Archive | February, 2014

The State’s Homeless Challenge

24 Feb

Many of us have either volunteered at homeless shelters or sent our students to do the same. Personally, for several years I’ve sent honors students to tour local shelters and interview clients; the students often walk away profoundly affected by the experience.

Sometimes they’re humbled by the realization of the role that sheer luck, including the environment into which you’re born, plays in who winds up in shelters. Sometimes they’re depressed and disturbed at living conditions of homeless people who must sleep in the same room, to the degree they can sleep at all, before being pushed out to wander during the day. Sometimes they’re inspired by the commitment of both staff and clients to transcend the situation and effect some positive change.

Under Gov. Deval Patrick, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts itself has sought such change by supporting the Housing First model, in which folks who are homeless avoid the shelter step – which so many never get past –and move right into stable housing, thus heightening their opportunities to overcome their personal difficulties, build lives for their children, and get themselves in better position – physically, spiritually, and practically – to obtain employment. That model has long been acknowledged – even by many of the good people working within the shelter system – as not only more promising, but also as more cost-effective. And, like so many things, it only succeeds on a large scale with the help of government.

I revisit this topic as my way of drawing attention to a fascinating synthesis of the state’s current housing dilemmas, including the practice of having to pay hotels to house families, a problem that’s only growing. The article, by Rupa Shenoy of the New England Center For Investigative Reporting, ran in the Sunday Worcester Telegram & Gazette. It delves into the context of public policy regarding homelessness – and will be required reading for my students next time I teach a course on homelessness.

Meanwhile, gratitude and respect for all those working hard in the system to provide safe living conditions for the homeless.

A matter of forms

21 Feb
Question Mark 2-21-14

Graphic by Lucie Lang.

Last month I began a one-semester research sabbatical from Assumption College. Eager to make the most of this luxury, I’m planning a community service road trip, north to south, coast to coast. All told, three months or more of  roving the hills and dales of this diverse nation, meeting people, recording their stories, and sometimes earning my lodging with random acts of volunteerism.

All of which is considerably less arduous than what I’m doing right now – filling out the forms.

Specifically, volunteer forms. Not surprisingly, non-profits that offer lodging in exchange for volunteer hours (and usually a modest rent) want to know if I can actually do anything.

I’m a 56-year-old tenured professor with three degrees and a directorship, so it seems quite likely that there are indeed things I know how to do. Let’s see. Being an English professor, I’m really good at irony – which is important, since a cynic is just what you need when rallying volunteers to a cause. I also can drop in a lot of five-dollar words. Finally, I can use these words in lectures to students, a process which drains their parents’ financial capital, but gives the students cultural capital – including the ability to use the phrase “cultural capital.”

Surprisingly, none of these things showed up on the two volunteer forms I filled out last weekend.

Sure, the one for Mo Ranch – a retreat center in the Texas hill country where, 33 yeas ago, I trained as a domestic missionary– did ask about degrees, certificates, and organizations. But then, even before I was asked to explain my skill set, I had to face the challenge of “Health and Medical Information.”

The scale ranged from “poor” to “excellent.” Even imagining a scale in which “poor” meant “deathbed” and “excellent” translated to “hey, he still gets around pretty well,” I honestly settled for “good.”

When it asked about disabilities that might challenge my work, I started to check “yes” because of my bad right shoulder. Then I remembered how my surgeon said that, given the state of things, my shoulder was “freakishly strong” – so I marked over the original check, a move sure to inspire confidence by the person evaluating my fitness for that boulder-lifting detail. But I resisted heightening their expectations by writing “freakishly strong” – which would’ve led me to toting much heavier burdens, seeing as how they would decide I was an ass.

Then came the actual “Skills, Interests, and Hobbies.” Real trouble. First off, there’s a hidden tension between the first two terms: What I’m interested in doing involves a departure what I usually do, a.k.a. things in which I have skills. Consider “Maintenance,” which is more fun that it sounds: Under a full dozen routine life skills many people possess to some degree, such as car repair, the best I could do was check “Carpentry” – but add “with guidance.”

