2018 Week 4: Neighborhood


Name calling, insults, tussles that sometimes threaten to break out into fights-I find myself watching my kids interact and seeing both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Familiar, because although I was never a person to get involved in any of those, with classmates especially, I think, “Surely, we weren’t much better.” It recalls memories of my elementary and middle school classmates, how John and Ken and Drew would whisper things to each other, about each other, and about others, things that I didn’t understand at the time. How they would call each other gay as if it was an insult. Comments about weight. I see these things repeated, and resist thinking that’s just how kids are, or that’s just how people are.

I find it hard to imagine a person who works for change, who has inclinations towards social justice, holding that as a deep-seated belief. If I thought those things, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now. What I have been doing this past semester, and these past two years of college. It would cease to make sense to me. I’m sure that everyone who’s felt a passion for change, a motivation for making-the-world-a-better-place, has teetered on the edge of that sense; or perhaps did fall off and scaled back up, found new ground; has been pricked by doubt, frustration, and senselessness. Yet the threat of disillusionment is not a foundation propped by acceptance of the status quo. But that’s neither here nor there.

I’ve tried, when I could remember, to ask: “why?” I was sitting next to two campers, shuffling the uno cards for our game, when one of them says to the other-and this, a more minor example of the types of comments they make about one another-“You’re probably adopted!” I asked, “Why is it bad to be adopted?” My camper shrugged, replied-the classic response-“I don’t know.” It was the same response Janie, smiling instead of shrugging, gave me when I asked her “Why’d you hit Thomas?” But “I don’t know” really means, I know I shouldn’t have said or done what I did. Asking why throws children off. Instead of being told what to do, they’re being asked to consider the reasons for their own actions.

I’ve tried, too, to remember to avoid using negatives. To speak instead in the language with which I know I would have wanted-and want-to be spoken to. “Everyone, we’re listening now” instead of “No talking”-this one I’ve succeeded in. But it has been too easy, for too easy, to slip into “don’t” and “no.” “Don’t run” instead of “Walk.” “Don’t touch him, her, them” instead of “Keep your hands to yourself.” But a language of negative limitations gives little picture of our little world as it should be.

And the unfamiliar, what has perhaps been most difficult because of the possible consequences. These kids are told, if someone hits you, you hit back. My campers will sometimes playfully threaten to fight. But the line between a joking threat and a real threat is, and becomes increasingly, blurred. Benign horsing-around can switch into real slaps and locked arms or bodies. And there have been too many times, already, when one kid has come up to another threatening to punch another, and I wonder-what is it a show of?

I think back to what Erricka Bridgeford said. That she would take a fist fight over a gun fight any day. These kids are not the adults in Erricka’s stories. They are not even close, and there’s no telling what they might become in the future-doctors, lawyers, and judges were some of the dreams I’ve heard. But there is no denying that they have been touched by violence-if even in the most indirect of ways-no denying it, when not one of them said they wanted to live in Baltimore in the future, because it’s a dangerous place. In thinking back to what Erricka Bridgeford said, I wonder if there is a way, now, to prevent fighting from becoming the norm, the go-to in order to work through conflict. So that the only time their hands will touch, will be when they are holding them.



On Friday, United Workers had coordinated a canvassing afternoon with Unite Here Local 7, the hospitality workers union in Baltimore. We were targeting hotels that day, handing workers flyers with information about the recent minimum wage increase and the state paid sick leave law. On the United Workers side, we also collected postcards and petition signatures for the Fund the Trust effort. I had never done extensive labor organizing work, or had the chance to talk to union organizers and workers about their conditions and experiences.

I found myself standing outside of the staff entrance at a major Baltimore hotel in the Inner Harbor with an experienced Unite Here organizer. Immediately, I started my hands-on education in the subtleties of labor organizing. A security guard walked out of the building, taking a break and talking on his cell phone. He sat on a bench next to me as workers exited the building, and I handed out flyers and talked to them about housing and their jobs. When he got off the phone and asked me what I was doing, the informed me that I was on private property and would have to leave. I walked down an alleyway and stood on the street, ready to talk to workers headed to the nearby bus stop. My partner, however, was not asked to leave–she stayed near the staff entrance. Half an hour later, two managers in suits asked her to leave the property too. As we stood on the street, the two men in suits (probably the head of security and general manager) watched us from a distance, talking on their phones and awkwardly turning away when we looked in their direction.

