2020 Week 2
As I log into Zoom, I see a quick preview of my head full of thick curls and my name along the bottom of the screen ‘Sarah Abdellah (she/her/hers)’. The addition of my pronouns to my username was quickly commended by Killian, one of the doulas I am currently working with to create a birthing and postpartum handbook for doulas. Our conversation quickly shifted to that of discussing gender inclusive language in Black birth work. Killian’s experiences as a doula and sharing why gender inclusive language is important provoked me to reflect upon my privileges. As a cis-identifying woman, I never realized how using the terms of ‘mom’, ‘mother’, or ‘mama’ assumes we solely exist and operate in a gender-binary and does not respect the identities that any birthing person may hold. Not all birthing people identify as women.
I began to think about how the name of our organization is ‘MOMCares’ and upholds this binary and cisgendered narrative surrounding birth work and ‘motherhood’. After discussing with Killian, we acknowledged that it would be difficult to change the name of an organization, especially one that is well-known for their work in our community, but we moved our discussion towards why and how MOMCares can continue to use gender inclusive language in Black birth work.
Gender inclusive language is important as it serves to eliminate binary narratives, acknowledges one’s identity, establishes trustful communication, and creates a support network for Black non-binary bodies. When scrolling through Black non-binary doulas on Instagram, I ran across the page @blackbirthhealer with a detailed infographic titled “I am not your Sis, calling our the binary narrative in Black birth work”. A quote that stuck from me from their post was: “When using binary narratives, it creates unsafe spaces for those who are nonbinary. Binary agendas do harm. Imagine you constantly having to correct and a lot of times defend your blackness to people who ‘don’t see color’. Being non-binary and Black is like being and feeling invisible in one’s own community.” Acknowledging the intersectional stigma between being Black and non-binary is relevant now more than ever. We are currently living in a revolution, in which the Black Lives Matter movement strives for the liberation of ALL Black lives – specifically affirming “the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all black lives along the gender spectrum” (https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/).
As an intern for MOMCares this summer, I want to continue using my privilege to provide support to all Black birthing bodies and create safe and affirming spaces for Black trans and non-binary bodies. How do I, and others in the birthing and medical world start to do this? It starts by using gender inclusive language. In terms of my position, I can begin to use words such as ‘parent’, ‘individual’, ‘birthing body’, and ‘birthing person’ instead of ‘mother’ when assisting Black birthing parents navigate NICU and postpartum care. Something I already do and suggest to those reading this post is to share your pronouns when introducing yourself, this simple step creates a welcoming and affirming space for all identities. Even something as simple as adding my pronouns to my Zoom sparked this amazing and educational conversation with Killian. I’m thankful to be in an environment that promotes learning and constantly educating myself on topics I was not familiar with. Killian sent me an informative email filled with a Google document with resources for trans-inclusive providers, books, PDFs, and podcasts on Black perinatal health and history, Black transgender pregnancy resource, and reproductive justice in the Black community. The existence and compilation of these resources is incredible in itself as a single Google document serves as an open source document containing information related to gender-affirming reproductive care and services including: free online training and webinars, spiritual support, legal support, primary care provider and insurance information, sexual and reproductive health resources by state, fertility and pregnancy support, and various Facebook support groups for Black non-binaries! I look forward to having more conversations with the doulas and other interns at my site regarding gender and eliminating the concept of a binary, as well as continue to invite Black non-binary parents into the conversation on how to create and use safer language and provide support that they and their babies need to feel happy, healthy, and loved.
Asking for help can be difficult. Last summer I spent the first week or so getting a grasp of what it meant to be working at Centro SOL, how to communicate with my team members, and how to make the most of my time. While many of my responsibilities are similar from last year, I’ve had work on translating many of the lessons I learned into this new online realm. One of the biggest difficulties that came with this was how I went about asking for help.
A lot of times I find it difficult to express what I’m having trouble with through email, which is why last summer I visited my supervisor’s office regularly. I found it comforting to not only be able to ask for help in person but also to create close relationships with my co-workers in the process. Now that we are online, I hesitate to send an email asking for help. However, a Zoom meeting with my supervisor made me more confident to express my feelings and ask for help over email when I need it. She let me know that we are all getting accustomed to working over the internet and might need more help, but to not be afraid to ask for help. I was better off sending an email being honest about my difficulties instead of spending extra time feeling overwhelmed and stressed. And I knew that if I wanted to continue making a positive impact on my organization and the students that I work with, I have to swallow my pride and write more emails asking for help.