As anyone who’s visited my apartment would agree, even “Housekeeping” offers its challenges – sure, I can clean windows, but there are always these drips I can’t quite smooth out. Scanning the other categories, pretty soon I was down to doing some “trail clearing” – if I were having a good back day – and the fact I know how to use Microsoft Word. (But not Excel.)

Mostly, I’d be good for “Greeting Guests” – hey, I’m real friendly.

As for “hobbies,” it turns out I don’t have any. I mean, I don’t think one can count TV or reading, on-line Scrabble or hanging at coffee shops. I do yoga in what my yogi landlord fondly calls my “own Mike way” – and as the “Mike Way” isn’t likely to assume a place alongside the exalted disciplines of Kripalu and Kundalini, I don’t think that’s, well, form-worthy.

Things got even worse when another agency gave me the chance to use my official  creative license earned in grad school fiction workshops. Such was the case for poor United Saints of New Orleans, whose open territory on the form allowed me to say I could “facilitate nightly discussions” and even provide “writing prompts.”

How could someone so old know how to do so little? I’ve volunteered a good bit over the years – how did I get by?

I finally decided to put myself in the shoes of someone listening to me (you, apparently) and imagine that person reassuring me (as I’m sure you would, given that you’ve gotten this far into the post) that surely I must be able to contribute something to the greater good.

Given that premise, outrageous as it might seem at the moment, why are all these forms provoking so many blank stares (as well as blanks)?

Slowly, I began to see the reasons for all my self-deprecation. For one thing, there’s the way that using a smattering of skills to actually serve others can, if you take the task too seriously, imply a level of expertise that intimidates you right out of perfectly valid volunteer endeavors. What’s forgotten is that part of so many acts of kindness is simply the choice to be there with other human beings, fumbling through the experience together, doing the best you can. (Shoot, maybe there will even be a moment of mutual frustration when the thing needed to diffuse tension actually is a prof with a healthy sense of irony.)

Secondly, there’s the familiar tension between what I’d love to learn to do – one reason people like volunteerism – and what I already do way too often. The part of me that wants to truly serve the cause, and not my own pleasure, went ahead on both forms and admitted that I knew a thing or two about writing and editing.

Third was yet another limitation – one peculiar to the nature of my road-trip volunteer project. Perhaps what I’m best at is building relationships, bringing people together, selling them on a vision. These things lose their relevance when you’re being a serve-‘em-and-leave-‘em volunteer nomad driving cross-country. People on service trips do make meaingful if fleeting connections with locals, of course, but having connected, I cannot then recruit people to attend next month’s meeting.

What I realized, ultimately, is that most of these obstacles are true for most volunteers. But if we simply choose to show up, and just wait patiently and alertly, supervisors  find a way for us to help. Certainly, the odds of us making a contribution are way better than if we don’t show up at all. Plus, showing up does matter, in and of itself. If, as the Rev. Sam Wells once stated at a conference I attended, the central problem of human existence is our isolation from one another, then being there with people as they face a challenge is important, even if you don’t have the means to solve all the problems for them.

When it comes to making a different, I just have to trust – trust the leaders, trust my experience, and trust whatever greater forces may be at work.

So when it comes to these forms, it seems the thing I need most is the thing the forms often don’t ask about.


Literacy Through Photography

13 Feb

Photo by Ester Alvarado, who came to Worcester from El Salvador.

Driving from my home, I sometimes fight the force of habit and will myself away from the highway ramp, instead ascending one of the many hills of Worcester. As I cross the plateau at the top, to my left I can see one street after another plunge toward downtown, each lined with bland and boxy three-deckers, all seemingly the same.

Even though I often drive with a camera ready in the passenger seat, I never once stopped for a shot.

Then, two years ago, something happened that suddenly injected supposedly boring streets with meaning. It happened after an exhibit of immigrant photography held on the Assumption College campus; as I drove, I realized I was staring at one of my favorite pictures from that exhibit, taken by Ester Alvarado.

