2019 Week 5: Neighborhood Improvement/Community Organizing
As part of United Workers’ organizing, we frequently walk through neighborhoods knocking on doors and talking to residents about their neighborhoods — what they like, what they’re concerned about, changes they’ve seen over the years. We ask them if they feel their housing is affordable, if they feel included in decisions made about the community (if not, would they like to be?) and provide opportunities for follow-up and involvement with community activities, especially around affordable housing and community control of land.
On its face, the idea of knocking on a stranger’s door and proceeding to engage them in an approximately ten-minute conversation about housing and trash disposal in Baltimore might seem like a big ask, or at least an uncomfortable intrusion into people’s privacy. Why should residents’ Saturday mornings be disrupted by perky organizers with clipboards? And while some people definitely answer the door annoyed, or say they’re busy, or just don’t come to the door even though we see faces popping out of curtains on the second floor, for the most part people are receptive, open, gracious, and forthcoming with information and desire to be involved in their community.
For one, a lot of the organizers knocking on doors are from the neighborhood themselves. And we are talking about issues that everyone in East Baltimore can see are pertinent: some blocks contain almost entirely vacant houses, with trash piling on the lots amidst boarded up windows, while thousands of people go homeless or struggle to meet their monthly rent and utility costs.
People in Baltimore — primarily poor and black people — want to see change, want to see fair development driven by themselves and their neighbors and people who actually live in the city, rather than the county or another state; they want resources to provide their young people with safe spaces to be young and jobs to gain their autonomy.
When I first started knocking on doors, I felt I was continuing a long history of invading people’s neighborhoods and personal time for political goals. Now, with substantially increased confidence, understanding of the issues, places, and history, and a few more skills, I see each new door as an opportunity for building connection, for listening, and for expanding the possibility of creating a more just Baltimore.
On Wednesday, I took over the CIIP insta story for a day in the life, which made me think a little more intentionally about my experiences through the day and how to present them. Looking back over the story that night, something felt missing. This was a story about me moving around Baltimore, the places I went — the retailers I visited in Charles Village, Fells and Port Covington, the spaces I stopped like Milk and Honey, the Made in Baltimore store and Impact Hub. But it was missing the people, and it was the people who really made my day unique.
At Su Casa I met Nick, a super friendly guy who welcomed me into his store, taught me about the different local artists they support and shared with me his store’s whole story. While we were talking, one of those artists came in with her son to unload a van full of her new product. While we stood around afterward chatting, her son pulled at her sleeve and asked if they could leave. “Someone’s tired!” Nick exclaimed, beaming. After they left, he turned to me and said, “That’s why we support local.”
The first time I met Kelley, who runs the BMI gift shop, we barely made it a few minutes before we were complaining about Martin O’Malley and Kevin Plank. By the time I was on my way out the door on Wednesday, she was showing me pictures of her daughter’s dyed hair. She hugged me as I promised I’d see her again soon. I zipped straight up to see Sara at Get Shredded, where I left my phone to charge while I popped over to Carma’s for a lemonade. Back in the store, we settled across from each other at the counter to chat about the summer (which mostly turned into us griping about capitalism).
Sara snuck her way into a selfie on the insta story. Kelley and Nick didn’t feature. Who else in Baltimore didn’t make it onto the story? The baristas in Milk and Honey who I chatted with while I waited for my sandwich? The woman whose bag I complimented in Carma’s? The guys hanging out at the bus stop who warned me how dangerous Lime scooters are? The old lady who I talked to walking down North Avenue? Those people were all part of my day, and yet they didn’t make the final cut on my insta story.
I guess I’m just worried that it’s too easy for me to reduce Baltimore down to a few neighborhoods that I can check off. I don’t want to forget that the people, not the roads or zip codes, that are making my days and my summer unique.
For a second summer in a row, I have really been able to appreciate the resilience and perseverance of Baltimore residents. During this last week, I went again to visit my friends that panhandle in my neighborhood to check on how they were doing in the July heat. As I stood talking to them about how things were going, they received terrible news. At that moment, they found out their friend that had gone missing had been found dead of an overdose. Beyond the first wave of shock, I rushed to comfort them through the beginning of a typical time. Through the rushes of grief and anger, one friend reminded me of how often people forget that those experiencing homelessness are still human and still feel. They try their best just like the rest of us, but the system leaves them feeling forgotten and alone. They just want to feel heard, cared for, and seen.
Each day I work to make life a little bit easier for those experiencing homeless or economic insecurities. For many of us, we do not know how much of an advantage that we have by having a social security card, a birth certificate, or an idea. We also do not have to struggle through the difficulties of obtaining these documents when life brings hardship. People often feel stuck in a vicious cycle when they are sent from one agency to another just trying to get basic identification to obtain jobs and housing. There is nothing that feels better than when I have helped a client get a birth certificate and see the smile on their face as the worry washes away.
