of moving forward. The people involved in social justice aren’t the ones who desperately need a listening ear – my kids are in far greater need of a good listener. Maybe I’m tired because I’ve exhausted my ears on my YouthWorkers; even though it’s unfair of me, I find their energetic and unadulterated truths more compelling than a predictable and repetitive exchange of platitudes.
As I throw myself headlong into the work, I find the satisfaction that can only come from touching lives through quietly doing something worthwhile. My work with my YouthWorkers, which will only last a short five weeks, should feel small in comparison to the grandiose and lofty discussions of all-encompassing systems and internalized –isms. It doesn’t. It feels immense, pleasantly all-consuming in the way that only good work can be, no matter its scale.
I think the real reason I feel so tired of talking is because I’m finally doing. And frankly, doing feels so much more meaningful in comparison. So yes, my week was absolutely wonderful and fulfilling in every way that you can think of. Forgive me if I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve spent every last ounce of my energy doing my best for the people who need me.Tags: 2017, CIIP, CIIP 2017, City Hall, Councilman Zeke Cohen, Made in Baltimore, Mayor's Office of Employment Development, Office of Sustainability, Week Four, Youthworks