And now I had a story to go with it. In Ester’s words:


That photo and caption, like so many others in the exhibit, came into being largely because of the energetic and imaginative Esteban Loustaunau, a Spanish professor who, as part of a class he taught, gave immigrants taking classes at Teaching Resources of America, Inc., disposable cameras. Their mission: To take one shot symbolizing their lives in Worcester, then present on them using their developing English skills. Since Esteban is not one to let projects die with the semester in which they were started, he moved on to a next phase – having the photos framed with captions in the Assumption library, with a special grand opening, Photographers and their families – many of them taking a bus the school provided – greeted one another with hugs and celebrated one another’s work. It was a moving night, with some tears shed along the way.

Job well done. Time to move on, right?

Well, no.

Esteban then found a student, Andrea Kolodziej, to take the project to yet another level –– an on-line exhibit of all the photos, called “Immigrant Perspectives of Life in Worcester.” Andrea, a passionate, bright and creative CSL minor, created the website and conducted interviews for further information. “Photography is a universal language, so even people with a language barrier can express themselves and learn through photography,” Andrea wrote me. “The photographs are often very personal and meaningful to the participants.”

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

The project is an application of Literacy Through Photography (LTP), which has been practiced for decades, most notably by photographer Wendy Ewald. From 1990 to 2011, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies sponsored LTP as an active project; teachers would come to Durham for LTP training – and the school would ultimately take the concept abroad, training teachers in the use of LTP in Tanzania. (You can find pictures and stories about the latter on Duke’s LTP blog.)

Up in Worcester, Esteban, himself an immigrant from Mexico, read of Ewald’s work, and decided to apply it to his Spanish CSL classes. “One of the many challenges newly arrived immigrants and refugees face in their host countries is their ability to be seen and heard.  This is especially challenging when the immigrants and refugees are unfamiliar with the dominant language of their new land.  In a social and economic context, the ability to access goods and services, education, health, jobs, even public recognition is often based on literacy proficiency.  The more a newcomer understands about the culture and the language of a new place, the easier it might be for this person to adapt and settle in the new location.

“Now, to me that is still a one-sided view on settlement.  It is as if in order for a newcomer to be recognized as a citizen he or she must adapt to a given set of expectations and accept a new way of life.  This is the perspective of most governments who welcome immigrants and refugees.  What Literacy Through Photography acknowledges from the start is that newly-arrived immigrants and refugees already possess knowledge that ought to be recognized by others (i.e. the social majority.)

“The challenge we face in the United States (as in most countries who welcome immigrants and refugees) is that we seldom get to hear and learn about this other knowledge due to the immigrants and refugees’ limited literacy skills in English and perhaps also to our own lack of consideration from views and cultures that are different from ours.”

Count me as one of those changed by the LTP experience – now when I drive past all those three-deckers, I look more closely at all those three-deckers, wonder at the cultural diversity within those three-decker boxes that I once assumed were all the same.

Rafila D. Papit (Romania) on the Boys and Girls Club at Tainter Street: "I call this picture 'The Symbol of Constructive Creativity.'   Why did I take this picture?  I thought this building brings hope and opportunity for all young people.  ...  School should teach you to be your own teacher, the best and most.  Seriously."

Rafila D. Papit (Romania) on the Boys and Girls Club at Tainter Street: “I call this picture ‘The Symbol of Constructive Creativity.’ Why did I take this picture? I thought this building brings hope and opportunity for all young people. … School should teach you to be your own teacher, the best and most. Seriously.”

Saving Others – and Ourselves

5 Feb
Goncalves, photographed  by the Boston Globe's Yoon S. Byun.

Goncalves, photographed by the Boston Globe’s Yoon S. Byun.

Every year I teach (or co-teach) Literature of Social Responsibility, a course that strives to combine the methodical and concrete critique of a sociologist with the storytelling sensibility of a literature professor.

I, of course, am the latter. But stories draw their power from being ground in the realities of life – and one key piece of that reality is contributed by legendary sociologist William Julius Wilson, who first made waves in the 1960s by arguing that economic class was even more important than race in limiting the possibilities of one’s life, an interesting claim for an African-American scholar in a time when parts of the country were still fighting formal segregation.

