2020 Week 5
Being a part of Baltimore’s response to COVID-19 has been exhausting yet rewarding at the same time. With the implementation of social distancing and transition to remote work, we are finding new ways to do our work to support the communities we have always cared about.
Despite an ongoing pandemic, MOMCares has continued to provide the services we typically offer during a ‘normal’ year. These past few weeks I have been coordinating our Wednesday Grocery Giveaways in front of Dovecote Cafe alongside our other interns, volunteers, produce providers, and delivery truck drivers. The chaos of setting up a When2Meet and set-up and take-down times are very soon filled with the gratification of giving away all of our available protein boxes, baby supplies, household items, and fresh produce for the week. Through this experience, I was able to learn about our main community partner for this initiative, Parts of Peace. Parts of Peace is a Baltimore City non-profit that works to eliminate barriers to access to support, financial, and food services and resources to Baltimorean families. Parts of Peace’s main areas of focus include food access: by providing free non-perishable foods in accessible, local community areas to remove common barriers such as transportation or zip-code restrictions. Parts of Peace also emphasizes hygiene access, similarly providing personal hygiene (soap, lotion, deodorant), oral hygiene (toothpaste, mouthwash, floss), feminine hygiene items (pads, tampons, feminine wipes), and baby care items for free.
As a student pursuing a career in Public Health, I found it vital to learn about the highly-connected relationships amongst several public health systems in Baltimore including schools, neighborhood organizations, elected officials, non-profit organizations, community centers, civic groups, and faith organizations. Collaboration amongst these various stakeholders, amongst many others, allow for cohesiveness and a support system as we continue to offer services. Without other organizations such as Parts of Peace, the Wednesday Grocery Giveaways would not be as effective as we would not reach the wide demographic of individuals in need, who became aware of MOMCares services through Parts of Peace’s website, newsletters, and social media following.
Dovecote Cafe has also been an essential partner for our Wednesday Grocery Giveaways. Dovecote emphasizes commUNITY first and cafe second, and creates a space that is unapologetically and authentically Black. Dovecote’s frequent hosting of community events from outdoor yoga to stands from local farms truly demonstrates their love for our city and crafts a unique space where people can learn, grow, laugh, and cry with one another. Our long-standing partnership with Dovecote has made Wednesdays a trademark spot to giveaway and pickup necessities for families in need. Although through the beginning of the pandemic, our services faced disruptions as in-person volunteering and pick-up were not as safe. Despite this, through the collaboration of several passionate local organizations and businesses, caring volunteers, and local activists, our services have slowly, but surely becoming more available as safety permits. We at MOMCares are very lucky to have incredible partners, volunteers, and interns to insure the safety of Baltimoreans by requiring appropriate masks and to stay 6 feet apart from others at every event. The efforts of MOMCares alongside Parts of Peace and Dovecote Cafe allow us to deliver necessities, from toilet paper to pads and tampons to laundry detergent to diapers, that may not be as accessible due to COVID-19, but also due to the existing barriers to healthy foods and hygiene products in Baltimore city, specifically in low SES neighborhoods.
Today marks the end of the second week of my Youthworks program. Unlike last week, this week was extremely easy and went very smoothly. Now that I am in the groove of things I know how to create programs quickly, keep the students engaged, and improvise on the spot.
This week I also had the opportunity to listen to the stories of three amazing women who immigrated to the United States as children. All three of them grew up to be extremely talented people but had to overcome many obstacles to get to their current position because of their documentation status. One story that significantly impacted me was that of Dr. Raquel Rodriguez.
One of Dr. Rodriguez’s biggest struggles in high school was thinking about how she would pay for college without federal loans or grants, which is available only to students with a social security number. Despite this fear, she applied to several universities and eventually got into Harvard, where she got a full ride for her undergrad. However, the obstacles didn’t stop there. You see, she was originally from California and now had to fly to Massachusetts without any form of ID. And while I’ll stop there, as to not spoil Dr. Rodriguez’s story, I can say that she confronted and overcame several similar obstacles before she finally was able to go to medical school.
