2018 Week 1: Neighborhood
I’ve underestimated the importance of physical spaces. Their social importance, that is. Having always had access to places to go and activities to do after and during school-which has remained undeniably true at Hopkins-I’ve taken them for granted. Of course, I could and do support the creation and maintenance of community spaces. It was easy to say, of course, Remington should have their community garden. Of course, the city shouldn’t close these community centers—where will people go? Who will provide yoga classes, meeting spaces, block parties? But even having worked with neighborhood kids at an afterschool club in Remington for two years, I never fully made the connection between the systemic and the individual level—the influence of the existence of these spaces on the individuals who they serve.
Part of that may be because the church which houses the Remington club has not been under threat of closure, at least in recent years. But the Ruth Kirk Recreation Center has, and it’s been due to the dedication of my supervisors, along with a few other individuals, that it remains open. I can’t think of a more fitting word than dedication to describe what they do-living now outside the city, but coming here to maintain this rec center, to clean, pack boxes of food for people to pick up, and set up activities for the kids who find themselves there nearly every afternoon.
There’s a lot of weight that attaches to a place like this. Even after being there only a few days, I’d rather not think about the implications of its closing-because I’ve started to realize what it really means. There are faces now, some as young as six and seven. Where would James go? Where would William go? And where would they go to play with each other, “doctor,” tag, connect-four, when maybe home isn’t the ideal place to play, or maybe there isn’t a park nearby, and they can’t stay at school?
In front of the rec center is a small playground. It had struck me when I first saw it, and I didn’t quite know why, until my supervisor told me he’d had it newly built this year. It was its newness that had as if touched a chord. But then I was doubly struck-this year. There is a basketball court several feet to the left of the playground. While it might work for older kids and teenagers, it likely does not well suit younger kids. There were quite a few people there the second half of the week, and plenty that did not step inside the rec center itself-older teens, moms with toddlers and babies, and at least ten to fifteen kids besides. How did they all split one basketball court before this year? Or where did they go?
As simple as a new playground. An air hockey table, a box of connect-four, some paper, and crayons. Things that are so easy to take for granted, when you have always had access to them or something like them. Ruth Kirk provides them for Franklin Square, and the space in which to gather–the materials around which to live a childhood, the first building blocks to a sense of community.
This past week, my main project for the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign was to research Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 2nd congressional district. I needed to report the important power-holders in Ruppersberger’s district, Ruppersberger’s own politics and the issues important to him, and his past positions on healthcare. While I have done limited congress-focused organizing in the past, this intensive research and specific focus was a new task for me. The HCHR organizers will meet in the coming week to sketch out a plan to push Ruppersberger on single-payer, and my job was to inform them about Ruppersberger and his district.
At first, this sounded like a simple enough task. But when I sat down to begin, I didn’t know where to look first. How do I go about finding the important groups and people in MD-2? There seemed to be so many factors: donors, other politicians, companies and organizations in the district, the political ecology of the communities that Ruppersberger represents. So, I started with the most basic information. I found a map of the second district, and I perused Ruppersberger’s website. This gave me a base to start on, as I now knew that Ruppersberger spends a lot of time dealing with defense, security, and intelligence issues. After all, his district contains some of the largest military installations in the area–including Fort Meade and the NSA. Digging deeper, his healthcare policies did not seem particularly thought out, arguing simply for improvements to the Affordable Care Act. I also found that he has introduced a number of bills about Veterans’ Affairs care availability, and, hidden in Ruppersbergers’ biography, was a key clue–he entered politics after University of Maryland Shock Trauma doctors saved his life.
All of a sudden, I knew many of the key players in his district, the issues he cared about and advocated for in the House, and his positions on healthcare. The rest of the project was clear. I did some digging into his campaign’s financial backing, old newspaper articles from throughout his political career, and finished filling out a picture of Dutch Ruppersberger and Maryland’s second district. MD-2 is a heavily gerrymandered area of Baltimore, Harford, Howard, and Anne Arundel Counties, as well as Baltimore City. It includes important medical facilities and defense and intelligence infrastructure. Mostly for political reasons, Congressman Ruppersberger cares about veterans, the military, and national security. For personal reasons, Ruppersberger cares about healthcare and medical research. This research will now inform the actions that we take to push Ruppersberger to take a stronger stance on systemic healthcare changes. I now also have a better understanding of important local political players and political systems as a whole. I know where to look for information about politicians, and how to get clues into how to push them around important issues. In the future, I hope to use this experience to inform my organizing in on campus, in Baltimore, and across the state.