His exploration of all the ways we remain separated have included the books The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, and When Work Disappears; he warns against the pervasive impact of “social isolation,” all the ways the poor, lacking a sense of economic possibilities, can become cut off from the broader network of the mainstream, reinforcing their poverty. The sense of possibility so many of us take for granted, reinforced by the surroundings of the mainstream, cease to exist when there is no perceived opportunity to provide hard evidence. The so-called culture of poverty often follows from poverty itself.

Wilson, of course, is not alone in this view – and one mainstream source Wilson himself has praised is the HBO series The Wire, set in inner city Baltimore. In Literature of Social Responsibility, we study the fourth season of The Wire – focused largely on efforts to save middle school children from a life on the streets, out of the belief that high school is often too late.

So why am I spending my precious sabbatical reminiscing about, of all things, teaching class?

It turns out that even as I have more time to read, what my eyes come across are more reminders of the issues Wilson and The Wire raise. Just this week, a pair of stories got my attention – one addressed the psychological impact of inequality on all of us, another what happens when someone is given an opportunity.

In the New York Times, there was the piece “How Inequality Hollows Out the Soul,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Co-founders of the Equality Trust, the writers also authored the book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The essay is an intriguing synthesis of various studies that suggest correlation between the degree of inequality and psychological disorders. Careful to acknowledge exceptions to the overall theme, the piece nevertheless points to some reasons why the inequality gap is increasing – and why we should reverse the trend.

“One of the important effects of wider income differences between rich and poor is to intensify the issues of dominance and subordination, and feelings of superiority and inferiority. Two sociologists at the University of Toronto, Robert Andersen and Josh Curtis, found that although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class to which they feel they belong, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor.”

Such inequality can promote energy-draining depression and anxiety in the subordinate, and feelings of narcissism and self-aggrandizement in others. Wilkinson and Pickett describe the work of psychologist Paul Piff, who  “has shown that higher status is indeed associated with more unethical and narcissistic behavior. Mr. Piff found that drivers of more expensive cars were less likely to give way to pedestrians or to other cars. Higher status people were also more likely to help themselves to candies that they had been told were intended for children. He found that they also had a greater sense of entitlement and were less generous.”

That lack of generosity shows in our politics these days, what with threats to not only unemployment and food stamps, but even national volunteer programs that promote a less narcissistic and selfish view of the world – and, in the process, give individuals a chance to disprove that supposed inferiority.

Which brings us to the second article that struck me – a Boston Globe article about Irlando Goncalves, a Cape Verdean immigant kid growing up in a tough Boston area neighborhood. Writer Akilah Johnson’s description of Irlando’s situation reminds me of Wilson and The Wire: “He and his family lived on Hendry Street in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, a place thick with the pitfalls and snares of urban environs. He was skipping class, clowning around, mouthing off, and getting suspended, barely squeaking through middle school, which educators say is one of the last places to catch students before they fall too far behind or drop out.”

Now 18, Goncalves, whose behavior was so bad that his mother once shipped him back to Cape Verde, is an honors student who has gained early admission to Union College, his first choice.

What happened? Opportunity.

The Teen Center at St. Peter Church in Dorchester gave Goncalves a summer job as a counselor in training; the director made sure he was around good mentors, some of whom were college students. His work at the agency “changed my whole perspective.. . The money felt good. I felt independent, and in a way it made me think: ‘If I keep up the good things, more good things will come.’ ”

That simple belief – one I take for granted in my own middle-class existence – is not so easily maintained for the socially isolated – for those who don’t only have no full-time jobs, or health insurance, or even enough food to eat … or the companionship of those who do.

Sure, juxtaposing these articles invoke complexities that can’t be fully explored in this blog entry. But one way to acknowledge complexity is to resist simplistic notions of false superiority and  give people the chance to prove themselves. After all, Wilkinson and Pickett seem to suggest, if we help others save themselves, we may be saving our own souls in the bargain.

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