2019 Week 2: Neighborhood Improvement/Community Organizing

Janaya B HeadshotJANAYA BROWN | FRANCISCAN CENTER

Everything in life requires adjustment. The center is not what I had expected to be at all, as I first realized I’d be in the Franciscan Center, I was worried that I was neither Catholic nor very religious. How would I look walking into a center started by nuns? That was a pervasive worry as I walked to work on my first day, and the one that ended as soon as I walked through the door. That was my first major adjustment, that people who came to work there were just like me. They were here to help for the purpose of helping, and both employees and volunteers came from vastly different backgrounds.

My biggest challenge of this week, as I continue to get to know how the center works, is figuring out ways to keep serving a purpose. When the center is open to clients, there are all hands-on deck to help run services, but before opening and after closing are times often filled with more free time than I anticipated. I do my best to help wherever there is help needed, but I still find myself longing to do more on a more consistent basis. As I start my own little projects, I hope that people use them than them becoming wasted paper and resources.

Other than that, I take each thing one day at a time. Last summer I thought I would walk out and say I did amazing and life-changing things at my placement. This summer I just want to leave with the interactions with clients and relationships that I have made and will continue to make. Even if the end of the summer marks the end of my relationship with the Franciscan center, it will be still be a humbling and cherished experience.

 

Sarah A HeadshotSARAH ABDELLAH | 29TH ST. COMMUNITY CENTER

As the lingering scent of charred hotdogs and warm laughter surrounded me, I couldn’t help but smile. Even though handing out turkey sandwiches and water bottles may not seem like the most interesting task, it was the most fulfilling. Some of the children expressed how they regularly ate at the McDonalds, less than a block away, for their meals.

I was heartbroken.

I was upset.

I was angry.

Children should have access to healthy foods – yet healthy foods are typically less accessible in low-income areas compared to their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Healthy foods are also much more costly compared to cheap fast food that is already prepared.

With no low-cost health options available, it made sense that McDonalds would be a go-to.

However, I was also grateful.

Grateful that the after-school programming at the 29th Street Community Center is conscious of being in a Healthy Food Priority Area and offer healthy meals to these children.

While reflecting, I feel a tug on my shirt, one of the children begs for me to sit next to them. As I grab a seat, it wasn’t a full second until the center erupted with demands to sit next to them.

“Ms. Sarah sit here!!!”

“No come sit with me Ms. Sarah!!!”

“She sat with you last time, it’s my turn now, right Ms. Sarah?!?”

While sitting amongst the sea of paper plates and screaming children, I was somehow able to trick them into eating their vegetables by remarking:

“Mmm these carrots are DELICIOUS!!”

Which got everyone to finish their carrots with smiles rather than scrunched up faces of disgust.

After another eventful lunch service, it was playtime. A gust of wind followed the kids as they raced towards the playground, seeing who could reach the swings first.

It was then when the first fight erupted between two of the elementary girls – fighting over the swing. I found myself in the same position I was when mediating arguments like these with my younger siblings. I had both girls tell me what was wrong and sat them both down on the bench to apologize to one another. My heart filled as they genuinely apologized, hugged, and ran back to take turns on the swing.

The day concluded with all of us sitting in a circle, as each child of the after school program was brought into the middle of the circle to hear compliments from their peers and eat the cupcakes, we prepared earlier that day.

I couldn’t stop smiling, it touched my heart that the kids were so welcoming and kind not only to me, despite only knowing them for a week, but to each other. This community center plays such a large role in promoting leadership, nonviolence, and sense-of-self, especially when the city is perceived as violent. The people who make up this community center are taking steps to change this narrative and I feel so lucky to be a part of their mission.

As parents were signing out their kids for the last time, I was tackled by a swarm of hugs and tears. I waved and said goodbye to all the kids and to enjoy the rest of their summer, then one girl exclaimed, “Don’t say goodbye, just say, see ya later!!!”

And with that I smiled, exclaimed “see ya later!!!” to all the kids and set out on my (rather short) journey from 29th Street to 31st Street.

