2017 Week One: Homelessness, Poverty, & Neighborhood Improvement
What does working in a nonprofit look like? Googling: “does enamel based paint expire?” (spoiler: it can last up to 10 years unopened, and about 2 years opened if stored properly). This Thursday was my first full day at the community center. I was doing outreach for the upcoming speaker series event, sending formal emails to anyone and everyone that may have a good network for promoting the event. From there, it was random stuff, like trying to find a locksmith to open an old filing cabinet that had been donated to us. I was also wracking my brain for icebreakers and intro activities for our incoming YouthWorkers, 5 high school-aged interns whose work, and fulfillment in the program, will be partly my responsibility. I was sitting at my desk, though, just feeling tired. Yes, of course this stuff is important, but after an exciting orientation learning about Baltimore, and about interacting with its various communities, sitting at my desk googling different things just wasn’t fulfilling.
Later that day, though, my supervisor Elyse and I headed upstairs to clear some things out of a closet. Immediately I felt more energized—I was up out of my chair, moving around, doing stuff for real. As we went through different closets, I came across so much: stacks of books, for adults and children, that hadn’t been read or touched. An entire closet of scientific equipment—some boxes of pipet tips and micro tubes still shrink-wrapped, even a giant incubator the size of a washing machine. (And, yes, there was a whole shelf of enamel paints that we’ll be throwing out.) I started realizing different ways that we could move, display, and use a lot of things. I started coming up with plans, bouncing things off of Elyse.
Before Thursday, I had been going to orientation with Strong City Baltimore, a larger nonprofit that the community center is a part of, which is dedicated to community organizing. I remembered something that another Strong City supervisor, K.C., had mentioned a couple days before. “In community organizing” she told us, “you don’t have these finite goals that you’re hitting every week or month. You’re just inching along, working towards a goal that you really can’t see. But this is the important stuff.”
I reminded myself of that as I stood in a large closet, figuring out what to do with a bunch of PVC pipes. There are so many things to be done, and so many things that I can do. I may not be working towards quantifiable, I may just be inching along. But this is the important stuff.
This Thursday, Adriana (Eastside organizer for United Workers) and I drove over to East Baltimore to visit folks in the Berea and McElderry Park neighborhoods. We stopped to talk to Brother Reggie, a leader in the New Lebanon Cavalry Baptist Church. Brother Reggie spends his summer days sitting on his stoop, chatting and waving at passersby whom he knows. Brother Reggie knows everyone.
We talked some of Brother Reggie’s activities in the community. He and another churchgoer drive to the Baltimore Farmers Market under I-83, buy produce, and donate it to residents of the neighborhood. Brother Reggie spent a couple minutes listing the types of fruits and vegetables they distribute–it’s almost as if they buy up half the stands at the market and transplant them to East Baltimore.
As we were talking, a young man named Andre walked past. Brother Reggie greeted him, of course, and Adriana called him over to talk about his clothing line and the youth sports program he was trying to start. It wasn’t going well. His access to transportation is unreliable at best. If he framed his efforts as bringing something that had worked elsewhere, he lamented, everyone would love it. But no one likes ideas that come out of East Baltimore.
The backdrop to these conversations was the Powers That Be in Baltimore–the Hopkins Medical campus loomed on the hill overlooking the neighborhood, slowly creeping eastward. Hopkins, the City, and a few developers hold on to blighted, abandoned properties in the area, occasionally rehabbing and selling them for a price far beyond the reach of anyone in McElderry Park or Berea. This process slowly displaces residents, mostly renters, in the name of “development.” But they ignore people like Andre and Brother Reggie, who do the hard, slow, thankless work of providing resources (like fresh produce and recreation spaces) and developing and organizing their community to find long-term solutions from the grassroots level.
“Hey do you remember me from last summer?”
“Yeah! You’re the one intern that looks like coach Hubbard. I thought you were bald?”
