2018 Week 5: Neighborhood
I am beginning to understand what people mean sometimes when they say they are proud. Of their children. Of their students. Of course, I have felt a similar type of pride for my younger brother, but in our relationship I have long approached him as if he were a friend almost of my age. Which is not too far from true-there is only a four year difference. But this kind of pride, the kind of pride I feel for my campers, is slightly different. It’s a soft wonder, a surprising happiness, moments that I am taken by their work, or by their eagerness, in which I remember exactly why I go about with a megaphone calling out to passerby about the ingenuity, the wonderfulness, and the depth of children.
It happened, first, when I had them do a painting project one afternoon. Tape-resist art, in which they placed pieces of blue-tape on a white paper, and painted over and around them. I explained to them that wherever they put the tape, it would remain white. And that they could make shapes, or any kind of pattern or abstract placement they wanted to. At the end of the day, when I looked at each of them, all of their paintings next to each other, I felt: They did that. Two Dominican flags, an American flag, some had made their initials, another her name, here a symmetrical one, there one with a surprising amount of care and detail. The impression of their concentration and engagement now reflected in their work. They did that.
The same experience again, perhaps even more so, the day I had them do magazine collages. Two stipulations, I had told them: “You have to fill the page, and it has to be about you. About ‘me.’ Whatever that means to you–your likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, what you want to be.” They had a bit of a challenge too; the only magazines I had found were stacks of The New Yorker, with relatively few pictures but plenty of text.
Their creativity amazed me. Pretty squares, made of decorating tape, reminiscent of frames encircled a collection of pictures, matched the border round the whole of the paper. Pictures tilted, made to look as if all the components were coming out of the center. An explosion of stickers. A glittering sticker star of pink, with a pink/purple/black color scheme running through all the pictures. Layers upon layers of cutouts, gray and blue and silver. Two more subdued collages, with an effect we’d call artsy-several tastefully placed cutouts, with no obvious connection, but with a sense of, “yes, these go together.”
And then, in their willingness to participate in the little lessons (this week poetry) they claim to dislike, because “it’s just like school.” The eager hands, arms stretched straight to their limits, and then, having waited through the limit of their patience, asking out loud, “Can I read first?” Or saying, “I have an answer!” Proud, when they read, hearing them learn to read better, and learn intuitively the rhythms of poetry. Proud, when they answer, and their answers are earnest, responding to “why ‘problem world’?”–a line from Langston Hughes–with things that at the age of eight and even twelve I might well not have said. Responding to questions about their fears and about their dreams with real fears, with real dreams, and being ashamed of sharing neither.
When I hit upon a project or a lesson that works, that serves as an outlet for them, I feel, “Oh yes, how good.” It prevents them from running around and fighting each other, for one. But more than that, so much more than that–they express themselves. They speak. They get to be heard. They make things, with their own hands and minds. Their creativity, their individuality, splays, grows like a tree, who, rising, spreading its branches and foliage, finds itself finally in the sunlight.
Now that I’m in my second year involved in grassroots organizing in Baltimore, it seems like a perfect time to reflect on what I’ve learned since last May. One experience last week captured much of what I’ve learned and experienced.
On Wednesday afternoon, after a day of preparing logistics and materials for the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign canvassing, I was collecting petition signatures for the Baltimore Housing Roundtable’s Fund the Trust Initiative petition. I got a call from an organizer from Baltimore Jews United for Justice. The next day, he was to have thirty middle school-aged Jewish summer campers coming to his office to learn about community organizing, migrant justice, and immigration. His co-facilitator was sick, and he asked me to jump in and lead the session with him. Of course, I agreed.
I’ve built relationships with lots of organizers in Baltimore working on a number of different issues. More than build up these relationships, I’ve learned about what it means to have and use these relationships. My networks have enabled me to continue working at United Workers through this summer, and I know the organizers and staff at Jews United for Justice well enough that they reached out to me to run a program with them. I’ve also learned about housing, healthcare, immigration, and other issues that impact Baltimore enough to talk and teach about them. Through the work I’ve done, the articles I’ve read, and the people I’ve talked to, I have had to understand detailed histories and dynamics of development and how those relate to issues like immigration, healthcare, and violence.
When I got to facilitating the training at the JUFJ office on Thursday morning, I was able to draw on my experiences from more than a year of organizing. I walked the summer campers through different tactics that movements use to build power, gain momentum, and push for change. Using my own experiences planning and engaging in organizing tactics, we had a conversation about different kinds of movements, the types of change that we can push for, and what we might use in these instances. When we talked about advocacy and education, I used moments when I’ve written op-eds or spoken to reporters as examples. When we talked about confrontation organizing, I talked about planning housing actions at City Hall confronting public officials such as the Housing Commissioner and the Budget Director.
Over the last year, I’ve been lucky to have a great education in organizing from the best in the business, thrown into the fray in fights for fair development, healthcare, and more. I’ve learned how to build, maintain, and use public relationships in meaningful ways. I’ve gotten to know the ins and outs of housing and healthcare policy and how they relate to different communities of people in different ways. And, I’ve learned how to organize effectively in a few different contexts. It’s exciting to think that I’m now able to teach some of what I’ve learned and experienced to younger people so that they can start to engage in activism and organizing in their own communities.
