2018 Week 2: Neighborhood
There is a great emphasis placed on work. Although it is a recreation center, the idea of work is never far. The expectation is that few-toddlers, and the very elderly-are exempt from contributing their share, as they can. When it comes to food pantry days, everyone who is present takes part in the opening and reorganization of boxes. One of my supervisors, whose children were already out of school, brought them with him on two of these days. Even five-year-old Valerie and nine-year-old Thomas, who is in a wheelchair, carried packages of frozen meat from the tables and placed them in the boxes lined up on the floor. There was plenty of running around and banging of balls on the pool table too, but amidst them were calls of “You working?” and “Don’t start getting lazy.”
“You’re playing while I’m working?” my other supervisor likes to say. He cleans, put things in their place, maintains the rec, and he makes sure the kids are aware of it. The work/play expectation finds itself enforced to differing extents-it is, after all, a rec, and my supervisors make it a place where the kids can play and hang out safely-but I wonder where this emphasis comes from. Again, I can’t help thinking of my own experience, how I was rarely expected to take part in chores, and how I was actually discouraged from seeking employment even through the very start of college. “You have all your life to work,” I was repeatedly told.
I wonder if, in part and on the part of my supervisors, it comes from wanting to steer the kids from an early age in a different direction so that when they find themselves at 30 and 40, they won’t feel a need to “straighten out,” as one of my supervisors put it, when speaking to me about his own life. To instill a work ethic, and the awareness of the necessity to contribute your part, no matter what your age. I wonder, too, if it arises from worry of not having enough, of these kids, in their future, not making ends meet. Because really, it’s only in the position, like mine was growing up, of not having to concern yourself about money when you’re able to not concern yourself about work.
Whether or not this is one of the factors behind the emphasis on work on the part of my supervisors, it does not seem divorceable from the positions that some of these kids are in. One boy who I had been playing with had asked me if we could do some activity together, and I said, “Come back next week!”, when the summer camp would start. “I don’t have $50 dollars,” was his response, referring to the weekly price of the camp. Clear disappointment and dejection in his voice, in the way he held his hands. That a price I had considered relatively low was a barrier to access. It made me reconsider the skew of my own perspective, the first of many constant readjustments I’ll have to make. Like sitting in the seat at the eye doctor’s office, prompted by the encounters I’ll have, I’ll need to flip the lenses until I can see, more clearly, what’s before me.
On Tuesday morning, I took the bus to the University of Maryland hospital to gather petition signatures for the Fund the Trust Initiative at the farmers market. I wandered around, talked to the vendors setting up their stalls, and chatted with some folks sitting in the park. Most people signed the petition, though a couple vendors were from Pennsylvania. As the market opened, I stationed myself at the entrance to the farmers market that was closest to the hospital, thinking that I would catch nurses, doctors, and administrators grabbing lunch from the market.
The challenge of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable’s petition this summer is that we need 10,000 signatures from registered Baltimore City voters to put the Fund the Trust legislation on the ballot in November. While standing at events, store entrances, and bus stops to talk to people is still the most productive way of gathering signatures, we need to filter out those not registered to vote and those who live outside of Baltimore City. I normally encounter a decent number of people who live in the county at smaller events, stores, and markets in the City. I wasn’t prepared for the response I received at the farmers market by the University of Maryland.
As nurses, doctors, and researchers in their scrubs and coats started to trickle into the market, I began asking my usual introductory question.
“Hey there! Are you registered to vote in Baltimore City?” And almost always, the response was,
“No, I live out in Baltimore County.”
Almost every UM employee I talked to lived in Parkville or Towson, making this a seriously unproductive petitioning outing. I moved over to a different entrance, near a bus stop where I could catch more people commuting within the city wandering to the bus and down the street. Most of the people who signed the petition at the market were black Baltimoreans who did not work at the university.
My experience at that Tuesday morning farmers market highlighted some important class and geographical disparities in Baltimore’s history and development. Most of the employees of the hospital, likely middle-class workers, lived in the county and commuted into the City to work. Conveniently, hospital workers had their titles printed in large letters on the badges that they wore, so I could see that most of the doctors were white, while most of the administrative and secretarial positions were filled by people of color. And, most of the people I talked to in the park experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, and (especially prevalent around the hospital) difficulty accessing affordable healthcare lived in Baltimore City and did not work for the University of Maryland.
