2018 Week 1: Youth and Family Wellness
After a truly full week of events and programming at Star Track, I find myself physically exhausted and yet happily contented with the work that I have done. Specifically, the Gayme Night, Kiki Ball, and Pride parade all left me awe-inspired with regard to these events’ effectiveness at achieving Star Tracks’ mission which is to support the youth of Baltimore in their health and overall well-being.
As the “Button Master” of the Gayme Night, I got to help the youth that came to Star Track’s clinic make buttons and offer guidance on where STI testing was taking place. Being seated in the main corridor of the clinic, I got to watch all of the people coming into and out of the building. What astounded me was the comradery among not only the clients being served at the event but also among my fellow co-workers and the clients. The event itself did not feel like a program designed to merely make our target population get tested, but rather it felt like a family of queer folks of color coming together to have fun (and of course receive health screenings if so-desired).
At the Kiki Ball, I got to see the flare for fashion and general fabulousness of some of Baltimore’s queer youth as they competed different forms of drag. Having never been to a ball before, I was thoroughly entertained seeing all of the participants’ clothing and dancing styles, all unique but always on fleek. As a member of the queer community, I am glad to have been able to attend my very first ball, considering its cultural significance to the community in the past and now.
At pride, getting to march with Star Track and take part in a parade dedicated to supporting me and folks such as myself for something that I, and many like me, once felt only shame and fear for, was indescribable. I will never forget turning the corner of Art Museum Drive and entering into the sea of people all decked out in rainbow colors and glitter, hearing them all hoot and cheer as we marched past. That feeling of acceptance and pure love will never leave me, and I hope to use it to fuel all my future endeavors.
Overall, the many events that I worked on and participated in this week have opened my eyes to the queer community of Baltimore. Living in the Hopkins bubble for so long, it was both freeing and breath-taking to interact with and integrate into this community comprised of people from all walks of life. And most importantly for me, being a queer person of color, getting to see a more realistic representation of the city’s queer population was very consoling for me. I have never been surrounded by so many folks who have struggled with the same identities and their associated consequences as myself. And yet I have also been humbled to see how much my education and economic privilege have given me the resources I need to succeed. Many of our clients and even my fellow co-workers have helped me to make this distinction and I hope to carry this knowledge of my privilege with me and to use it to help those without such privileges. The duality of my experiences this week: both feeling connected to the queer community of Baltimore by our shared experiences surrounding the identity of our queerness, and the separation I feel due to my economic and educational privilege, have given me a great deal to reflect on, and I could not be more grateful for this opportunity.
This week has been mostly exploratory, as my site advisors wanted me to get a feel of all the services that the Franciscan Center offers. It was a good way for me to understand the various roles that people play every day, the challenges of organizations like the FC (such as being understaffed and under-resourced), and interact with different folks who come in every day and the staff throughout the building. One thing that I’ve been working on this week was building a good rapport with my coworkers and trying to pick up any stray tasks around the office. I think being flexible and having a good relationship with the people I work with (which seems kind of minor, in comparison to the kind of work that we’re doing in this program) is important to me and remains important for me because I’ve seen everyone work better when we know and trust one another. It can also really lighten up the mood when doing heavy work like this. And this has been helping a lot to get a better sense of different areas of the Center, and even smaller tasks that keep the Center running every day: food service, cooking, making pantry bags, keeping the pantry in order, helping people learn to use the computer, fixing computers, figuring out where to store the numerous donations in a small old building, filing mail and ordered birth certificates, and even shredding files with identifying information. I think the hardest aspect of this work that I’ve had to encounter and deal with this week is the limits to what we can provide, which are manifested as the limits that the Center creates for ourselves. On the first day, I helped serve lunch and it was difficult to say no to people who asked for an extra sandwich instead of a soup or for those who wanted an extra portion of something. Part of me, having worked in a restaurant before, wanted to use my little bit of power and discretion to make a person’s day a little better and give them a little more. Part of me also just felt it wrong and cruel to do service indiscriminately, follow rules that wouldn’t work for certain people–like how one man had to rush back to work and couldn’t carry the soup with him, or another who was really hungry that day. I hate to think that it’s the limits of compassion that my coworkers can so easily say no now, but rather the limits to what non-profits can provide. Because at the end of the day, the FC alleviates the pain of poverty for a meal or two, but families and individuals have to leave and deal with it every second of their lives. Systemic change is so important and I really wish we could make it happen.
“During engineering class, the kids would build all sorts of things, like using paper and tape to make a contraption that could hold a pencil.”