I’ve said for ages that Baltimoreans are unusually nice people. In New Jersey, where I’m from, for example, the most you get from another human being walking down the street is a nod. In Baltimore, you get a smile and a greeting from almost every person, and full- blown conversations with strangers aren’t an oddity.
On Wednesday, I went to a number of local businesses with the intern from Charm City Care Connection to raise money for our upcoming health fair. I expected to be shut down dozens of times- why would you donate or even entertain the thought of donating to an event you probably haven’t heard of, run by two college students you don’t know? But instead, a few businesses committed to giving, either cash or food, on the spot, and pretty much every business allowed us to post flyers in their windows or on bulletin boards. And everyone we talked to was wholly supportive of our goal. That’s something very special about the city of Baltimore- everyone genuinely wants it to become the best it can be.
This health fair isn’t going to change the city of Baltimore as a whole or fix systemic issues that plague the city and it’s community. However, what people realize, and I’m glad that they do, is that this will be a means for the individuals that do come to learn more about the resources that are available. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to not be able to fix systemic issues, and I’ve decided that all I can do right now is make the biggest difference I can I’m my small corner of Baltimore.
This Tuesday, it was announced in our staff meeting that we would be moving up a few floors and that everything would need to be packed and labeled by Friday, July 19th. Since then, I have sorted, packed, and lifted so many things, and we still have so much more to do. It’s been stressful, especially because I’ve been tasked with sorting and packing materials that predate my existence at the LHRC. My coworker has given me the task of throwing away anything outdated or no longer needed, but there’s more guesswork to that than I’m comfortable with. And, even though it’s been a few weeks since I’ve started the internship, I still feel that drive to prove myself. Altogether, I was an anxiety-ridden ball of manic energy in the past few days. This situation just wasn’t sustainable, and I’m glad my coworker stepped in before I crashed.
One day, when I arrived at work and jumped right into packing, she pulled me aside and told me, “I know you’re excited to start, but let’s settle in first. It’s going to be a long day of packing, and I don’t want you to burn out. Just sit down and work on something on your computer, and we can start in half an hour.”
Similarly, she stopped me at around 3 and told me, “Hey, we did a lot today. You’ve been working really hard, so whatever you’re working on around 3:30, just finish that up and spend the rest of today working on other things.”
I know self-care is important, but I’d never had anyone really ask me to take care of myself before. It was the wake-up call I needed, both with my internship and my lifestyle. It made me wonder why it was easier for me take some time for self-care when someone else was telling me to, compared to when I tell myself I need to. When it’s the latter, I always seem to push it off and continue working, because it feels wrong to stop and be “unproductive.” Maybe it’s the affirming environment at the LHRC, where I know my coworkers care about me and want me to take care of myself, that allows me to let go for a bit. But I think there’s also a personal factor in this, and I think it might be that, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think I’m important enough compared to the obligations I have to meet and the people who exist around those obligations. And the more I think about this, the more I realize how I don’t want that to be true.
So my resolutions this week: 1) take a step back and really think about why I feel this way, 2) take my life back by scheduling self-care and adhering to that schedule.
It seemed like my whole summer led up to yesterday, the day of the Day in the Park event. This was my main project, and a lot of energy and time went into planning and organizing the event, both from me and my supervisor, as well as a whole team of volunteers in the neighborhood who helped out. Although it wasn’t perfect, I’m happy with how it turned out, and I definitely enjoyed being a part of it all.
The day before the event was truly hectic; it felt like there was so much to be done and not much time to get to everything. Starting early in the morning, my supervisor and I hit the streets to pass out one last huge set of flyers for the event (of course it was sunny and hot while we were out, because it always is on days that we flyer). After finishing that up, we hit the road to run some errands: we went grocery shopping for all the food and miscellaneous items that we still needed, went downtown to pick up city permits, and picked up some food donations. All in all, I felt like we were prepared, but I was still anxious about how the day would go.
On the day of, I woke up early and was ready to get through the day. As expected, it was also pretty hectic for me in the couple hours before the event. Since I have a car, I was the designated person to go pick up last minute items that we needed; as a result, I found myself driving around nonstop to different grocery stores and and food places to pick up last-minute snacks and food donations. (As a sidenote, minus using up gas, I actually enjoyed driving around. I found myself much more comfortable with my sense of location, and was navigating my way around the area without the help of a gps. Small, but significant feat for me.) Eventually, things were set up and I was able to settle in. The event was basically supposed to be like a cookout for the neighborhood, and that was exactly what the vibe was. The DJ was playing good music, kids were running around enjoying themselves, and the older generation were relaxing, seated at the tables watching it all. We had community members introduce themselves and share the work that they are involved in, some Youthworkers from the 29th Street Center came and spoke about a “stop the violence” themed rally they are hosting, and a woman from the Ceasefire movement came to speak and sage the event. Unfortunately, the performers that we had lined up weren’t able to make the event, which I was pretty bummed about. However, I still believe the day was a success. It was a good turnout of more than 100 people, and people were able to connect with each other, sign up for more information about community happenings, and just relax and enjoy a day in the park. Since the event was just yesterday, I’m still reflecting on what exactly went well and what could have been improved throughout the process. Of course things could have been better, but right now I’m taking pride in the fact that people really enjoyed what was put together.Tags: 2018, 29th Street Community Center, Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Healthcare as a Human Right, Maryland Physicians for a National Health Program, Nate Tatum, Ruth M. Kirk Recreation Center, United Workers, Week 5