“Yeah, I grew my hair out. I look forward to seeing you again this summer.”
My first week back at the Living Classrooms Patterson Park site has been the calm before the storm of summer camp, where fifty middle school students put the extremity of their puberty-driven hormones under the responsibility of us interns and summer camp advisors. It gets intense, but it is very fun.
I’ve spent the week filling out paperwork for camp applications and the different facilities and centers that will be supporting us in providing productive and thrilling activities for the youth of Patterson Park. Unlike last year, I came into my first week on the job without any specific agendas to fulfill. My mindset is different. Last summer I was very pressed on getting a dance club among youth and their parents at the Park. I didn’t succeed and only took away time from fulfilling the core functions of the summer camp. Not to say that I didn’t get my job done. But this year I want to feel the corners first and create an agenda based on the programs that my supervisor and co-interns are already pushing. Let’s see if it’ll work!
I thought I was paying for an Uber from BWI to campus, but I ended up receiving the most succinct and enlightening advice of my life. In between yelling at me for eating in the car and calling airport security a string of expletives, my driver casually turned around and said to me, “your life will always be in transition in one way or another and the sooner you accept that, the more you will enjoy it.”
It seems the summer is the transitionary season for adolescents. With a new school year approaching and plenty of activities to fill the time, the blissful months of June to August always leave me a little tanner and wiser. Last summer, I never would have imagined being capable of moving away from my small community in Indiana. People never seem to leave my hometown, a place that will always be the source of a wonderful childhood but now seems worlds away. When I got into my Uber, I referred to my flight to Baltimore as my return. Yes. My life has certainly been in transition.
At the Franciscan Center, many of the individuals and families we work with find themselves in crisis. Oftentimes, they are experiencing homelessness, suffering from illness, or without a job. On any given day, we serve up to 700 different people, all with their own stories to tell. It’s an emotionally overwhelming experience. I wake each day a little bit nervous. I love serving meals in the kitchen, but dread the moment when someone asks me for seconds and I have to say no. It’s incredible to help someone use a computer to apply for a job, but I got choked up when a man told me he had applied for 20 different positions with no response. My rural, middle-class hometown faced vastly different problems.
We are all in transition. For vulnerable populations, condition is often falsely equated with identity. As I look into each individual’s eyes, I see pain but I see growth. The synergy found within the Franciscan Center has carried me through the difficult first week. I relentlessly believe in the power of people committed to equity, service, and social justice. I hope that as I transition into an even more dedicated student, I have the opportunity to help someone in their own transition. No. It is not where we come from, it is where we are going (and according to my Uber driver, where we are going is forward).
I was a one hour late on my first day. I woke up both nervous and excited at 7:30 am, which was well before my internship started at 10 am. I caught the MTA bus to Mondawmin mall and waited there for my next bus. My journey to United Way of Maryland was supposed to take about an hour, but I was determined to be there on time. I stood there in the heat for 40 minutes, constantly checking my Transit app that would say that the bus was 5 minutes away before it disappeared off the map. When a bus passed by with a big 51 on the front, I jumped in relieved that it finally showed up. But when it stopped at its last bus-stop quite some time later, I realized I was in Reisterstown – the complete opposite side of the city from my site. Ugh.
I was also fasting because CIIP this year coincided with Ramadan. That meant I was dehydrated, hungry and most importantly super decaffeinated. At that point, it was already 10 am. You get the picture.
Besides that rocky start, I’ve enjoyed my first week at UWM. I learned a lot about the logistics behind the upcoming Project Homeless Connect event in the fall. PHC is an annual resource fair that serves over 2000 people experiencing homelessness, where they can get free medical and dental care, eyeglasses, ID-cards, legal help, haircuts, clothes, and much more. My supervisor is also trying to move a few homeless families into permanent supportive housing, and I helped by finding some affordable housing options in Harford county and setting up apartment tours. I was also tasked to take over the official PHC email and to sort through months of old unopened email. There was an email sent in January by a woman asking about dental care resources because she severely needed to get three extractions done but was unable to afford the treatment without insurance. I wrote her back and apologized for the long delay and forwarded her over to UWM’s 2-1-1 line. She replied within minutes by thanking me and sending me her blessings. I felt so sad thinking about the pain she must have been in for over 6 months, and how she appreciated such a small gesture really touched me. I’m looking forward to taking on a bigger role in the upcoming weeks and to address homelessness in Baltimore more directly.