On Thursday, I discussed the patterns I noticed with Margaret Flowers on the way to Washington. She told me that when she was a student at UM Medical School, the hospital and university took up much less space, but that now the campus extended as far as Lexington Market. The racial and class dynamics of employment at the University of Maryland raise the ever-present question: “development for whom?” Clearly, as the hospital and university have pumped money and resources into taking over more blocks of the city, their investment and development have not benefited the people living in communities in nearby neighborhoods. Most of the high-paying jobs have gone to people living in Baltimore County, meaning that the mostly poor, black communities in West Baltimore do not reap the benefits of UM’s investment through wages or through the tax dollars that they might get if more UM employees lived in the City. Instead, the university’s development has further marginalized black and poor Baltimoreans, who continue to live with little access to safe, affordable housing or adequate affordable healthcare–ironic, considering the expansion of a giant hospital in their neighborhood.
Planning is daunting. I feel like an imposter.
Now let me explain. One of my main projects this summer is putting on, along with the intern from Charm City Care Connection, a health fair for the underserved communities of the area around the center. I have always been under my mother’s health insurance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drug harder than marijuana. I’ve never needed a nalaxone training. I’ve never not been able to afford fresh fruit. I always had every resource I needed- if I complained about a medical issue, I was in my primary care physician’s office within days. I looked up statistics on medical determinants in Baltimore, specifically in the Waverlies and in the Greater Charles Village Area, but learning that huge proportions of this community are uninsured does not make me any more privy to the personal experiences of this problem.
I was having a conversation with the AmeriCORPS Vista fellow at my placement the other day. She was venting some frustrations with certain programs, organizations, and nonprofits coming into Baltimore and ignoring the thoughts and feelings of people native to Baltimore. This specific incident occurred during a program session in which single motherhood in Baltimore was talked about by a white man who moved to Baltimore only three years ago.
I don’t want to be him.
I know there are ways to not be him, but I feel like the harder I push myself towards planning this event (and I need pushing- it’s in less than a month!) the closer I get to the white savior line. And that’s a line I want to stay far, far away from.
( I thought I was done but I’m not- as I was getting ready to submit a relevant event occurred) A woman comes rushing into the center, a small, crying boy in tow. “Do you have anything for him? He fell on the zipline.” (I’m assuming she meant the monkey bars because I don’t think I could have worked here for two weeks and missed a zipline.)
I throw open the door to the closet and emerge with an ice pack. I spend an excruciatingly long time searching for the fluid pack, wrap the ice pack in a paper towel and hand it to the crying boy.
But what if this had been just a tad worse? What if he’d sprained his wrist and been one of the hundreds of people in the area that don’t have insurance? These problems are so big and so daunting, it can feel hard to imagine what impact my little health fair can have.
My internship experience has felt a little backward. In my first week, I jumped right into the hustle and bustle of Pride preparations. There wasn’t time for the awkwardness of being a new person in a new space because people were constantly giving me things to do, and any trepidation I felt about asking questions or potentially appearing stupid were overcome by the need to get things done. Now that Pride is finished, it’s been a little weird settling “back” into a routine, one that existed before I started my internship. At the same time, I appreciate the opportunity that Pride gave me to be comfortable almost immediately with my co-workers and skip the first-week nerves.
So far this week, I’ve learned a lot about Chase Brexton. My supervisor and I had a discussion last week about the ambivalent relationship that Chase Brexton has had with the LGBTQ+ community, explaining that recent events and a lack of cultural competency have done some lasting damage with many people. I was at first uncomfortable with our frank discussion. Aren’t we supposed to be proud of where we work? Now that I know this about Chase Brexton, how would this affect my own feelings about the work I do? Finding places for improvement is a natural part of improving your institution, but this felt like something that shook my foundation.
This week, I’ve come to terms a bit with that revelation. After some introductory meetings with my other co-workers, I came to understand how they dealt with this. Each acknowledged very real limitations with Chase Brexton, but they also explained how they viewed their jobs, as something that they hoped would make an impact despite these obstacles. One described their job as a community-wide social worker, with the hope that their educational outreach would help people they might never meet. Another described how intensely they had to advocate for others within the system and how they sometimes had conflicts with other Chase Brexton employees because of it.