All this is to say that immigrant youth in America are capable of amazing things but are often stopped in their tracks because of documentation. I know this because Centro SOL has given me the opportunity to meet these people and hear their stories. Even students who can have social security numbers with programs like DACA can never truly feel secure in their documentation status because of threats to end these programs. At any time, they can become susceptible to deportation to a country they don’t even remember. The process of even applying to become a DACA recipient comes with risks as well as a significant financial burden without a guaranteed acceptance.
Guidance counselors are only educated on the experience of American born youth and rarely know what resources to provide to undocumented children. And while this is more at the fault of the system that educates the counselors and not the counselors themselves, this means that the responsibility to find these resources lies on the student. The barriers to higher education for undocumented folks limit the diversity of the working force in fields like science, education, engineering, and many others.
While I may have the privilege of being born in America, and therefore never have to deal with these obstacles, I strive to educate myself on the resources available to undocumented children for higher education. I hope I can make the search for these resources easier for the youth I encounter while working at Centro SOL.
I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that a big challenge I have felt while working remotely is navigating how to form meaningful connections with community members when you are unable to meet and work with them directly. However, one way I have been able to connect with Baltimore City and my site is by making phone calls to residents with one of our partners, the Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC). They are working with the Ellwood Park Neighborhood Association to offer resources like housing counselors, food provision for those who are facing food insecurity, and supplying masks and hand sanitizer for residents. I called Ellwood Park residents to see how they are doing and let them know of the resources being offered. The ability to reach out to residents directly was really impactful; I heard how happy and surprised they were that someone was checking in on them and cared for their wellbeing. I was able to connect residents to the resources they need and talk to them about what gaps in service they feel exist in their neighborhood, even while remote. This experience was able to help close the gap between organizations like ours and community members that widens while working remotely and reassured that our work can still have an impact.
Our project for the neighborhood plan was primarily focused on housing stability in Ellwood Park and Baltimore Highlands, but when I called residents to offer housing counselors, very few felt they needed help navigating mortgage or rent. However, a concern I heard repeatedly was the lack of trash collection in the area, which was an issue I had never considered before. Residents vocalized that trash was not being collected consistently—which has been a hardship across the city—but even when trash collectors come to the neighborhood, some blocks are forgotten or the trash piles up immediately afterward. After hearing their concerns, we have been able to implement a trash strategy plan into our project and refocus our goals. I spent the last week beginning to research ways to help minimize trash in alleys and strategies to shift responsibility for trash collection to ensure people can be held accountable.
Although we are unable to meet with the community members directly, finding ways to still connect– whether over email or a phone call– is so important to continue building relationships and ensuring that community voices are being heard to allow us to effectively serve the community. I have a better understanding of how we can implement ideas and concerns into a concrete plan that will have a tangible effect in the future, and that is really motivating. I am excited to see the aftermath of our plan and know that although my work was remote, ideas left my desk at home and found their way to these communities.
The highlight of the past week for me was the connectivity test that we had on Wednesday. Due to us starting the CodeWorks program next week, which is Code in the Schools (CITS) summer program for YouthWorkers (people in the program YouthWorks, which is a Baltimore City’s summer employment program for youth), we had a connectivity test. The connectivity test was essentially just a check to make sure that the CodeWorkers can join our zoom link online and that meeting is working, and all the functionality of zoom is working. This included opening the participants section of the Zoom and making sure we can easily track attendance and seeing if people can use the poling and reaction functions of saying yes, no, go slower, go faster, saying they are away, raise their hand, applause, thumbs up, etc.