*See ya later at Peace Camp!*

 

Turquoise B HeadshotTURQUOISE BAKER | WAVERLY MAIN STREET

I’m a proactive person: if something is wrong, I do everything in my power to fix it. However, this week I had to come to terms with the fact, that there were some things and some people I could not immediately help.

For nearly a year, there has been construction on Greenmount Avenue. The vast majority of businesses in Waverly are on, or adjacent to, Greenmount. The construction was supposed to last a few months, but has far exceeded the initial deadline. The project won’t be complete until sometime in 2020.

Road improvement is, in the long run, great for neighborhoods. However, if done inefficiently, it can hurt businesses more than it helps them. Many Greenmount businesses have expressed their frustration with the construction, as sales are dropping for most (if not all) of them. Earlier this year, one business shut down because sales dropped by nearly 45% since the construction began. Restaurants that have been on Greenmount for decades are reporting similar losses. An additional businesses admitted that they’d have no choice but to close their doors before the end of the summer, if not by next month.

A few business owners have come to Waverly Main Street (WMS) asking for assistance. Unfortunately, we can’t help everybody. We only have so much funding. If we help one business, we’d have to help all 150+ businesses in Waverly that have been negatively affected by the construction, which is not feasible.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working with WMS board members and receiving input from community members and business owners to figure out how WMS can better serve Waverly. There is not an immediate solution to this problem, or a way to instantaneously combat the negative effects of the construction on local businesses, but I am glad to see that so many people are committed to working towards a solution. I’m looking forward to putting my best foot forward next week to work alongside them.

 

Barae H HeadshotBARAE HIRSCH | UNITED WORKERS

Our table at the block party was towards the back, far away from the tables of food and close to the entrance. The wind was strong and frequent and papers were all secured with clipboards or under backpacks, so the presentation wasn’t exactly eye-catching. But the multi-colored spinning wheel with different questions about housing in Baltimore, community land trusts, and waste disposal was fulfilling its job of attracting kids, who were delighted with the offer of candy and much less so with the specific questions.

A young woman named Rebekah, who later told me she was going into her sophomore year of high school, spun the wheel and landed on the question, “what does affordability mean to you?” Her answer was spot-on. As our conversation continued, Rebekah’s insights continued to be incredibly thoughtful. After discussing the dual issues of vacant homes and affordable housing for only a few minutes, Rebekah claimed, “I’m gonna talk to all my friends about this. We could spend our time doing something for the community.” Rebekah was already an organizer.

As it turned out, as I was talking to Rebekah, her mother was talking to my supervisor, Adriana, right next to me. Her mother was equally excited about our work and wanted to get involved, signing up to attend meetings and learn more about community land trust membership. Our next visitor was also deeply interested in becoming part of efforts to address vacant homes and create the communities that residents want and deserve. She said she frequently walks her street and sees houses boarded up and empty while her rent rises, and was tired of the lack of attention paid to her neighborhood in East Baltimore and the people living in it. When she wrote her name on the sign-in sheet, we noticed she had the same last name as the two names above her — our previous visitors were her mom and sister. Each of the three women in their family had approached our table independently, each with their own poignant observations and tenacious desire to be part of change.

Rebekah, her mom, and her sister all know far more than me about what it’s like to live in neighborhoods full of vacant homes while neighbors get priced out by rising rent and utility prices, and their stories add depth to our work of community-based, community-driven organizing. They are the reason I am here, doing this work: at its core, I am here to learn from and support their efforts to redirect this city towards justice, from the ground up.

 

Kenny V HeadshotKENNY VITTY | BY PEACEFUL MEANS

I think a challenge for me the past two weeks has been waiting for the camp to get started and for me to actually start teaching the kids. However my responsibilities for my placement have slowly increased in the sense that I was including in some of the planning aspects of the camp. I had to pass out some flyers for the camp and it was really exciting to meet the kids that were going to be at camp. I also met the staff excluding the youth workers at a staff dinner meeting on Tuesday and they seemed really cool. The staff seemed very dedicated and I am very excited to learn from them! This upcoming week should be very exciting as this week is when I officially start!!

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