2017 Week One: Criminal Justice & Government Agencies
Towering buildings merged with an endless green landscape on the horizon each time I looked out of my office window. The air was still and quiet, interrupted solely by the buzzing of the printer in the adjacent copy room. There was a sense of peace that would replete my body with each long breath as I spent my hour-long break gazing across the city, seeing the world through a lens void of the problems and heartbreak I witnessed each day.
On my way to work, I would sit on the Charm-City Circulator surrounded by people busy with their unique bustling thoughts, calculating how to pay the rent and afford the groceries, wondering what their contingencies would be if something, anything went wrong with their strictly budgeted lives.
“Apartments swinging up everywhere” one elderly black woman whispered to me on Wednesday morning, wondering if the stranger in the suit would respond or ignore her, “soon everyone will have someplace to live in the city.” I turned and smiled brightly as I responded, “One can hope. Where do you work?”
She looked up, excited to share her story and quick to impart her experienced wisdom with someone who was ready to listen. “I work for the government, but they only have me working three days a week. It’s not enough; it’s not nearly enough, so I’m going into the city to find another job cause I’m going to be ready when those three days become zero. I’m going to go to a six-week nursing program here, then I’m going to do a one-and-a-half-year program in D.C.; then I’ll be a registered nurse and I can do better for myself. I always have a plan; that’s what you have to do: always have a plan.”
The bus stopped at Saratoga, and I prepared to get off, “I wish you luck with everything,” I said.
When I looked out of the window that day, the woman disappeared in the vastness of an eleventh-floor view, but I knew she was there. Her story might be a small part of my view, but it was her whole world.
As I continue to work at FreeState, I want to keep this understanding in mind: while my work is an invisible part of a massive world, each task I take may grant new opportunities and hope to the people I serve. I may not change the world, but I can change the world of some people.
Rasheed Aziz sits across from me as we spin in cushy swivel chairs in a room filled only with six industrial sewing machines, assorted pieces of cloth, webs of thread, and one orange and purple T-shirt paying homage to the city’s sports teams. In my hand I’m holding a plastic cup with the last little bit of syrup from the mango strawberry swirled sorbet made in the kitchen downstairs.
Rasheed’s style of talking is quite garrulous, which is good because I didn’t have much to say–each day has been more sitting, listening, and learning about what is at the front of Baltimore makers’ and manufacturers’ minds. Within it, he begins talking about his industrial sewing certification program, running a business and workforce development program in Baltimore, and being based in Under Armour’s incubator space; he speaks of Baltimore in a light I had never heard before — as being founded and based in manufacturing.
It’s kind of spooky. Here we are: Andy, who runs the Made in Baltimore program (and is always handily equipped with an iPad, his phone, and a Write Baltimore notebook), and I, sitting in a black brick building behind City Garage, Kevin Plank’s incubators to foster brain children like his very own Under Armour. Where does the future of Baltimore lie? Perhaps it is in the maker spaces and threads of textiles.
This first week has been a lot of meetings, sharing of ideas, disagreement, and I hope that it is paving the pathway for growth–for the city, its workforce, its businesses, and myself.
P.S. Working in government is hard.
I listened in on a focus group in Living Classrooms with thirteen returning citizens. The following blog post is comprised of distinct moments from this experience.
“I would give my life just to sustain my mother’s for one hour,” Joe says.
Joe runs an organization called Living Classrooms, which employs returning citizens and offers them a space to meet people with similar experiences, vent about tribulations, and gain different kinds of opportunities.
I respond with a simple, “I love my mom too. She’s my best friend.”
Joe smiles at me and we move on. Joe and I have incredibly different lives, but we share something so simple, love for our mothers. Joe was imprisoned for thirty years. He is a native of Baltimore. He is currently married and has kids. Joe dedicates his life to serving returning citizens because when he was released, he did not have much support. He only survived because of his family, mainly because of his mother.
Darren looks me in the eye and says,
“My son was murdered three weeks before I was released. I was supposed to be released right before his 21st birthday. But money got in the way, and I couldn’t get my parole in time. I had to wait a few more weeks, and in that time my son was killed. If I had been out, I know he would be with me now.”
Darren continues, “I lose someone about once every week. You know where I am going after this meeting? I am going to see my nephew’s body. Sometimes I think I would rather be with my son.”
I start to cry, but he does not. I have always been an easy crier.