This also involved seeing if the CodeWorkers share their video so we could see their faces, can they rename themselves and are there any issues with that, what devices are they accessing zoom from, do they need a laptop or computer access for the rest of the program, and other stuff like that. This was all done for an hour on Wednesday at 10 am EST and I was leading the connectivity test. Jo, the senior manager at CITS, gave me host status so I can let people in from the zoom wait room throughout the hour. I just kept on reiterating throughout the hour what the connectivity test was for and how to rename yourself and guiding the CodeWorkers joining through the functions of zoom and making sure they were all good to go. There were a few cool things I got to do, like a vibes check from 1 to 10 (1 being the worst and 10 being the best) of how the students were doing in that moment and how they were feeling, trying to lead with empathy and express gratitude for the CodeWorkers being able to join with us despite any challenges they may have been facing, and find a sort of way to meet them where they are. Also, I got to get a lot of the CodeWorkers to share there pronouns and nicknames, and there were a few transgender CodeWorkers that only had their government names on file on our roster and not their real names that they preferred to be addressed as so I was very glad we got to collect that information on their names, nicknames and pronouns and got to update our roster for the upcoming week when we started to work with them. I thought I was able to lead the connectivity test really well and everything went pretty smoothly. Outside of the connectivity test the rest of the week was a bit stressful because it was the week before CodeWorks and we were working on advisory groups up until the very end of Friday but I was proud of all we accomplished and I am excited to work with the CodeWorkers next week and get to communicate with them and learn more about them as I enjoyed talking with them in the limited opportunity I got to in the connectivity test and already think some of them are really cool and funny. I definitely feel like I get a kick out of meeting the CodeWorkers and getting to know their stories and who they are as people so looking forward to that.
As I reach the end of my internship, not only is the final goal of my major project becoming clearer, but its place in the organization is as well. I recently had the chance to virtually sit down for a socially-distant informational interview with Mara James, my supervisor and BBMR’s Legislative and Engagement Lead. In that role, she is primarily responsible for much of the outreach that BBMR does, both internally and externally. With regards to the City’s internal budgetary process, Mara handles many of the day-to-day tasks that must be taken to keep Baltimore’s budget flowing, such as answering agency officials’ budgetary questions, approving vendor contracts, hires, and salary changes, and ensuring that the proper procedures are followed for all grant- and spending-related actions that agencies take. Externally, Mara also has a large role in ensuring that Baltimore’s budget process is accessible to the general public by checking social media to see where BBMR might want to put out PSAs or other communications to clear up misinformation regarding the budgetary process, as well as coordinating and tracking drafts of the fiscal notes appended to each piece of local legislation.
Throughout all of her communications with City staffers and Baltimoreans at large, Mara works to apply an equity lens to her work, ensuring clarity and transparency in the process. She looks over all the bill responses/fiscal notes, publications, and other responses/communications to the public to make sure that they make minimum use of jargon while explaining everything that might not be intuitive.
Her use of an equity lens is a part of her work that has gained even more importance in recent months. The nationwide budget squeezes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the breaches of trust between the government and the governed caused by police violence, and ongoing tensions between the states and the federal government have put a greater spotlight on good governance.
Herein lies both my new set of tasks and the source of my newfound understanding of my role. I have recently been assigned to look over the financial data regarding Baltimore’s response to COVID-19. My objectives are largely the same as they are for my larger project; I will analyze the City’s expenditures to determine how equitable they’ve been. The lesson was almost immediately apparent to me: As a public servant, many of your day-to-day duties won’t change, even in a time of crisis. However, during those crises, the underlying principles behind those duties become even more important.
For example, the emergency spending approval process is central to the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When in a state of emergency, many of the regulations regarding government spending no longer apply. This includes equity-based standards such as minority- and women-owned business contracting requirements. Nonetheless, the people with whom the government does business will directly impact which communities have more resources to build their resiliency against the pandemic.
This has large implications for my ongoing project as well. When I first started researching what went into a citywide budget equity assessment, the prospect was daunting. Cities like San Antonio and Portland that had done major work on this front had entire teams dedicated just to their equity assessment projects. As far as I was aware, the project I’d just started was one of the first review documents that BBMR was going to produce on the topic of equity, and with the data that I had, there was little to no chance that I would be able to go as in depth as those cities had in their various question-based tools for agencies.
I soon realized that the point was not to have all the answers myself within two months; in fact, it was precisely because other cities had entire equity teams and years of experience that the scope of my project would necessarily be different. So, I reframed my project. Instead of trying to answer the central policy question of “who gets what,” I realized that figuring out where inequities might be and developing a procedure with which to interrogate that question is my role this summer. This is no less powerful than any other step along the equity analysis process; in fact, I will essentially be recording the principles that will be the basis of BBMR’s equity work in the future.