Finally, I had the opportunity to attend a new-hire orientation presentation this week about LGBTQ+ competency. It shook me a little that many of the new employees were unfamiliar with many aspects of LGBTQ+ terminology and interactions, such as using someone’s correct pronouns. That made me really consider how ignorant people could be about knowledge that I thought was basic and think about why sex and gender minorities are so invisible. At the same time, I was heartened by how open everyone was about their own experiences and their enthusiasm for learning. While it doesn’t erase the many negative interactions that LGBTQ+ patients have had with Chase Brexton, it gives me hope that Chase Brexton can turn a corner and provide a more inclusive environment. Learning with the new employees and speaking to my co-workers have also reminded me to remain open and find ways to have a positive impact, even within flawed institutions and systems.
“That’s why you got poop on your shirt!” yelled one of the kids, and immediately all the other kids started dying with laughter. I looked down on my sleeve to see a piece of dried up bird poop, baking in the sun right on my shirt, and at that moment I knew I had lost the roast session with the neighborhood kids.
On Thursday, I was helping my supervisor’s partner with a field day event he planned for the kids in the neighborhood, to celebrate the end of the school year. He told me about it on Tuesday, and we got it going just two days later. And it was awesome. We had planned some fun activities like tug-a-war, kickball, and even a water balloon fight, which the kids loved. We had hamburgers and hotdogs from the grill, and a brought in a speaker to top off the occasion with good music. It amazed me seeing how relaxed and effortless the planning process seemed, for how smooth and fun the event was. The one takeaway that I definitely got from this experience is that if you have music, food, and (most importantly) people all in one place, you can have a successful event.
While I was helping set stuff up, I also found myself just enjoying the day and messing around with the kids. And yes, I even starting (jokingly) making fun of them. But being honest, they came at me with more heat than I had expected (One kid made fun of my hairline). But I was ok with it, because they seemed to be happy being around and playing with me, and so was I. We were all having a good time, which is what we planned the event for. To me, it was the perfect example of community organizing done right.
I remember sitting in on a Barclay community meeting, and one community member saying that “the kids run this neighborhood.” I don’t know why, but that was such a powerful statement to me. The kids of today literally have the power to change what the future looks like for the neighborhood, community, and the entire world in general. I’ve tried to be more conscious of this whenever I interact with kids, and I think other people should too. No matter what happens, at some point, you will become old and there will be a generation below you running the show. So I truly believe that we should nurture, love, and care for our kids endlessly, no matter what.
I’ve had a change of heart. One can learn a lot about Baltimore’s history through petitioning (with the exception of petitioning in Hampden or the Inner Harbor). When I say “history”, I don’t mean the glossed, post-racial propaganda found in textbooks or livebaltimore.com. I mean the word-of-mouth kind of history, history as it’s told by the people who’ve lived it.
Last Wednesday, I went petitioning in West Baltimore with a fifty-year and counting Baltimore native, D. As we traveled down Fayette Street to our next petitioning site, she explained to me the racialized history of the storefronts on the roadside. There was a time, D said, when Fayette was populated and prospering with black-owned businesses. She pointed to an abandoned property with a fallen sign, “I used to buy furniture there”.
As she painted a picture of bursting agora, I tried to imagine what it was like. I tried to replace the vacant houses and shops with what could have been: people, music, and prospering furniture stores. But, it’s difficult to imagine something that Baltimore’s elected representatives have already forgotten. It’s difficult to imagine something that I’ve never experienced. All I could (anachronistically) think of was “Good Morning, Baltimore” from Hairspray.
At this point of trying and failing to imagine the past, I asked D, “How long ago was it? I mean, when did things start changing?” She told me about twenty years ago. Stop. Take that in for a second. In twenty years, houses were abandoned and shops went out of business. Whole neighborhoods were uprooted. In twenty years, the racist and capitalist forces in this city succeeded. That’s fucking scary.
Full Disclaimer: This isn’t a happy, “everything comes full circle” type of blog post. This is a “me, trying to process my thoughts” type of blog post. So, on this disjointed note, I think I’ll stop typing.Tags: 2018, 29th Street Community Center, Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Maryland Physicians for a National Health Program, Nate Tatum Community Center, Ruth M. Kirk Recreation Center, United Workers, Week 2