2018 Week 4: Government and Policy
Constituent service has been by far the newest experience I’ve had at the office this summer. I heard about constituent service prior to getting this job, and I had also heard that it’s a grunt job that interns don’t get paid to do, but everyone does. I had the rationale for it in my head as, “oh, proves to you all government is local government!” or along the lines of, “oh yeah, politicians of course have to do favors for their voters if they want to keep their job!” (the exclamation points, obviously, to indicate my blustering cynicism and naivety – think that’s why Trump uses them on Twitter?).
And those two thoughts may be at least partially true, or at least grounded in truth – government to all the people who call our office about their building assessment is local and of course its in the councilman’s best interest to keep his constituents happy. But I’ve been thinking about constituent service a lot, naturally, as I’m working on the thing at least twenty hours a week, and I believe its practice says something grand about how citizens can and overwhelming do think about government. Government can be a service for good. Government can be the hand that solves the problems in its control to solve. It can house the most talented people who are well connected to other talented people who can work together and get potholes fixed and cut trees out in front of stoplights and get people the best deal on their water bill. So why can’t that service ideology be extended to national ideologies? Even, and especially, in the more conservative parts of the first district, the space I described is the space folks expect from our office – so why can’t “big-government” programs be framed in that way? Why isn’t national policy expected to reach out their benevolent hand and create medicare for all or a living wage in the same way we build bridges and sweep alleys? Constituent service is hard and its imperfect, but worse is a world without local government having your back. That’s how progressive, social policy should be framed, at least in part, and especially during our fiercest debates – as democracy having your back.
This week was shorter than most, because Wednesday was the 4th of July, and I took Thursday and Friday off to go home and visit my family. I still did a good amount of work Monday and Tuesday, and I worked some extra hours then and will this week too to make up for the 14 that I missed. I loved the midpoint speaker this week. Her energy and her refusal to be daunted or brought down by the challenges she has faced, both in her life in general and in planning the ceasefire, were inspiring. Seeing how she keeps her dreams in sight with a positive attitude made me want to do the same, and not be so daunted by how far away they seem. I also appreciated hearing her view of Baltimore and how she keeps in mind the issues that it faces while simultaneously recognizing the systemic barriers in place, and the institutions that have causes problems that are often seen as the citizen’s fault. Her nonjudgmental attitude towards gang members and people who perpetrate violence was a beautiful example of the empathy and open mindedness I aspire to bring to my own life. At my internship site. I have continued to become more confident in my work, which I think is coming across because my supervisor is giving me more and more important tasks. He involved me in the interview and selection process for a fellow who will be working at FreeState next year, which was exciting because it showed me that he values my judgment. He also is having me check over the applicants’ writing samples, which tells me that he thinks I am a good enough writer to see their errors. I am happy about this, because I was very nervous to give him anything I had written towards the beginning of the internship, so I feel reaffirmed in my faith in my skills.
Everyday, one of the first things I do is make a checklist of everything I have to finish in the next day or two. And honestly, that’s not even me being an overly eager intern – that’s just me on a normal, everyday basis. I like setting goals and then completing them because, naturally, I’ve always associated accomplishing a task with making progress. That’s why whenever I think about really big public health topics, like education, I get extremely overwhelmed: the recent history of low test scores in Baltimore schools compared to national standards is not only due to unprepared teachers working in schools, but is also due to a lack of family investment in students, a lack of resources to external aid, poor infrastructure, street violence, etc. Every problem you have to address is not its own checkbox; it’s caused by three or four other problems, which might have other causes as well.
For me, the past couple weeks have had an uncanny resemblance to a wild goose chase. The main project I’m working on is planning and coordinating the Mayor’s Summer Block Parties, but halfway into completing the planning for these parties last week, I was given a new task to create a brochure on parent engagement that we would print out and distribute – then, halfway into that, I was tasked with compiling volunteer information and researching the best platforms available to send out mass signups. And admittedly, I was frustrated – it truly felt as if I were in a stalemate, starting all these different projects and not finishing anything. But then again, doesn’t this relate back to what I said earlier about big public health issues being just a huge entanglement of things to do? This past week, I’ve learned that working in education, let alone working in Baltimore City Public Schools, is not something you can just plow through and check things off with. If it were, then maybe the problems wouldn’t be so extensive and long-lasting.
I realize now that even though my big, overarching goal of the summer was planning these block parties, I had forgotten the even bigger, even more overarching goal of those: to connect families with BCPS and educate them on ways they can stay involved with their children’s schools over the course of the school year. Starting on the engagement brochure had been necessary because it would’ve provided the office, and BCPS families, with another invaluable tool to help combat the problem of parents not knowing what was happening in schools. Taking a break from that and working on the volunteer outreach piece was also necessary because we need to work with people already engaged in the community. No problem is ever just a problem on its own and no solution will ever fix everything. But as long as I keep coming to work with an open mind and being ok with sometimes having a lot of unchecked boxes, I think the work we all do will seem just a little more manageable from here.
I’m over halfway done with my placement now, something that I find both crazy, because time has gone by so fast, and a little scary, because there is still so much that I want to accomplish this summer and not a lot of time to do it.
