Friday, May 1, 2015

On Baltimore: Hearing the stories

I feel like I need to start this with the same disclaimer I wrote last time: I don't have anything new or important to add to everything everyone is saying all the time right now.  All I have is my hurting heart and a touch of outrage today, with a lot of sadness, and overwhelm, and confusion, and exhaustion thrown in for good measure.  All I have are these words, and emotions, and anger I'm not entirely sure how to contain. 

When I was in college, I worked at a Baltimore City elementary school at an after-school program, and it was there that I first learned how my heart and my perceptions of the world could be shattered.  The school consisted of 97% black students.  My most salient memories now, given that this was 10 years ago, surround the fact that the school had lead in the pipes so you couldn't use the water fountains, the paint was chipping off of the walls, and we couldn't go outside on the playground because there were reports of men in vans taking pictures of children and hanging around the school.  If you come to my house, I still have a picture of the first little guy I tutored on my wall.  K was in kindergarten at the time, and he was the first child I ever met who talked about saving his snack from school, because he knew he wasn't going to get dinner.   Yorkwood Elementary was the first place I met 1st graders who talked to me about the rats in their apartments, and about domestic violence, and about visiting their parent in prison.  I was at the school when a 5th grade boy I knew left to go home, and was struck and killed by a city bus.  I was there when his friends came running back to school, having witnessed the accident.  I was there when his parents came to pick up his younger sister.  Working at this school broke my heart as tragedy after tragedy seemed to unfold.  I keep the picture of K on my wall, because his precious face reminds me not to numb myself to these stories.  By now, I have heard the stories of many hungry children.  By now, I have heard far too many stories of domestic violence, and unsafe homes, and inequalities that make my entire body seethe.  But I keep that picture of K, because I want to remember the shock and outrage and sadness 18-year-old me felt as I watched 6-year-old K shoving his milk and his Teddy Grahams into his overstuffed backpack, telling me he would eat it for dinner.

Three years ago, I moved back to Baltimore, and I started working in the city, full time, with low-income families with children with developmental disabilities.  Approximately 70% of my families were black, and nearly all of them lived somewhere in Baltimore City.  It was there that I heard stories of families coming home to find they had been evicted.  One grandmother and her grandson with severe disabilities came home to find that all of their belongings had been put out on the street and destroyed, and they had nowhere to go.  I had several families who were homeless, who were repeatedly kicked out of friends' homes and homeless shelters due to their children's disruptive behaviors.  Many were hungry, and parents asked me for snacks for themselves when their children earned chips or juice for cleaning up, or doing their homework, or talking nicely during therapy.  I worked with mothers living in drug rehab facilities, and I scheduled appointments around parent's methadone appointments.  I worked with a 2-year-old who was born addicted to drugs, and continued to have severe, constant, self-injurious behaviors.  I wrote letters to landlords who refused to fix broken windows, informing them of the safety hazard for the impulsive, hyperactive, nonverbal children who lived there.  I talked about lead poisoning.  I worked with failing schools that were refusing to give children with special needs what they were required to give them by law.  I asked parents to buy small reinforcers for positive behaviors...matchbox cars from the dollar store for him keeping his hands to himself, a bag of M&Ms to use for toilet training...and when they couldn't afford them, I bought them for them in the hopes that something -- anything -- would work.  

I could tell you story, after story, after heart-breaking story.  I could tell you stories of black mothers terrified that their nonverbal black sons with autism will be shot -- and that's not just in the city.  I could tell you of the numerous black mothers who have cried in my office the past several months as they fear for their children's safety -- both the middle-class and the low-income mothers.  I could tell you about conversations that broke my heart as children with developmental disabilities attempt to struggle with the scary events of our community.  I could tell you a story from today about a black child who is not getting what he needs from his school's special education team, and I am certain that this has everything to do with his race and their perceptions of his caregiver.  I could tell you of one mother's tears as she said, "it hurts me to know that no matter where I go, no matter where my son goes, no matter who sees us, from which angle, we can't hide the fact that we are black...and that fact alone makes us unsafe and open to judgments and criticism and hatred.  We can never, ever escape that."

This is the Baltimore that has been in my heart since I started working at that elementary school 10 years ago.  These stories are, in large part, my experience of Baltimore.  Baltimore has been a place that has entered, and shattered, and re-shattered my heart.  And I let it.  Because it's necessary.  Because it's important.  Because I need K's precious face on my wall to remind me that this injustice is here, and it is real, and it is in my backyard.  Because I cannot choose to be willfully ignorant of the fact that children are hungry, and children are living in homeless shelters, and children are being improperly educated in shitty schools without the accommodations they need, and children are being exposed to violence, and children are being poisoned with lead in their homes, and children are being abused and neglected, because their caregivers are part of a broken system with no way out, trying to do the best they can, without even a framework to work from.  Baltimore is suffering, and it is resilient, and I feel you can watch its suffering parts being ignored. There is no way up. No way out. It is hundreds of years of oppression, keeping the disparities in place. It has been carefully and perhaps somewhat consciously constructed. 

