2019 Orientation: Neighborhood Improvement/Community Organizing
This has been one of the most memorable weeks that I have had during my college experience. Despite the challenges, I have gained a better understanding of what I hope to glean from this summer both personally and interpersonally. After peer mentor orientation, my nerves were fired by the fears that my peer mentor group and other interns would not like me or that I would not be able to connect with them. I have never been prouder to be wrong.
There was no way that I would have made it throughout this week without the great and passionate people I met along the way. First, I appreciated my fellow mentors, Eli, and Clarissa. Next, my peer mentor group that have opened up to me in just five days of knowing one another. Seeing how receptive they were to orientation from energizers to presentations gave me pride to be both their mentor and friend for the summer. Finally, over the week I got to know the entirety of the cohort. Even if only for a short time, I was able to interact with everyone from the cohort in some way. With each interaction, my excitement for the summer grew.
With every great interaction, there were plenty of learning opportunities during the week. I had to facilitate some hard conversations this week, around topics that are often avoided in light conversation. Over the week, we confronted the issues of Baltimore, Hopkins, trauma, oppression, etc. Though, as per our community agreements, I leaned in and embraced the discomfort. I took what I knew about the topics and willingly listened to all I still had left to learn. A fact that I will never forget as the summer moves forward (and even in my second year in the program) is that there is always something left to learn and that is a humbling realization.
It would not be right of me to forget that the CIIP interns and mentors made my birthday so special for me. I have not always enjoyed my birthday because I have often felt forgotten in the past. But this year was different in such a good way. I appreciate the time that everyone took out to make Friday memorable for me. You are all now a part of my chosen family and community.
“Be present and use your voice, not to dictate, but to amplify those whose voices are not heard”. This is a crucial lesson that I will not only carry with me through CIIP this summer, but throughout the rest of my life. Acknowledging my privilege as a Hopkins student did not fully hit me until the members of the Theatre Action Group asked us “Who is not in this room?”- something I have never considered before. At that moment, I was instantaneously filled with the drive to bend my privilege in the direction of justice, to amplify the voices of those who are not in the room. It is important not to assume what the community wants. Instead, you can learn a lot more by asking people rather than inferring what you think would be best for the community. This will be especially helpful at my placement, the 29th Street Community Center, in which hearing feedback from the community concerning types of programs that should be implemented at the center would directly serve their needs – whereas one of my ideas may not be what the community desires. Reverend Heber Brown posed several thought-provoking questions which I hope to answer throughout this entire summer – from ways how our placement interacts with the White L and Black Butterfly to how we can remain accountable to the blindspots we may have to the community we are serving. Reverend Brown’s words resonate deeply with me, as we strive to facilitate conversations and listen before we act. Although some conversations may be difficult, it is our duty to lean into discomfort in order to address the issues that may be controversial. As we walked through Penn Avenue, I absorbed the buildings, people, and roads around me – I wanted to remember every detail. I wanted to remember the Poppay’s story on the origins of Avenue Bakery and the fluffiness of his famous rolls. His initiative to commission local artists to document Baltimore history, from murals of the Royal Theatre to those of famous black athletes. Strolling through the halls of the Arch Social Club made me appreciate the architecture and preservation of art in the city and how the space has transformed to a community center for the youth. Despite the beautiful stories that filled the day, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at times. I felt uncomfortable with the privilege I held as a Hopkins student as people would make comments such as “is there a college party?”, “what’s up with the tour?”, “oh Johns Hopkins…”. Now I know that this feeling may not ever go away, but I know that I recognize the privilege I carry with me and how I can utilize the various resources Hopkins has in order to alleviate costs from my nonprofit placement this summer. Along the lines of uncomfort, I also pushed myself to share my hidden identities during the activities facilitated by the Theatre Arts Group. I felt powerful talking about how sometimes I feel as if I do not belong. As someone who is considered white-passing, sometimes I did not feel as if I was “enough”, despite my thick, curly hair, I do not resemble my dark-skinned siblings and father. When we grouped each other based on ‘skin’, I craved to create my own group, because I never felt as if I belonged in a single category. I decided to say that over the microphone, and instead of an awkward silence, I was greeted by reaffirming snaps and smiles of encouragement. I felt acknowledged and heard, which is what I hope to do for the people I meet this summer, my fellow CIIP interns, and those who I will meet in the future.
After going through our Community Impact Internships Program orientation, I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m grateful we had such a dedicated staff with the resources to plan such a thoughtful series of events and speakers. I’m grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained from those speakers and from my cohort. I’m grateful to the amazing caterers who treated us through the week. And I’m even grateful to have had such a great space to use for our first week.