A child came into the community center, greeted my supervisor and I, and grabbed a cup of cold water from the water cooler. We began to chat, and the girl’s eyes opened up in the way that betrays a secret about to be spilled. “Denise (OBVIOUSLY not her real name) just got tased!” My supervisor and I looked at each other, and then back at the girl. “She got what?” “Tased!” “By who?!” “Oh, just this woman!” Through a far too lengthy process of questions like this, we elicited the story. Denise, a girl who’d been in the center, moping around the gym an hour earlier, and another girl who had been in the center had left the center after claiming to be bored with all of their options. The two girls, both around ten, walked the block up Twenty-Ninth Street to Greenmount, where some preexisting dispute came to a head and a fight ensued. Family members of the girl got involved, which is how Denise became the victim of a tasing.
I was at a loss for words. Here I am, trying to make the community center a welcoming place for the community and a place for kids to feel safe, grow, and develop, and less than a block from where I sit inside my office, sending out frenzies of emails, one of the children who needs the center and the center’s programming the most, is quite literally being tased. What am I doing? What is the community center doing? What is the point of all of this? I articulated this to my supervisor after. He showed me the gym. Twenty kids of varying ages were shooting basketballs, running around like windup toys cranked all the way up, and laughing with friends old and new.
We operate in a difficult climate, in a difficult neighborhood, in a difficult city. But what we do for each child is more meaningful than I can begin to explain. For every child fighting on Greenmount, there’s a child who used to be doing that who’s now learning a brand new step routine in our Community Room. Transformations take time and happen on an individual, grassroots level. Don’t be discouraged, Bentley of Thursday. <3
What an empowering week!
The Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center is filled with amazing staff, people who are down-to-earth, caring, accepting, and supportive (as a side note, I don’t think I’ve been hugged as regularly as I have in the past week). The office is such a positive space, and it feels like a safe environment where everyone is free to offer ideas or work in whatever style they need to without judgment. Throughout the week, I’ve witnessed how everyone at the LHRC complements each other, especially in the stressful days leading up to Baltimore Pride weekend. One is an organizational powerhouse, who is proactive in preparing for every possible thing that can go wrong. Another is less organized but brings creative ideas to the table. Then, of course, there’s the positive, calming person whose presence lowers stress levels and keeps everyone on track. Being in this space and being surrounded by supportive, passionate, and empathetic people has really empowered me to take charge and provide suggestions, and it’s really helped me take ownership of my place in the community.
The events we were preparing for, Pride and our Elder Pride event, were empowering in themselves. Leading up to Pride, my supervisor Kate provided me with many resources about LGBTQ+ issues, and we had a few discussions about topics such as family rejection and trauma from the AIDS epidemic, as well as ways that Pride and identifying as LGBTQ+ has changed. Watching all the out and proud folks in the parade was inspiring for me, and I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who often face discrimination and prejudice to feel accepted and valued in such a celebratory space. However, it’s also important to think about the history leading up to this, and LGBTQ+ elders are often forgotten in a space that seems to be increasingly occupied by the younger generations. That’s why being in the Elder Pride tent on Sunday was such a valuable experience. I appreciated being able to honor the contributions and achievements of our LGBTQ+ elders and hearing their stories, such as what it was like planning the first Baltimore Pride.
Overall, I had an extremely empowering week, and I hope that as I continue working at the LHRC, I can draw on the experiences of this week and continue to empower others through my work.
When it’s summer in Baltimore and you have to walk around the neighborhood to pass out flyers, it’s probably a good idea not to dress in black.
Going door to door passing out flyers is one aspect of community outreach that is not always the most enjoyable or exciting, but it is necessary, and something I did for the first time on Friday. Strong City Baltimore is hosting our big Day in the Park event on July 14th, and it was about time for me and my supervisor to spread the word and get people to save the date. Our target area for flyers was basically all of the Barclay neighborhood. So in other words, I got my exercise for the day. And did it in black jeans in 85-degree weather.
All jokes aside, I saw and learned a lot in just this one experience, which is why I’m choosing to write about it. For one, this was the first time that I have actually been on the ground and around in the neighborhood that I’m working in. I’ve driven through the neighborhood and seen people and places from afar, but it’s not the same as seeing them while walking, for obvious reasons. There are a couple things that stood out to me. One, Barclay is truly a mixed-income neighborhood. In the relatively short distance that we walked, I witnessed brand-newly developed rowhouses, as well as many houses that have been burnt down or boarded up. I remember specifically being surprised when I saw an occupied house surrounded on both sides by houses that didn’t have a ceiling. This is the reality of the neighborhood.
More importantly though, I finally met the people. Although it seems like a super small thing, greeting people in the streets as I was distributing flyers was an extremely fulfilling experience. To me, those small exchanges were like a little reminder of the fact that we are all part of one community. Every time I passed people in the streets I made an effort to ask how they were doing, or wish them a good day. And almost everyone was receptive to me. Those are the type of interactions that I’m excited to take part in. This week, my supervisor told me that the heart of community organizing is building relationships. So I’m hoping I can build some of my own here in Barclay this summer.Tags: 2018, 29th Street Community Center, Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign, Maryland Physicians for a National Health Program, Nate Tatum Community Center, Ruth M. Kirk Recreation Center, Week 1