I look to my left and I see tattoos covering Darren’s arms:
They leave and walk to their second jobs, shelters, or apartment complexes if they are lucky. I get in an Uber back to Hopkins.
“Imagine having to go to school and get good grades when just the other day, you saw a family member die from a gunshot wound,” Mr. Barrett said.
This week, I visited the Boys and Girls Club in O’Donnell Heights with one of Councilman Zeke Cohen’s community liaisons. I heard these words spoken by someone who worked at the community center. I felt my stomach twist in knots. I was in neighborhood where young children faced crime and violence on an everyday basis, and there I was representing the government that was supposed to help them.
After World War II, O’Donnell Heights went from being a place where wartime workers lived to where black people were forced into public housing. As Mr. Barrett said those words, I stood there thinking: how could government do enough? How could it unravel all the damage done by people of authority, which went back decades? My mind was racing. I knew that Councilman Cohen’s office was doing its best to build community by bolstering youth programming and trying to vouch for initiatives that could support the neighborhood’s kids. But at that moment, I felt hopeless.
I also felt my cheeks grow hot with the flush of shame. Here I was, a Hopkins student who enjoyed endless resources and had a well-paid summer internship. My biggest worry until this summer had been my plans after I finished my education. For most of my 20 years, I hadn’t dared to hear the stories of people who could not even dream of this future. Not because they were incapable, but because they had to fight tooth and nail against forces such as systemic racism, which left them in the dust.
While it has only been my first week at City Hall, I feel that my eyes have been opened to the wide range of concerns that Baltimoreans have. I’ve done everything from answering phone calls in which constituents were frustrated over broken sidewalks, to visiting O’Donnell Heights and witnessing the stark disparities between neighborhoods situated right next to each other in Baltimore. I’ve also seen that while our office can reach out to different government departments and press them to act, due to the sheer number of things that must be addressed and the logistics of bureaucracy, government is unfortunately set up to be a slow toil rather than an efficient, forward march.
Community members have come to us and said, “Word is out that Zeke Cohen gets things done.” I think they say this because our office is really trying to bridge the gap — no, more like chasm — between local government and the community. We try to answer every concern with care and empathy, and pay attention to neighborhoods like O’Donnell Heights which have long been neglected. And that’s vital. However, I’m under no illusion that there isn’t more to be done. Though I’m just an intern, I truly hope that I’ll soon carve out my own space in City Hall. All hands have to be on deck in order to even scratch the surface of what’s been going on in Charm City for so, so long.
The past week has given me plenty of time to reflect about myself and about where I am in life, and to think about my goals for personal growth.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be home.
There’s a very real fear that I have, a fear of being away from my family. My childhood was one characterized by uprooting, and the word “home” has always eluded me – when it slipped off my tongue in casual conversation, it sounded off in the same way that calling Amma “my mom” or calling Acha “my dad” felt wrong. It was just as awkward as using my sister or brother’s given names (“Anjana” and “Satjeev”) instead of their nicknames (“Anjaichi” and “Unni”). It was a word that just didn’t belong in my family’s lexicon, or at least didn’t mean the same thing that it meant for most people. When I talk about home, I don’t speak of a place. My parents, my siblings, the warmth that fills me when I am with them, that has always been home to me. I am so used to packing up and moving on and abandoning and being abandoned that I don’t have a sense of safety or stability until I am with my family.
But leaving the comfort and familiarity of family is a simple fact of growing up, and I am coming to realize that I will need to find a home elsewhere. I have a car, I have an internship, and I have freedom from the academic pressure cooker of the school year. So I want to use this summer as a chance to find my place in Baltimore, and a sense of home within myself. Over the past week, Jon has taken me to a bunch of places and it has opened my eyes to the possibilities, to the sheer concentration of incredible nooks full of wonderful people packed into every neighborhood of this city.
In a very desperate and almost pathetic way, I want to be a part of it. I am tired of the placelessness and the itinerancy. I want to know and be known somewhere, and I want to be able to call that somewhere home.
So I’m here now, I’ve gotten the slightest taste of what the city has to offer, and I’m ready for (Balti)more!Tags: 2017, CIIP, CIIP 2017, City Hall, Councilman Zeke Cohen, Freestate Justice, Made in Baltimore, Mayor's Office of Employment Development, Office of Sustainability, Out for Justice, Week One, Youthworks