2018 Orientation: Neighborhood
Humility, and the ability to listen. And more importantly, putting that ability into action. Out of all that we touched upon at CIIP Orientation, these two themes have affected me most, in a subtle and almost semi-conscious way, embedding themselves in the attitude with which I’m ready to approach my work and which is, at least, much more conscious.
I want to unpack what those two things might mean. In the contexts we have heard them and from the people we have heard them this week. Be humble, and listen. They might have become clichés, for all we may have heard them up to this point in our lives. They certainly could have for me. But every time I heard those things, whether in so many words or in the message implicit in an action or activity, they retained the quality of my being told something I didn’t quite know. Such it is with reminders. They tell us what we knew once, or sometimes know, but that we forget, or have forgotten how to, or no longer put into practice.
What matters is who is doing the reminding. What matters is that it is Kim Trueheart who speaks, that it is Sheila and Natalya and Brian who lead the interactive theater workshop, that it is Blair from YES and Joe from Liberty Elementary who answer questions as panelists.
What they remind me of, and what I hear, in their experiences, their advice, and their presence, is that this work is about facing, and coming to know, people, and not my preconceived or my quickly formed notions of who and what they are. As Hopkins students, we are repeatedly told how talented and unique and capable we are. And it’s not necessarily that those things aren’t the case (suspend that discussion for now), but they become tied to education. The message is “you got into Hopkins because you are talented, unique, and capable.” But what is it that allowed my particular skills and abilities to be noticed? Who is noticing, and why are they noticing me?
The implicit connection between education and personal capabilities, in the kind of speeches and statements our president and provosts deliver, glosses over the complicated way different factors have interacted in order to lead up to this point. That they weave together like threads in a fiber; no one is clearly visible on its own, and they together build upon each other and constitute the fiber. The advantages I have had cannot be separated from the history of my arriving at where I am now. We do not live in a meritocracy.
Be humble, and listen-it is perhaps a way of saying, confront your biases. See who has not been served by this masquerade of a meritocracy in the ways that I have been, and see how much they give, how much they are anyway. Humility is not dismissing your own capabilities; what are you doing here if you’re not going to contribute? Listening, real listening, is much more difficult than knowing (or thinking you know) a problem exists, and affirming that you do when another brings it up.
These conjoined reminders challenge me, personally, to continue to resist the message that has been chiseled into my head since I attended elementary school, that education and capability go together, and that one always in some way leads to the other. Where “education” means not what a person has learned, but is the unspoken stamp of approval of an institution that ‘people’ will respect. One wonders why these ‘people’ frequently seem to be CEOs of large corporations. More seriously, one has to question, too, why our cultural conception of education so often excludes a person’s lived experience.
Of course, I ‘know’ that education and capability do not go together in this way. I can say it to myself, hold it up to the light like a scrap of paper with clearly printed letters. My hope for this summer is that when I meet someone new, I don’t let myself fall into easy conduits of perception, but encounter him, or her, or them, as a whole person.
In my second CIIP orientation, I had the opportunity to approach old material from last year’s orientation after having done community-based work in Baltimore for a year, and as a mentor and teacher. This both reinforced my understanding of the social issues I work on and challenged me to expand my social consciousness.
When Rev. Dr. Heber Brown spoke on Monday, he challenged us to think critically about what our work this summer will actually change about the world. What root causes, or “upstream” problems, are creating the conditions that our work deals with? For example, if I’m working at a food bank, what systemic issues make it so that people don’t have enough food? Then, he asked us to think about how we can use our work to instigate a systemic revolution to eliminate the upstream causes of poverty, hunger, and more. My work with United Workers for the past year has focused on systemic reasons for homelessness and housing insecurity, and I believe in creating a housing system that is not driven by profit. This summer, I will be working to create socialized medical care for all. Rev. Brown’s words troubled me because he reminded us all that the end goal of much of our work is to put ourselves out of a job. Yet, I am a twenty-year old college student considering a lifelong career in organizing, activism, and politics. That thought makes me question my own optimism and desire to continue social justice work throughout my life. I love organizing, but it is challenging to think that the world that I want to help create might never materialize–that the dream for which I am working is just that.
At the same time, I had the opportunity to talk to the interns in my mentor group about their goals and projects, and impart some of my knowledge about Baltimore and its history. Though I didn’t have much time to prepare, it was exciting to talk to the entire group about the history of the relationship between Hopkins and the city, detailing EBDI and some of the work that I have done for the last year. On our day wandering around the city, I used our trek through the Inner Harbor area and West Baltimore to talk about past and present segregation and racial and class oppression in different areas of the city. We had lively discussions about Baltimore, the speakers at orientation, and our work for the summer. Teaching and working with a group of brilliant and passionate people for the last week made me feel excited and optimistic about the change that we will be able to make this summer and in the years to come. I am eager to face the new challenges and opportunities as I explore organizing in a different issue area and terrain from my work for the last year.