The main focus of this week at YES was to prepare for their open house on Friday. I volunteered to take photographs for the event, and with that, I was tasked with promoting an organization that I was just starting to get comfortable with. There were a ton of people there, including activists, councilmen, donors, members of the advisory board, one of the founders of YES, and one of my former professors. Each offered me a unique perspective of how YES has evolved since its inception, and how it benefits the community.
The words that stood out most to me at this event, however, came from one of the youth. This individual had gotten a job through one of the programs she was connected to at YES, and gave a speech about her journey. She started her speech by emphasizing how much everyone at YES cares. She said that at YES, you can walk in and be greeted by a “Hi, how are you?”. She talked about how powerful that was, to have someone to would ask how you’re doing, and who would care about your answer. She repeated, throughout her speech, that YES cares, that they are a family. They won’t just give you food and wish you the best, they’ll ask how you’re feeling, what your goals are, and will support you in reaching those goals.
That speech made me really proud to stand there, and honored to work with people who care so much about the often overlooked members of their community. Even in one short week, I have seen how the staff at YES go above and beyond to support the youth, whether it be driving them to get glasses, helping them move, or dropping furniture off at their place. I am glad I was able to be there for the open house program during my first week. It emphasized how vital and unique YES is to the community, while also touching on how much more is needed to be done to address the issues surrounding homelessness and the neglected youth in Baltimore.
Walking into the office on the first day, I realized quickly I was the only white person working at Martha’s Place. It’s not something you want to admit you notice. Everyone wants to pretend they’re “”color-blind””, but it’s still something you notice. My skin tone stuck out unnaturally, and while the employees of Martha’s Place never said anything, every resident I met commented on it. Every resident knew that I wouldn’t know their slang, that I had grown up in a separate world, and that I’d probably never been to this area of Baltimore before.
They were very right.
Nervous and uncomfortable, I began the steep learning curve. Needing to understand the references residents made, the slang and abbreviations that were commonplace, and the way the residents, as well as staff, expected me to behave. After every conversation, I left with more questions than answers. Every few minutes I was trying to discretely Google something on my desktop, trying to make sure I was following the treatment plans, the steps of rehabilitation, or the most recent movie everyone had seen that I hadn’t know existed. It felt like I was expected to participate in the conversation, without knowing what language was being spoken. As the week progressed, I understood more and more. I realized that my goal wasn’t just to connect and learn from my boss, the staff, and the residents. My goal was to learn the language. To learn what people discussed when going through recovery programs. To learn the effects of substance abuse, beyond the statistics and science which is discussed in class.
At first, I wanted to pretend I understood the language. I tried to seem as if I fit in and knew the slang. Googling everything, and smiling and nodding when I didn’t understand. While I could almost get away with it, I wasn’t fully following. I started to admit I knew nothing. I learned the most when I could laugh and concede that I had no clue what was going on. It made the residents more comfortable, and it allowed me a chance to honestly connect and learn from them. It wasn’t worth the effort trying to pretend like I came from the world I didn’t, or that I had knowledge I didn’t. It didn’t help anyone. It was just so much better when I could laugh at myself, acknowledge my “white-ness”, and ask what the terms meant.Tags: 2017, 29th Street Community Center, CIIP, CIIP 2017, Franciscan Center, Living Classrooms, Martha's Place, Patterson Park, Project Homeless Connect, United Way of Maryland, United Workers, Week One, Youth Empowerment Society