This week I was also able to finalize a lot of the programming I’m doing for my main project. Something I realized from this program was how lucky I was to have the network backed up by the name “Johns Hopkins”. Just being an undergraduate gave me access to a plethora of professors and departments who I can ask for help in creating programs for my students. This week alone I was able to get 3 professors to agree to help our students with their research projects. And my goal is to get more professors behind this project, along with the Life Design Lab. I’m hoping that CentroSOL can continue using these connections with the interns that come in the following years.
I have already learned so much working with the NDC after such a short period of time. I am able to do the research and brainstorm the strategies that will influence the neighborhood plan to bring housing stability and improvements to the community. It is really cool to see the process of these plans and how organizations create change in a community and I feel lucky to be a part of that, especially when witnessing residential inequality in Baltimore is what made me go in this direction in the first place. However, I also have hesitations. I am working closely with my supervisor and another partner who works for the NDC in Prince George’s County in Maryland. Both are incredibly intelligent people who are teaching me so much, but it is strange working in neighborhoods and trying to “fix” them when none of us have ever or will ever have to live through what they experience. My supervisor and I live only a few blocks away from each other in Roland Park, and the other partner doesn’t even live in the city. Sure, doing data research on an area does not require you to live there to understand it, but it also breaks a community down to just their numbers. How am I supposed to truly understand what these residents are going through and what they need when I just see how the number of vacant houses on a block and then think of how to change it?
Earlier this week I drove to the neighborhoods I am researching to put a face to the numbers and while it reinforced how important this work is, it also frustrated for all of the reasons stated above. I spent only an hour or so in a neighborhood that has a couple of trees in a concrete jungle, trash overflowing from the alleys, guys sitting on corners eyeing me and yelling out Becky. It is automatically considered undesirable, but there is a lot of beauty in these neighborhoods: the architecture has so much history (my supervisor can look at the color of brick and know when it was designed, by who, and how it influenced affordability and neighborhood cohesion: what??) and there are blocks with lights strung across the street connecting the houses, painted sidewalks, little gardens. Once you get past the busy street with cars zooming past corner stores, there is so much more to it. People live here, raise their kids here. It is a shame parts are so neglected, but that is entirely due to the management of the city. Certainly, it doesn’t compare to the practical mansions I am surrounded by at home with so many trees and lawns it feels like a forest. After coming home, I swam in my neighbor’s pool. It feels like to completely different worlds, but why is that? Why can’t Ellwood Park have the same attention and care?
I suppose this is how I am supposed to use my privilege; using my knowledge and training to give back to other communities where I call home and fight for them. Using my experience to think through strategies that can really help the residents and bring attention to their needs, not just gentrify and displace them like major corporations will. But am I taking away their voice when I know nothing about their world? If I am just another white policymaker coming in to be a white savior, who is that helping? It all seems so unfair, and I want to be part of the fight to change it, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like my fight. The best I can do right now is to keep going back and put a face to the data and come from a place of real understanding and empathy to show them that someone really cares. And I think I can do that.
My second week at Code in The Schools (CITS) was good. I feel like I am really able to help contribute in a positive way. I feel like I have been on top of all the tasks I am given and despite all the things happening in the world I am still able to function. It has been really hard and upsetting to get up everyday and see something terrible happening in the world, especially the two lynchings and killing of Rashard Brooks last week by a cop. However, it has been really reassuring to be able to have discussions with the people I work with about these issues. It reminds me that there are people out there that still care and want these incidents to stop and are working towards stopping these issues. I also love having these conversations because it is a reminder that there is not an expectation for people to pretend that everything is business as usual. This new virtual normal is not normal and it is ok for people to not always feel a hundred percent in these conditions. Also, this abuse of black bodies, while it is normalized and is just being documented more, it feels like more people are caring and want change.