This last week was when I started to really sink my teeth into my main project for the summer, which is doing a thorough evaluation of ERICA’s volunteer program and recommending ways that we can improve the volunteer experience and maximize volunteer impact. Before this past week, I had been doing a lot of research on volunteer management and preparation by going through and consolidating ERICA’s volunteer lists, and for the first two weeks of my placement a lot of my time was spent helping to prepare for the fundraiser. It was really exciting to start actually emailing volunteers and participants to set up times when I can interview them, and my next week is going to be hectic, but interviewing people will be a welcome change from sitting in the office all day.
The ERICA staff consists of two people plus me, and our office is just one medium-sized room with three desks. Nonprofits don’t really get much smaller, and that means that when my supervisor who does most of the casework meets with one of the program participants, they usually do it in the same room where I’m working on my volunteer evaluation work. I hear their conversations and all about the issues and challenges that they’re facing, and it’s a constant reminder of the importance of the work that nonprofits like ERICA do. The small office is also a constant reminder that tiny nonprofits like ERICA need good, dedicated volunteers, something that really gives me a sense of urgency and responsibility regarding my own work this summer.
Erricka Bridgeford speaking this week felt perfectly timed. I had recently been asked by a friend how successful the Baltimore Ceasefires have been and realized I had literally no idea. I had seen signs before all over Baltimore for them and heard a little bit about them, but I had never actually learned the extent of them, how much goes into them, or what impact they actually have. On top of that, I had been thinking a lot about the idea of people just deciding they were going to do something big and then actually doing it (I even talked about this in my post last week), so hearing Erricka talk about how long she sat on the idea until deciding she needed to do something resonated with me. Because of the way what she talked about fit so perfectly into my recent thoughts and how captivating her story was, I felt like I could have listened to her for hours.
I am a fairly data-driven person, so the questions that popped into my head while she was speaking floated along the lines of “How many less people died during the Ceasefire weekends than during other weekends?”, “How do you know it wasn’t a coincidence that some Ceasefires moved into the weekdays?”, etc., so I was surprised to hear that the most compelling piece of evidence proving to me that the ceasefire works was entirely qualitative. The fact that gang leaders told her people literally came to them saying they didn’t want to be the first person to end the ceasefire is amazing. It’s not that I expected that gang members wouldn’t want a ceasefire (as Erricka pointed out, everyone WANTS a ceasefire, the problem has traditionally just come in that people don’t think it can happen). I just think that it proves that the most important part of making a ceasefire happen is marketing it. If everyone knows, everyone knows. It seems like such a difficult task to tackle is spreading word about something to hundreds of thousands of people, but Baltimore Ceasefire has done an amazing job of this, and it has paid off so far!
Also on the topic of evidence: The one thing I was left wondering after the talk was if other major cities in America have tried ceasefires. I know every city is very different, but I just wanted to know other models that have been attempted. I did some research, and one model I found that seems fairly popular (and was actually attempted in Baltimore about two decades ago) is Operation Ceasefire, founded by David Kennedy. It operates under the assumption that most crime is committed by a small number of people, and focuses on finding those people and getting them out of cycles of criminality. I don’t know enough about it to put up a good argument for or against it, but it does make me really respect Erricka’s approach of community involvement. Baltimore Ceasefire seems so much more positive! Instead of a search mission for criminals, it is a weekend of festivities that everyone in the city can participate in. From an outside perspective of really just learning about these this week, Baltimore Ceasefire has such good vibes associated with it (how could it not? There is literally a music video for it!), and I am so excited to see where it goes.
Having YouthWorkers and being their direct supervisor is the most exhilarating, stressful and rewarding experience I could have asked for from my job. My six YouthWorkers are the most unexpected yet wonderful group of kids I could have been placed with. This blog post is a dedication to them, and everything that they have taught me, and everything that I have learned about myself in being their supervisor. It has been such a gift, watching them open up to me, talk to me about high school, relationships, Baltimore, struggles, trauma, hopes, dreams and frustrations. They have been incredible at balancing respect and hard-work, but also at forming strong relationships with themselves and with me.
I learned that “rdd,” meant alright, and that each intonation of “alright,” stood for anything from anger, to acceptance, to excitement. I learned about Baltimore public schools, the way they have all failed them, but also the moments of growth my group experienced at their respective institutions. I learned about music, who I should be listening to, and how music has inspired all of them. Moreover, I learned that each and every one of them has incredible goals they want to accomplish. One wants to be a video game designer, another a writer (who has already written a spectacular novel,) one an engineer, one a pediatrician or a pharmacist or a nurse ( or all three!) one isn’t sure but is excited to find out, another a politician, who also is a musician on the side (and has amazing songs already released.) My YouhthWorkers have taught me so much about this community, they have made Baltimore alive and vibrant in every way it deserves to be. They have made the Homewood campus almost irrelevant (except of course, in its contributions to the deterioration of this community) simply by opening my eyes to so much, the good the bad and the future, of Baltimore City, This is an ode to them, because whatever I may have taught them in these past two weeks, will never compare to the ways in which they have allowed me to grow.
Tags: 2018, Baltimore City Public Schools, CIIP, CIIP 2018, City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey, City Councilperson Zeke Cohen, Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, Freestate Justice, Week 4, Youthworks