As the trickle of workers from the hotel was slow, I asked my partner about her experience in union organizing, the hotel industry, and more. She told me that our presence in front of this hotel was strategic–we were getting them used to seeing union folks around, and scaring the management enough to make their corporate management nervous about the Baltimore location. I also learned about the subcontracting practices in the hotel industry that made organizing hard, and the changes and competition within the world of trade unions.

After a week of hard and tumultuous healthcare and housing organizing, it was refreshing to be on the ground learning about a whole sector of the activism world that was new to me. I learned about the subtle tricks of interacting with workers and managers, the strategic maneuvers that unions pull to work under the noses of managers, owners, and the state, and the history of unionizing efforts in and around Baltimore. Perhaps I’ll involve myself more in union organizing in the future.



It’s crazy how much you learn to care about people in just a few short weeks. The YouthWorkers I’ve been working with have so much passion and drive and so much desire to improve their community.

I see so much of myself in them, honestly. I see their anger and frustration when they look out into their community, and it hurts because I know that it could just as easily have been me.

My background is very interesting. My father’s family is relatively very poor, while my mother’s family comes from a place of socioeconomic privilege. Had my father not married my mother, I (or more accurately my father’s son) would have been growing up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn facing many of the issues Baltimore is.

I’ve never really had to deal with issues like this in my community, a suburban town of about 60,000 in central New Jersey.

I never knew poverty, although it was all around me when I spent every weekday afternoon with my grandmother. I always had health insurance, food on the table, I never went outside and worried about my safety, I’d never seen drug dealers in my community or lost someone to gun violence.

They are facing the pain that they see in their lives and they want to fix these issues with the skills they’ve learned and are continuing to learn. They deserve to be able to fix their communities.

I thought a lot about coming in from my place of privilege to come in as a supervisor for Baltimore youth barely a year younger than me. I’ve kind of come to some kind of resolution around that.

I have received an immense amount of privilege in this world, and in general they haven’t. I know how to do things they don’t, but they have experiences from living in Baltimore I can’t even come close to imagining.

My role should be to help them get closer to doing what they want, not to tell them what it is that they really want. I should provide with lists of people to email, but not tell them who they should email. I should provide ideas for outreach, but not tell them who to reach out to.



Working at the LHRC has really impressed in me the importance of language. In my privilege, I didn’t realize how much power is infused in words, but I’ve come to realize that this is true, especially since language reflects much of the power dynamics inherent within the systems we exist in and interact with. One of the first things my supervisor did when I arrived was give me a glossary of important LGBT terms, as well as ones to avoid. She also shared with me some basics, such as how to ask someone for their correct name or apologize if you’ve misgendered someone.

Among the LGBTQ+ community, words hold even more power because many have been used to attack people’s very identities. Certain words have been used in the past and continue to be used to demean sexual and gender minorities. Then, there are words we might say unthinkingly, such as referring to someone as “normal” gender in comparison to someone who is transgender, replicating the dominance of hetero/cis-normativity. To refer to someone who is trans by their former name or to misgender them is to disregard their gender identity. In a world that already presents legal, social, and sometimes even physical barriers for someone to live out their gender identity, these actions, malicious or not, are another dig that their true selves are invalid.

Something that didn’t occur to me before this week was also the implications behind certain phrases. Attending a screening of Baltimore Strange Fruit with some fellow CIIPers helped me realize how power-neutral some phrases are, even as they reflect practices and results that are very power-driven. Baltimore Strange Fruit is about the history and structural inequality in Baltimore, and how blacks have been systematically denied access to food and land. I was struck by the speakers’ deliberate use of the phrase “food apartheid” instead of “food desert,” but I agree with their reasoning. “Food apartheid” removes the implications that lack of access to quality food is natural and pulls into the conversation the sociopolitics surrounding this.

From this week forward, I will strive to be more deliberate with the words I choose. I often struggle with how I, as one person, can make a meaningful impact in Baltimore, but I think one important first step I can take is to avoid replicating systems of oppression within my language and instead use affirming language that empowers and uplifts.