Organizational politics describes how groups of people interact with one another to achieve a common aim. It also outlines processes such as collective action and oversight, which can have an effect on how well the organization pursues their interests. As you might expect, governments are a particular analytical interest of organizational politics. They are an interesting case because not only do they have to deal with the individual interests of bureaucrats and elected officials across the organizational chart, but they are also charged with aggregating the interests and beliefs of their jurisdictions’ constituents. Further complicating things is the fact that every single member of the government’s organizational chart is themselves a constituent with their own political beliefs.
Often, legislatures are intentionally vague when defining bureaucracies’ directions and powers. Because many of the government’s responsibilities and powers are split up amongst the bureaucracy, a phenomenon called a “turf war” may arise when different agencies attempt to pursue similar initiatives. Counterterrorism is the best example. The United States intelligence community, law enforcement agencies, the military, and even logistical agencies like the Postal Service all have a part to play in national security. Sometimes, they pursue similar aims with little communication. The result is a muddled process that dampens effectiveness.
I imagined that local government would be less susceptible to such a thing, especially owing to its smaller scope. Both the increased ease of communication as well as the more communal, good-faith nature of local governance seem like they would ward against organizational confusion. To be clear, this has mostly been the case. The same community-oriented “spirit” of governance that I mentioned exists among the City Council members also seems to exist for Baltimore City employees. Everybody that I’ve run into, whether within the BBMR or in another agency, seems dedicated to their public service. Everything that I’ve heard regarding communication with other agencies sounds as if people are willing to field questions and give answers.
But, at times, that same dedication to their mission reduces flexibility in adapting new initiatives. Take the example of the BBMR’s Equity Assessment Program. In the initial draft of the legislation creating that project gave oversight and management duties to the Bureau of Planning. Eventually, however, that clause was struck without replacement, leaving no designated leader for implementing equity in the city’s development. Most agencies weren’t fully aware of the change and its implications either, as they were under the impression that the BoP would be handling most of the leadership.
This placed many of the City’s agencies in a holding pattern as they waited for further instructions. No agency took charge of the project — to handle all the interagency communications for such a large initiative is a daunting task. In other words, the project stalled not because agencies didn’t think the EAP was important but because resources were limited, and the time that it would take to put together the necessary research and reports would almost certainly place strain on the rest of any agency’s purview.
To be sure the lesson I’ve learned here isn’t that local government is inherently flawed due to its resource limitations. Instead, I’ve learned that it in fact has more flexibility than other levels of government to get around those limitations. After all, developmental and programmatic equity start in the budget planning process — remember, politics is a question of who gets what, with surrounding questions of when and how. By looking to build equity into budgetary discussions, the BBMR has found an efficient way to progress the City’s goals. This creativity and flexibility is what excites me most about working in local government.
This week, while interning at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, I continued the ongoing data collection project under the BRIDGES Coalition. In this project, I am paired with the task of assessing whether the 528 neighborhoods of Baltimore are active and record when/where they are meeting online during the pandemic. The data collection has broadened my understanding of community engagement in a variety of ways.
First, simply checking websites and social media of neighborhood associations reveals how different neighborhoods interact with their residents and communicate pressing issues to their immediate community. Second, the data collection reveals to me how vital communication online is, especially during a pandemic: there are so many pressing issues to a neighborhood, from registering and coordinating trash and recycling pick-ups, having daily to weekly meetings to assess the safety and pressing needs of the community during the coronavirus recession; and maintaining unity even remotely. Thirdly, the data collection gives me and the BRIDGES team a better idea of how to gain public, active support from neighborhood associations hit the hardest by overdose rates. By identifying the neighborhoods hardest hit by overdose and collecting information on their association meeting dates and times, BRIDGES and supporters with relationships to those neighborhood association can come present and inform about harm reduction and overdose prevention sites (OPS); provide training on naloxone; and ultimately take steps towards OPS advocacy through facilitated dialogue, videos and articles, and other informative resources. This data collection and investing neighborhood’s active presence online has made me confront my privilege to have a strong, affordable internet connection. Having a strong, affordable internet connection not only connects you to your family and friends near and far; but also gives you the opportunity to speak up and advocate for pressing issues and urgent needs that your community must address. Specifically, the COVID19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated on-going problems, from having access to clean water and remote education to securing wellbeing through food and jobs during the coronavirus recession. So, when many people are unable to communicate directly in person, a strong, affordable internet connection is vital to bring a spotlight on the continuing problems in society and to address the problems together in unity and solidarity.
