Well, I don’t know about Black Asheville, but the state of Asheville in general today was OMG !@#$&* cold! At least it was on my way into the conference this morning as I trudged up the hill from the parking lot to the Highsmith University building where the event was taking place. I think that tinkling sound I heard was my morning caffeine crystallizing out of my frozen breath and dropping to the ground.
Once there, I found myself surrounded by an encouragingly diverse group of people who had come to here city officials, public servants, educators and others speak on the current state of the African-American community in the Asheville of 2007.
The forum choices were either Education or Health in the morning, and Housing or Law Enforcement in the afternoon. I opted for Education and Housing, since those topics are closest to what I am doing in my current service.
To say that it was an enlightening and inspiring day would be to do the event a gross disservice. People from around the community gathered together to honestly discuss concerns, issues, solutions and plans for improving the disparities of black Ashevillians, in terms of income, education, housing opportunities, jobs, health care, law enforcement issues and so forth, versus their white neighbors. I learned some of the important ways that zoning can subtly (or even not so subtly) create and maintain racial discrimination (if you zone out mutli-family dwellings, which are primarily rentals, you effectively zone out those who would live there, which would be lower income and therefore disproportionately minority peoples. Ditto for zoning that allows for large lot sizes only – very few minorities can afford single-family dwellings on half-acre lots in this town.)
I also learned about what the school boards are doing to combat the disparities in accomplishment levels, drop out rates and other educational concerns in the black community, and how it relates to what I am doing.
And I got some serious inspiration for the direction I want to take my life. More on that after a brief mea culpa.
I’m afraid that in the education forum, I may have pissed some folks off. I have a habit of speaking my mind when given half a chance and absolutely no compunction about doing so publicly, especially if there are folks to hear me who can do something about it, and this time was no exception. During the participatory portion of the forum, I spoke about my frustration with the decidedly small number of parents, family members and black community members who were volunteering time to help out in the schools and homework clubs. I spoke about how, out of 60-75 volunteers in the school I serve in, almost all are white even though almost all of the kids are black. I spoke about how almost all of the volunteers willing to come into the housing development to help out at the homework club were white. And how these black children were learning that the only people for whom education was apparently important enough to help out were white.
Several others spoke about why kids didn’t respect and want to be like their black elders, and about their indifference to learning. To my mind, the concerns I voiced are a part of this. If the kids only have role models that don’t resemble anyone they know – in race, lifestyle, economic situation or educational level – well, then they’re not really role models, are they? They’re just crazy white folks who want to “keep them down” or “get on their nerves” by making them do “stupid,” “boring,” and “useless” homework.
In their own culture, these kids may get messages that education is important from their families, too, but what many of them see is that either their friends, families and peers do not behave as if this were so in their own lives and are, at least from the limited perspective of a child, still doing just fine – they drop out, don’t go to college and don’t participate in the kids’ schooling beyond demanding good grades, yet they have a place with low-cost or even free rent, utility subsidies, food stamps, welfare, social services and so on and in some cases don’t even have to work to maintain these. They see “pimps” and dealers who are making six figure incomes not in spite of dropping out of school in 8th grade, but because of it, because they dropped out to pursue a lucrative and highly visible career in dealing rather than a hard, anonymous slog through the minimum wage jungle.
Or they see the few who have gotten an education dragging themselves to 10-12 hour a day wage-slave positions for almost no money and no benefits, just to scrape by, being worn down by the system and spit out at the other end as broken, aging detritus with no hope of either finding work or being able to afford to retire, doomed to rely on disability, Medicare, Social Security and what dribs and drabs of money they can somehow pull together from charity, family or other disparate means. Add to that the fact that, in the educational setting, the only folks in charge or willing to help are white and it just compounds the belief that education is only important to “other people” – people who don’t look, talk or live like them, and whose lives theirs will never resemble.
Unfortunately, I feel that I came across a bit more accusatory than I wanted to – I let my frustration show more than was productive. But hell, after being in this development for half a year and despite making face-to-face contact with these parents and their community pleading for help in a program that is literally 5 minutes away on foot attended by kids who are blood relatives, we’ve gotten precisely two PVA resident volunteers to actually come by and help – one for just one day, and another for a few days until her childcare went south on her. And in the school, we have maybe a few parents visiting in any given week for more than just dropping off late kids or forgotten books and almost none actually volunteering on anything more than a once or twice a year basis.
I can’t convince the kids that education is important to them and their family, because it isn’t (in any demonstrable way) and they don’t see why it should be. And I simply don’t have enough credibility in their lives to make a case for it on my own. *pulls hair*
Anyway, enough soapboxing.
Despite my fears that I made a room full of enemies, several attendees (including some movers and shakers) did come up to give me some amens and to express support for and agreement with my comments, which was reassuring. I shared my concern over being too confrontational with some of them, but most said that hey, it was all true and everyone knew it and not to back down from what I felt strongly about. So, maybe I didn’t shoot myself in the foot too badly after all. 🙂
There may be hope for me yet.
One result from this was a new source of direction for me. One of my goals for this year was to think about what I want to do with my life, and I was talking it out with hubs last night over tea at Barnes and Nobles (therapeutically spending down that Christmas gift card from my dad and his wife). What had been developing out of the fog of needs, wants, priorities and passions was a reaffirmation of my desire to help people gain self sufficiency through micro-enterprise – helping them start their own businesses, teaching about marketing and branding and niching, and so forth – I love that stuff, creating marketing campaigns, writing copy, creating branding and niche identities and so forth. I also wanted to maintain some sort of hands on activism in the community, some way I could affect people directly.
What came to me during the event, provoked by a comment from a fellow attendee, was the need for vocational training and jobs for people in public housing located in the developments themselves. Combining these ideas, I am considering the possibility of working with the housing authority to create micro-enterprise incubators in the developments. My long-term vision is a center that has both educational and applicational components – a place where residents (and other community members) can learn to create and run their own businesses (from home or otherwise), but that would also be a micro-enterprise itself in some fashion, perhaps a call center or an internet retail portal that would hire residents (thus providing local, no-transportation-needed jobs) and turn a profit for the support of the educational component.
I broached the idea with some trepidation to both economic development types and a few members of the housing authority, worried about how realistic such an idea was and how far into the mind-altering clouds I had my head stuck, but everyone responded with such enthusiasm and encouragement and interest that I’m convinced that I have to at least try, even if I have to start out small with a few lectures and workshops in one development.
Who knows – maybe in 20 years, Asheville’s public housing will be known not as places of crime, violence and despair, but as a sort of beneficial economic “gray goo,” creating exponentially growing and self-replicating economic sustainability; places where the poorest and the least advantaged in the region come not to be warehoused in the economic equivalent of hospice, but as the first step on their way upward and outward toward self-sufficiency, dignity and contributive productivity. Not as dead ends, but as new beginnings for those whom misfortune, bad choices or economic hardship have moved back to square one on the game board of life. And I want to be there, helping them roll the first die that moves them back out onto the playing field, ready to play a new game where they say how the pieces move and which path they take.
Gave me goosebumps, that vision did. You see what happens when you get me wound up.
Update: Hey, look – we got pinged in the Mountain Express! Cool.