“Since food deserts are a huge issue in Baltimore, we’ve worked with Gather Baltimore so that the parents of the campers can bring home fresh produce for free once a week.”
“Literacy is a big priority at camp–we read and write about peace heroes all morning to make sure the kids are improving their skills.”
As my supervisor Nawal and I shared some tofu bahn mi and mac ’n cheese at Bird in Hand, she went through all the different activities that By Peaceful Means had successfully carried out in the past. I sat there and eagerly absorbed her words–peace camp, I realized, was so much more than just teaching kids about peace advocacy. The flexibility of the program meant that the staff embraced new ideas and strived to give the campers a well-rounded experience that was both exciting and educational.
While she told me her life story and how she ended up running a peace camp in Baltimore, I noticed myself relating to a lot of her experiences. She studied international affairs; I’m currently an international studies major. She was thinking about applying to law school but ended up applying to a masters program; I’m still debating if I want to pursue a law degree or an MPP but leaning towards the latter. She has been involved with non-profit work for a while now; I definitely want to be part of the non-profit sector, at least right after college. As I figure out how CIIP will shape my future goals, I think having a supervisor who has gone through the same uncertainties I’m going through and who has interests that align so closely to mine will make this summer even more formative. This lunch was just the beginning, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Nawal’s story and her peace camp over the next couple months.
As a socially awkward and anxious person, I have rarely walked into anything feeling at home. But after one week at YES, I feel more at home than I could have ever imagined. YES is a prime example of an organization separated from the nonprofit industrial complex, and completely immersed into their community. All of the staff work above and beyond for the youth, while still maintaining a fun and supportive environment.
Honestly, I could not have been more lucky to have such a great staff helping me on this journey. Each day, there is bonding between the youth and the staff. During my first staff meeting with everyone, each person said how they felt that day, their goals, and who they look to for support. Afterward, everyone would say “got ya back.” I had never seen anything like this before, but it became just a small gesture to ensure that everyone knew that they were supported while doing such difficult work.
While I cannot write about everything that I did during the week, my favorite part was participating in Pride. Working with multiple staff members identifying within the LGBTQ community, as well as many youth, preparation for pride was a joyful part of the week. So many of our youth experiencing homelessness have been forgotten or looked over by society, but it is a constant push each day in YES to help them realize that they matter. As I spend the summer finding and making programs for our youth, I hope to motivate and show our youth that they can be seen and accepted.
I’ve tried to explain my OPD internship so far to a lot of my friends, and I really haven’t been able to describe it in a way that does it justice. I mostly give vignettes, stories, and moments to capture a feeling of the things I’ve experienced. Some sights, sounds, and thoughts from my first week:
The kids shuffling into the hearing room with handcuffs around their wrists, and shackles around their feet. The sound of parents and grandparents crying tears of relief behind me in trial when they find out that their kid can come home. Knowing I work on the second floor of the Juvenile Justice Center in a comfortable office, as kids right below my feet on the first floor are locked up and awaiting their next trial. It’s been incredibly eye-opening to see the intersection of law and social justice in Baltimore, but also at times emotionally draining.
Something that has stuck with from orientation week was being in touch with my body and how it reacts in situations of discomfort. So many times this week I’ve felt myself react very viscerally to all the new experiences I’m going through. I’ve teared up sitting in court, thinking about how society has failed so many of the kids in Baltimore, and my chest has felt tight every time I’ve heard kids kicking, screaming, and crying down the hallway when they find out they’re going to be detained again.
All of this has reaffirmed my own desire to use law as an agent of social change. Yes, it can be difficult at times, but I’m learning to lean into the discomfort. Beyond that, I’m realizing more than ever how important self-care is when doing emotionally taxing work like this. I’m going to try harder this week to spend the hour before bed relaxing, unplugging, self-reflecting, and taking care of myself so that I can also do the best work possible at OPD this summer.
I’ve also started to connect the dots from Dr. Reverend Heber Brown’s talk at orientation as well. I’m thinking hard about how a lot of what public defenders do is catch the fallout, how they are the last line of defense when the entire system has failed the kids of Baltimore. How can I learn and create “upstream” solutions, while also working within a broken justice system and fighting against the numbers — that fact that America houses 25% of the world’s prisoners and the fact that prisons have disproportionately targeted people of color?
I think these are all questions that I don’t yet have answers to, but I’m glad that I’m thinking about the ‘how.’ It’ll all food for thought for the rest of the summer.Tags: 2018, By Peaceful Means, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Franciscan Center, Office of the Public Defender, STAR TRACK, Week 1, Youth Empowered Society