Orientation was supposed to be about people. About understanding people different from myself. However, as I think back to this past week, I’ve come to a self-absorbed conclusion: orientation taught me more about myself than it did about others.
I tried to “actively” listen; I really did. Dissociate my ears from my thoughts. But, my thoughts were loud. They drowned out my attempts to engage with others. I found myself constantly confronting my biases, fears, and insecurities. Unraveling how my privileged and not-so-privileged upbringing has impacted my outlook on life. More specifically, I spent some time thinking about my cishet childhood as it related to…my hair.
Right before orientation, I decided to chop my hair off. There was no uber dramatic reason why I did it. I was just tired of strict femininity; I no longer wanted to be my parents’ wavy-tressed princess.
In spite of this (soft) rebellion against the gender binary, there were a few points during orientation when I felt uncomfortable with my new hair. On Monday, I asked a close friend of mine if I was trying too hard to look androgynous and on Thursday, I had an alienating realization that I was the only girl in our cohort with traditionally masculine hair.
Though these moments of insecurity seem silly, in these moments, I finally came to terms with my ingrained homophobia and cissexism. I was uncomfortable with my short hair because I was not yet comfortable with blurring the gender binary. I realized that I was (and still am) heavily influenced by cissexist norms for self-expression.
While I’m not proud of this discomfort, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t exist. As was emphasized throughout last week, admitting to my personal biases is the first step to unlearning them. Above all else, orientation taught me that discomfort can be positive. Maybe next summer I’ll get a buzz cut.
I sat in the Great Hall of Levering Hall, a near-full cup of coffee resting next to a pile of Play-Doh shaped into geometrically perfect cubes as a distraction from my nervous energy and a notebook filled with scribbled notes. My pen bounced against my leg with increasing anxiety. Our speaker was conducting an activity in which an identity was mentioned, the individuals who shared that identity stood up, and the rest of the room applauded wildly for them. “If you identify as Jewish, please stand,” said the speaker. I shakily stood and experienced a feeling I can only identify as odd as the room clapped wildly. The speaker next moved to what he called “Invisible Identities.” These were, in his words, identities that shape our daily life experiences that are completely invisible to the outside world.He next invited everyone with one of these invisible identities to stand. I stood, on unsure legs, my breathing quickening and my heart racing. I had an out-of-body experience where I watched this complete idiot stand in front of a room of relative strangers and allude to the biggest secret of his life and the thing that colors most of his experiences. I then watched him name this invisible identity in front of the room: “I am a survivor of sexual assault.” And because we were still playing that game, the whole room clapped. They weren’t clapping that it happened, of course, but they were clapping for me. For my resilience, for my courage to actually say those words that a number of survivors in the audience probably couldn’t bring themselves to stand and say, and for everyone who’d stood under the banner of “invisible identity.”
This helped me think a lot about bringing my whole self to the work that I’m going to be doing this summer. Obviously, I’m not going to talk about my history of sexual assault with every parent or child or community member I meet, but on a more general level, it’s beyond important for me to understand better what shapes my being and what allows and pushes me to do this work. The self-awareness that comes with publicly sharing such a big part of me allows me to feel more comfortable throwing my whole self into my duties this summer.
Throughout my two years here, I’ve struggled with feeling like an outsider in Baltimore. I came to Johns Hopkins with the goal of being an active citizen in Baltimore, someone who would break out of the Hopkins Bubble and really get into the city and have relationships with residents, and make a difference. Then came the reality of academics and life, and these goals settled into the background. Sure, I took some courses about Baltimore and did service, but it always felt like something temporary. Go to the service site, do your thing, then back onto campus for studying and other academic obligations. There were times when Baltimore never seemed very real to me, some abstract thing that existed outside the boundaries of campus.
My dissatisfaction with this situation grew, and I actively tried to become more involved. Even then, there was a general sense of unease. What role can I play in Baltimore, as someone who has not grown up in the area and live in circumstances very far removed from the communities I’m hoping to serve? What are my motivations for serving, and how well do my intentions translate into impact? These are questions I continue to grapple with, and CIIP orientation has added a lot of food for thought by granting me a greater awareness of Baltimore and my place in it.
Hearing from people who have worked within Baltimore communities, the different contributions they’ve made, their specific causes, the systems they navigate, and the difficulties they face has provided me with a better sense of what I might expect in my internship and how I might navigate find my place in Baltimore this summer and beyond. I also appreciated the discussions we’ve had about identity and bias. They not only prompted me to more deeply consider the ways that my experiences have shaped my lives, but to consider that among my cohort and community members I will be working with. Finally, being immersed in an environment filled with people who have and continue to engage actively in Baltimore to promote justice and equity, people who share many characteristics with me and are also newer arrivals to Baltimore, has filled me with an awareness of the potential I have and the change I can make.Tags: 2018, 29th Street Community Center, Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Maryland Physicians for a National Health Program, Orientation, Ruth M. Kirk Recreation Center, United Workers