A highlight of this week would be preparing for the BRIDGES Quarterly Supporters meeting. I worked with Rajani, Tricia, and Harriet to make an informative slideshow presentation that explains overdose prevention sites and the BRIDGES’ vision; what has been going on in the world; what BRIDGES has done for the past 3 months; and what BRIDGES plans to do for the next 3 months.
On Wednesday, we had participants in the ZOOM call as well as live streaming the event onto Facebook to have an engagement of a broader audience. The audience for this meeting typically includes advocates and supporters for the BRIDGES Coalition and can attract new supporters of BRIDGES’ mission. This meeting focused on one question: how do calls to defund the police connect to our mission to establish overdose prevention sites? The question emphasizes the ongoing protests against police brutality and advocacy by the Black Lives Matter Movement.
A critical question revolving around reducing police brutality is whether defunding the police is the answer and if so, how it may be done. Throughout the summer – through my internship and reading books and listening to podcasts – I have realized defunding police is the answer because reforming police departments have not been effective despite numerous time, energy, and money put into the system. This is because police brutality and the abuses of the power of policing is NOT due to a few “bad cops” among many “good cops.” Rather, the structure of policing does not allow for effective reformation: there are far too many state and federal laws that prevent holding police officers accountable. Furthermore, even if there were numerous hours put into training an officer, a warrior-mentality rooted in racism cannot be changed nor removed out of the individual. Lastly, police officers are expected to handle every situation with a weapon despite there being situations that would best be addressed by a crisis intervention team, harm reduction experts, city employees, or public health experts.
In addition to this, I was truly amazed to learn a perspective provided through the BRIDGES Supporters Meeting. In the discussion, a community advocate explained that defunding the police depends on who is calling for it: some may call for complete abolition, claiming the current system is far too gone to repair and must be completely abolished; and others call for redirecting portions of the police funding. Redirecting funding would eliminate part of the expected responsibilities of the police. If funds were redirected to high-pay jobs, education, or community services then it would 1) eliminate the premise of the war on drugs, which primarily targets Black and Brown communities, and 2) it would empower communities with the tools and ability to take power back in their community. By redirecting funding to education, community services, health, professional development, etc., community members can eliminate the mindset “oh it is a trash area, why should I do anything about it?” Eliminating this mindset, thereby changing the psyche to a more positive outlook, would decrease the outlying issues that call for violence. For instance, rather than calling the police for spotting a person experiencing homelessness, calling community organizations to aid the individual would prevent the person experiencing homelessness from being harassed or harmed for *suspected* drug use. As I learned from Rajani, the mindset that a community is “dirty” perpetuates anti- Blackness and stigmatizes and criminalizes people who use drugs, thereby criminalizing Black and Brown bodies. That is why it is so important to establish overdose prevention sites. These sites would not be a safe space for intervention that connects individuals to resources but would also lift the stigma that harms people who use drugs. To emphasize, people who use drugs are not automatically villainous, dangerous people. Neither are they are people who should automatically be considered a criminal: take for instance how we as a society romanticize the startups of cannabis by White people in California, but continue to arrest and imprison Black and Brown bodies in Baltimore City for having a small number of drugs on them. Rather than connecting people to overdose prevention sites, safe needle exchanges, or other resources, we are instead criminalizing Black and Brown bodies and preventing them from having an equal opportunity to job access or other forms of wellbeing.