This week, while interning at DewMore Baltimore, I continued an ongoing project of social media and outreach. I was paired with the task to compare partner websites and YouTube accounts to get a better picture of how DewMore Baltimore can expand its presence and accessibility online. Especially since the majority of DewMore Baltimore’s programming has moved online since the COVID19 pandemic, it is critical to ensure the organization can maintain a sustainable, strong presence online. That is why DewMore Baltimore needs to keep promoting and updating bi-weekly poetry challenges; sharing the content of local and global poets; and connecting with the youth of Baltimore through live streams and interviews. Sometimes a feature on a website may be cool and flashy but may distract from the content of the programming; history; missions; and overview of the work of an organization. But other times, a feature on a website can uplift the voices of the people of the organization; or connect the audience more deeply to the work of an organization. Thus, it is interesting to compare different tools and uses of websites from partner organizations and consider if such a change would promote and uplift the work DewMore Baltimore. Outside of taking notes of internet presence, I worked to update DewMore Baltimore’s Youtube channel, uploading and updating the playlists. Originally, many of the videos are from the Instagram Live/TV stream, but they may not be accessible to everyone interested in the awesome work done by DewMore Baltimore and so bringing the content onto Youtube makes it more accessible to a larger audience. I first uploaded and prepared a large playlist of videos from the series Salt Pepper CatchUp: Pass the Hot Sauce! This is a poet interview series coordinated by youth and managed by the youth who ask adults all the questions to some of the nation’s most prominent poets. This interview series connects young poets with older, wise poets that can lend advice not only in poetry but also gives an insight into the world at large. I also uploaded the #DewMoreInTheHouse Youth Poetry Challenge series. In this series, youth (5th-12th graders) submit an original poem by following the bi-weekly poetry prompts each month. These poems are seriously awesome – hearing the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and passions of such young people expressed to poetry can broaden people’s horizons and make people think in completely different perspectives of the world.
Adjusting to working from home is something that people have been talking about a lot. Admittedly, despite seeing advice articles, Instagram stories, and other takes on “the new normal,” I didn’t expect them to quite apply to me. With most of my work three months ago being primarily independent work where the onus was solely on me to be present and to meet deadlines, I viewed working from home as something for me to tackle independently. Devising ways to keep myself accountable. Becoming reacquainted to the home environment and the new priorities and responsibilities that go along with that.
This week, however, showed me that remote work is not just about managing your own responsibilities, but also adjusting to your role as one part of a larger workplace. I was no longer only doing work where I had to have some deliverable by some date. Working at a government office—or any formal team—means having to ask for approval, get material reviewed, relying on your co-workers, and having your co-workers rely on you.
During the previous iteration of CIIP, I was partnered with an organization where I was one of only two staff members. And being in a physical office meant being able to swing by a desk to ask (lots of) questions. As such, I’ve found my adjusting process to involve adapting to a combination of new communication styles, expectations for accountability, and already-established workflows. Filled with questions that I could no longer shout out across the room, I find myself asking questions about asking questions: am I sending out too many emails? Can I do this without getting approval? Am I doing this right? To whom should I be directing this question?
I can’t say that I’ve found the answers to these questions about questions, but I feel fortunate to have a network of people who are guiding me to potential solutions. My fellow peer mentors have taught me ways to “leave my office door open” in a virtual workplace, along with tips on how to show accountability with less frequent check-ins. Over the phone, my friends have told me about the challenges they’ve had with internships and what they did to overcome them. Conversations with my supervisor have elucidated techniques that facilitate communication when providing progress updates, such as coming to a meeting with one’s own agenda already outlined.
Not that those work from home listicles are meaningless, but there’s something about those group rants and the listening ears within my circles of support that I’ll never be able to find through a Google search.Tags: 2020, Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, CentroSOL, CIIP 2020, Code in the Schools, DewMore Baltimore, Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, MOMCares, Neighborhood Design Center