Baltimore and its residents have been through so much, yet in the face of adversity, people do not give up. From clients to friends, they motivate me to continue to keep doing this work. I will continue to repeat this sentiment throughout the summer, as well as throughout my life.
Through my experience in CIIP, I found myself thankful for the opportunity to interact with the community I serve. To be able to have open conversations and hear the stories of those I see nearly every day at the center has been an extremely gratifying experience.
With the Health Fair quickly approaching, I have shifted gears to make this my top priority -scheduling social media posts, session times, and flyering throughout the day. I am planning to take the YouthWorkers along my side when passing out flyers to advertise the Health Fair in order to reach our target demographic -those who live in the Harwood, Abell, Remington, Better Waverly, and Charles Village communities.
Through this year’s Health Fair, I hope to address several health disparities currently affecting the community -including lack of accessibility and affordability of healthy foods, HIV/AIDS epidemic, housing crises, and health/dental care for the uninsured. While reflecting upon the community partners I have recruited this far, I realized I lacked organizations that focused on healthy produce and services towards the elderly. Through my CIIP cohort, I was able to easily contact interns at Whitelock Community Farms as well as Keswick Multi-Care Center and St. Ambrose to table at the event.
Through my internship and outreach efforts, I have strengthened my public speaking and professional communication skills. I often found myself uncomfortable interacting with the surrounding community in the first week of my internship as I carried such privilege with me being white-passing, a college student, middle-class, etc. Yet, as the weeks went on, I found myself able to easily speak to whoever passed through the center, from the kids, program leaders, adults, and parents, I have found a way to connect to everyone in some way or another. I found overcoming this challenge very significant and influential for the rest of my life as I hope to graduate and pursue a profession where I can serve and interact with others. The Hopkins bubble is incredibly profound, and I could not be more pleased with the opportunity to truly see Baltimore and interact with Baltimoreans rather than staying on campus with my preconceived bias from the media.
Interacting with others, hearing stories of love, laughter, and loss have changed the way I come into my site every day. I hope to carry these stories with me throughout the rest of my life as a reminder of why I do this work, why I crave to serve others and use my hands rather than standing idly in an office – not interacting with a single person.
This week was a week of preparation and research. The week of the 15th will be pretty busy, with two major meetings. We’ve been doing research and holding smaller meetings to prepare for the first meeting since the middle of June, and I am eager to share our hard work at the meeting.
I’ve also been working on merch for Waverly Main Street and the Waverly community. I’ll admit to having somewhere between the right amount and too much fun with this small project. The task is fairly simple and many of the “designs” I’m using were included on past merch orders. However, I like the creative aspects of looking at different types of materials and models of sunglasses or keychains, looking over proofs and formatting and editing logos. Creativity is really important to me, and I always embrace opportunities that allow me to think artistically. But out of all the projects and research I was assigned this week, one continues to sit towards the front of my mind.
I sweep the storefront and the area around the 33rd street bus stop each morning, and every morning there is a lot to clean up: from broken glass bottles to (what seems) like thousands of cigarette butts. WMS’s Clean, Safe and Green committee has been brainstorming ways we could give Greenmount a bit of a makeover, while also deterring people from littering. One idea the committee came up with was planters. So, this week, I spent a significant amount of time looking up different types of nice, low maintenance plants, different types of potting soil, and multiple versions of concrete 20” x 20” x 20” planters (with drainage holes, obviously). Small things like this can really make a difference, and I hope you keep an eye out for 5-10 sturdy concrete planters on Greenmount within the next few weeks!
I think one identity I will always hold is a Public Health major (or maybe a public health professional when I actually start adulting). This weekend was my community center’s Community Day- an event where food, music, face painting, an raffles were provided. The event also included blood pressure screenings for the Barclay community as well. While working at this event, I noticed two interesting things happen: 1. The topic of death and dying was very prevalent, appearing more than once at the event and 2. The food served at the event was burgers and soda, not contributing to the food desert in Barclay and almost contributing to a food swamp.
While working at the community day in Barclay, I didn’t expect to hear about the expectation of death. This reality discussed by residents changed my perspective on how to live and work in Baltimore, as well as how future work I participate in might affect everyday residents such as those living in Barclay. I also learned to appreciate the people and residents I work for. Within my own community, death is not as frequently discussed, so also addressing the background factors as to why this is the case is important.
Community Day did provide food to any member in the community who wanted it. For residents experiencing food insecurity or don’t have access to food resources, this event definitely acted as an opportunity to address this need. However, the food given wasn’t necessarily nutritious which begs the question: When we intend to do something good for the community, are we really helping it or is there something we could do better? Yes, this food helps address hunger, but it also contributes to chronic diseases that will appear later in life. If we had the option to give healthy food at Community Day, we could have addressed hunger without contributing to chronic diseases.