For me, Baltimore has names, and faces, and stories, and I have been outraged about Baltimore for years.  I no longer work in the city full-time, but the stories and the faces...they stay with you. 

But I'm naive, right?  I assume that everyone knows these faces, and everyone knows these stories.  I assume that everyone cares about these faces and these stories, and I assume that everyone sees the systematic, institutionalized racism and economic disparity that lives in Baltimore.  And I am wrong.  And that makes me angry.  It makes me seethe, actually, and cry hot tears, and lie awake at night muttering and cursing under my breath.

And honestly?  I don't even know a tiny fraction of it.  I know stories -- individual stories.  I see themes, and I see pain, and I know some research, but mostly, I just know stories, and faces, and names.  I have the privilege of going home at night at leaving it at work.  But I know that the beings in my office...they go home to apartments with no furniture or beds, or they go back to the homeless shelter, or they go home to houses with cockroaches and no food. 

I'm angry that it takes violence to get people to pay attention.  I am angry that the lives of the people in Baltimore didn't matter until it escalated to violence that someone felt warranted media attention.  I am angry that people can be surprised that this is happening, and that they can pin the blame on something other than systemic racism and devaluing of specific groups and communities of people.  I am angry that people will swoop in now to help, and then when it is no longer the biggest trending thing, they will be able to swoop back out without a second thought.  I am angry because I don't see a way through the mess.  I don't see how the arc is bending towards justice.  I just don't.

Because, a month from now, or a year from now, or three years from now, that homeless mother with the 10-year-old, not yet potty-trained child will still be sitting in my therapy room with pleading eyes, and I will still have 50-minutes to give her something to take away.  She is not a television I can turn off, or a project I can end...because I know that if it is not my therapy room, they, or someone very like them, will be in someone else's.  Once you have touched the people and faces behind the statistics, you can't turn away.  The stories become part of your bloodstream, and you cannot let them go.

I'm angry because the way my mind works is in stories.  My mind works in people.  My mind works on a person-by-person basis, and that is not what's needed.  What's needed is organizational change.  What's needed is systemic change.  What's needed is community change, and large-scale work, and activism.

But my brain does not work that way.  I understand people, and stories, and individuals, but get overwhelmed when I think about community-wide organizing, large-scale efforts, and change.  It's as if Baltimore is flooding...and all I can do is hand out life-vests, one at a time, and maybe an occasional canoe.  What we need is somebody to build a dam, if only just so that we can see what's here and begin to take stock of the damages. 

I don't know how to end this, because there is no conclusion.  I'm angry.  I'm sad.  I am overwhelmed, and I don't know where we go from here.  I am wanting my brain to work with me better to adventure towards solutions.  I feel powerless.  I feel I don't have the right to be this angry.  I am overwhelmed by the pain I am hearing, and I am struggling with how to best hear and sit with that pain from my position of unearned privilege.  I am struggling with how to sit with the reality that I get to come home to a safe house, and that I don't need to worry about getting killed, or shot, or pulled over, or rejected, or judged because of my skin color...while I also struggle to truly be with people who are sharing with me that the very opposite is their inescapable daily reality.  I feel a sense of guilt and shame as I realize that I need to let my brain take a rest from this struggle it is in to figure it all out.  I feel so very conflicted.

So perhaps I'll end (finally!) with this.  I introduced this to some parents yesterday, and I think it is helpful.  I am trying to keep it also in my mind.

Kristin Neff is a researcher on mindfulness and self-compassion.  She has conducted numerous studies and written a great deal on the topic ( has some wonderful resources).  She suggests an exercise for bringing compassion to yourself during difficult or stressful times, and she describes three simple steps for doing so:

(1) Identify the moment as a moment of suffering.  (State something like: "This moment is a moment of suffering" or "This hurts" or "ouch"). 

(2) Acknowledge that suffering is a part of life, and recognize our common humanity.  (Perhaps saying something like "Other people also feel this way" or "I know many people struggle with these feelings").

(3) Put your hand over your heart, and bring kindness to yourself by saying, "may I bring myself the compassion that I need" or "may I be strong" or "may I learn to accept myself as I am."

Here is mine:

This moment is a moment of suffering.
There are many people who are also suffering with feelings of powerlessness in this moment.
May I be strong, and learn to use that strength for the greatest good.

Will you share your prayer with me?  Or at least write one for yourself?  It may not be a dam...but perhaps it will be a life vest and that, at least, is a place to start.   


  1. Hello Grief.
    My Grief has company.
    May I embrace this company with open arms so that it knows it belongs here and might find a bit of comfort, and may the same embracing arms let go and do the work necessary to find some portion of peace.

    1. My grief stands with your grief, my friend.

      I love this. Thank you for sharing.