During orientation, I felt empowered to think critically about the space we inhabited — FastForward U, a maker space supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Hopkins. When I did that, I noticed some interesting tensions.
Let me start on day one, when my friends and I didn’t have swipe access to the building. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a major disaster, we were chill, but it did strike me as off. Why wouldn’t my j-card ensure access to that space? What if I was just in Remington and wanted a study spot somewhere without dropping an obligatory $4.50 on a cappuccino?
But then we got a presentation from the FFU director who emphasizes that the space is open to all students — except not really, because you have to pop in for a quick half hour to chat about your entrepreneurial idea to get swipe access. Sure, I could make up a bullshit business just to get access, but why though? If we both know it’s meaningless, just skip the step and give me swipe access directly, right?
I don’t want to make this all about principle, so I’ll fess up and say that I also just genuinely would love to be able to use that space. It’s beautiful and bright and open and the chairs are comfortable and I could very much see myself stopping by just to vary up my study routine. I also want to check myself here, because up until now I’ve been thinking about this selfishly. I like that space, I would work there, I want swipe access.
But don’t even get me started on how valuable that space could be to creators, makers and entrepreneurs in the community who aren’t Hopkins affiliates. Giving small business owners or nonprofit leaders a space to hold formal meetings, consult with one another to build connections or even just sit and work could help them overcome a major barrier which holds a lot of people back. We already see a demand for spaces like Impact Hub. Space is expensive, especially where we are in the city.
Thinking more critically about where we are in the city also came up throughout the orientation, so lets roll with that. FFU furthers a pattern of Hopkins gentrifying its surrounding communities. I did some reporting on FFU when they were just opening up in fall 2017, and when I asked about gentrification concerns I was told that the space wasn’t replacing any homes. That, it seems clear to me, misrepresents the meaning of gentrification. Spaces like FFU will undeniably encourage the type of developments which can drive up property values and displace impoverished communities.
That being said, Hopkins could use FFU to support the surrounding community in a different way, sharing that space with many in the community who could make real use of it without diminishing its value to Hopkins students. This would even build bridges between the Hopkins and Baltimore entrepreneurial ecosystems, which could encourage more Hopkins students to stay in Baltimore after graduation.
Turning this back to reflect on the time we spent in FFU, I’m grateful to have had that space, but I can’t help but consider the implications of that. My understanding of FFU clashes with the values of community partnership and empowerment that we emphasized during orientation. Why not rent a community-owned space? The Undercroft in Remington is only a few blocks away from FFU, and the 29th Street Community Center is just a few blocks south of campus. That would help support a local nonprofit and help decenter our collective Hopkins identity that remained sheltered behind FFU’s beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows.
This is all just my best understanding, which I know is not comprehensive. I’m just thinking aloud as I process some of my main takeaways from this week’s orientation. As a Hopkins student and a member of CIIP I have a lot to be grateful for, but I always want to encourage people in power to share the wealth.
I enjoyed the scavenger hunt but I also found myself challenged by it. I thought I was perfectly comfortable going into some of the rougher parts of Baltimore, because where I personally grew up. But when we were walking around in Sandtown and North Avenue, I immediately and subconsciously thought I was unsafe and felt uncomfortable. Then I felt a pang of guilt and immediately asked myself why I felt that way. After pondering over this confusing array of feelings, I came into the conclusion that I had become comfortable with residing in a bubble. This bubble existed before I came to Hopkins and existed in high school as my parents worked incredibly hard to send me to a catholic middle school and later high school in the nice part of town. When I got there, it was an incredibly hard transition for me as this was the first time I went to a school that was almost exclusively white and with people of means. But what I noticed about myself now, especially after I went on the scavenger hunt was I became accustomed to living in this bubble. Accustomed is almost too strong of a word, because even now, although I know how to act in areas of privilege, I still feel a sense that I am different or an outsider in these areas. However, as I walked through North Avenue, I also felt like an outsider and that was something that I never expected. It was something that I need to realize and I am glad I realized this in the first week of CIIP, rather than the last week of the summer. If anything, this realization cemented without a doubt that I am now a man with privilege, especially due to the fact I am writing this in my apartment overlooking the lacrosse field of Johns Hopkins, whether or not I like it. For the past 6 years and especially these last two, I have benefited immensely from this privilege. But, in these coming weeks and in the future, I intend to use this privilege to bend it in the arc of justice, in the words of the Reverend Heber M. Brown.
KennyTags: 29th St Community Center, By Peaceful Means, Franciscan Center, Made in Baltimore