The issue of the negative psyche and the mindset that “my community is trash, why should I do anything about it but call the police?” hits very close to home. Growing up in Perry Hall, MD, a suburban town in Baltimore County, I have witnessed numerous conversations – in person and online – that continue to depict Perry Hall as “ruined” or “trashed”, and this type of language increases exponentially whenever there is a headline in the news regarding the arrest of a Black or Brown person. Growing up around this mindset and working to consistently refuse that mindset can be emotionally exhausting and sometimes make you feel very alone. However, ever since the protests against police brutality sharply increased in late May/June, I have noticed that there is more sincerity in my neighbors’ voices when they approach a sad headline or confront a tough issue: it is one of recognizing our reality but not giving up on our community to do better. Recently, a neighbor found someone in their car every evening near the library. The neighbor brought up a question to the Perry Hall Neighbor’s Facebook Group: I found a car sitting in the parking lot for so many days, what should I do? While neighbors were suggesting to call the police, I was pleasantly surprised to see many people advising against it – they worried the police might harass the person and not appropriately connect them to resources; and so many people advised calling in a social worker or social services. Given this advice, the neighbor approached the man in the car and found that he is experiencing homelessness and sits in the parking lot to access Wi-Fi. Through the advice, contacts, and suggestions provided by community members, the person experience homelessness has received donations, connections to community organizations, and funding that can be accessed after they go into a treatment program for alcoholism. Witnessing the comments and conversations in person that express hope in the community showed me the power of changing one’s mindset and enabling community members to handle issues that do not require police presence, but rather require investment into the community.
A highlight of this week would be finalizing and publishing the July 2020 Newsletter of DewMore Baltimore. Initially, I thought this project would have a small impact on Baltimore –it is perceived that few read the newsletter and of the few that read the newsletter, they are already supporters of the mission of DewMore Baltimore. However, as I put the finishing touches on the Newsletter, I realized that the impact of the Newsletter and the mission, values, and passions of the youth are communicated to such a large audience.
At least 150 people are subscribed to the Newsletter, ranging from youth to educators to funders to principals at various schools. Such a large audience enable the events to be advertised to young people, as well as shared to teachers to encourage their students to engage in poetry and their community. Furthermore, putting in careful attention to the volunteer and donations section is necessary because we want to ensure our audience has all the opportunities to volunteer and get involved with the mission of DewMore Baltimore. In addition, this month’s Newsletter focuses on the 2018, 2019, and 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. The Youth Poet Laureate Program selects a young person from ages 13-19 to represent Baltimore on a local and national platform. The Youth Poet Laureate serves as a youth ambassador of Baltimore’s art and culture community by speaking and sharing their poetry. The YPL also receives a national book deal and an opportunity to represent Baltimore globally! By writing about their journeys, insight, and passions through the Youth Poet Laureate programs, more people can recognize the power of poetry and its ability to enable bright, young leaders to lead towards a strong, progressive future.
The inspirational interviews featured in the Newsletter inspire younger poets to join the mission of DewMore Baltimore. The Newsletter also attracts attract community members to invest their time and energy into DewMore Baltimore since the programming and advocacy by DewMore Baltimore has directly impacted the community in a positive way. This may be through raising strong youth leaders or may be through enabling young people to find a platform of expressing themselves or giving a secure, safe space for young people to feel welcomed and liberated in the most chaotic times. For instance, when I interviewed the 2018 YPL Maren Wright-Kerr, she explained the inspiration for her book, this book is all lowercase because I don’t cap, was inspired throughout her years in public education, where she was exposed to poets like Robert Frost and Shakespeare, but was frustrated to find poets stringent in style and not as engaging to youth. Through the YPL program, she gained the opportunity to publish her very own poetry book and thereby attract and engage young, aspiring poets to see that “poetry is whatever the poet makes it.” In another instance, when I interviewed the 2019 YPL Deleicea Nelson-Greene, she found the YPL program be a transformative, inspirational experience that gave her the ability and opportunities to perform around the city as a leader with a platform that connects and unites the community. In her last experience as the 2019 YPL, Deleciea had the special opportunity to speak and perform poetry at a Black Lives Matter protest, connecting with a wider audience and engaging with the community and uniting under the cause for justice for Black lives.
As more people read the inspirational interviews of the youth and the insightful words by the newest teaching artist Ephraim Nehemiah, I hope more people realize the power of poetry, communication, and ultimately sincere efforts of connecting with one and another: for it is through the power of communicating from the heart that we can deliver a compassionate message that impacts each other and beyond.
To read the July Newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/63b83941b3aa/the-dewmore-newsletter-is-here-4564584