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Monday, October 27, 2008

Race in Philadelphia

Anyone who has lived in this area for 5 minutes knows that the city of Brotherly Love, isn't. There were 6 murders over the weekend. Meanwhile, I attended an event at Penn U. where Chris Mathews of Hardball fame was on the panel. He's a Phily native and felt he could drop some comments along the way as he and others commented on the Presidential election. Several times he casually dissed North Phily for its crime and well, you know (blackness...shhhhh - don't actually say it). He used all manner of code to speak about the way the old neighborhood changed. I cringed as the mostly white crowd (it was at the Wharton School, no less)laughed along with his derision, as if it were a wink-wink moment. Sigh.

But then I read something uplifting - a discussion at Temple U. (located in North Phily) about race. They tackled it, opened up about it, and generated some insight. Here's the article from the Phily Inquirer. Penn U. could take a lesson.

Gives me inspiration for how we can generate some movement on the Rutgers campus to work with Camden instead of against it. I heard a faculty member who lives in my neighborhood, sit in a meeting and dis the city. She spoke authoritatively about crime and how unsafe the city is. She's the type who will be the first recruit...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The "real" America

No surprise, but I think Gov. Palin got it wrong. The "real" America is not the backwoods uber-conservative crowd. It is actually the thoughtful people who agree to disagree but when all is said and done, come together for their country. All that crap about "country first" is accurate only if you believe in lock-step with McCain. Sorry, John, but you are waaaaaaay out of touch.

Here is a fantastic video of republicans, who are white, talking about why they are not voting for McCain, and yes, they are voting for Obama. These are not lefty socialists, but thoughtful people who have pondered where their vote should be placed. This is part of the "real" America - people who think.

Conservative Republicans for Obama

Friday, October 17, 2008


What does it take to break the cycle of people feeling such little hope that they repeat the behaviors that perpetuate the stereotypes of the inner city? Why is it that a kid that is given every opportunity to be loved, educated, cared for, and build a future would toss all of it aside to commit crimes against those who try to help them? This is not a case of being incorrigible. This is not a case of being dumb or foolish. This is a case of hopelessness; of feeling so sure that his or her life will not change, that there is no point in trying. This is a case of not even realizing that the baggage they carry with them is weighing them down. They could drop it and literally walk to safety, but they don't. There is an article I just used in a conference presentation called "dropping your tools." It states that those that fight wildfires in forests would sometimes die because they could not run from the fire fast enough to the safety zone. The reason is that they did not drop their tools and lighten their load, instead, trying to run to safety with 50 pounds of equipment. Because they could not drop their tools, they died. It wasn't that they tried and could not, it is that they didn't even realize that dropping the tools was an option - they were so habituated to being with their gear - that it was part of them.

I believe this is what keeps young people in the urban core from breaking their cycles and running to safety. Their environment is so much a part of them, they cannot drop their gear and save themselves. Even when someone is telling them to do so and it will save them. They don't. The article I was using talked about how a supervisor would yell to the firefighter, "drop the gear" and then run to that person and grab the gear. But then the supervisor would try to take the gear with them or would look to carefully set the tools aside - as if that gear was part of them and could not be discarded. I think that is part of what goes on with the kids I know. To have every opportunity thrust at them and to ignore it because they cannot drop their gear. It is not that they choose consciously, it is because they believe that it is who they are and it is necessary to survive. A fireman survives if he has his gear - without it, he could die. The irony is that sometimes he has to drop it to save himself and he doesn't see that. Kids that lie, steal, cheat and reject opportunities are merely in the mode they see as real. They cannot discern that dropping that gear will save their life.

It makes sense now that kids that go to "better" schools have difficulty in the transition - changing the place does not mean they will change their baggage. Kids that have programs and activities will continue to engage in questionable or illegal behavior - one does not affect the other. Our logic towards these kids is that they just haven't been given opportunity - and once so given, they will change. The firefighters didn't and died. These kids won't and will "die" figuratively and, yes, some will literally die.

The firefighters changed their methods to consciously adopt new patterns that would save lives. Part of it was to create new safety zone specifications so they would be able to exit to safety more quickly. Part of it was to have one person in charge of monitoring conditions to give more lead time for withdrawal from the danger zone. What are we going to do to consciously reshape the patterns for these kids. No child left behind is not doing it. After school sports are not doing it. Special summer jobs programs are not doing it. It was not the firefighter that had to change - it was the pattern of their work and supervision that changed. To help these kids, we have to change their patterns and our supervision. Maybe a traditional school system of 8-3 M-F is not working. Maybe our supervision of telling them what is right and wrong is not working. Maybe our system of checks and balances, punishment and reward, is not working.

I'm no psychologist. I'm not a juvenile expert. But I do know that some of these kids are unable to drop their gear and will be consumed by a fire that overtakes them because they can't run fast enough to get to safety. We have to change. It may be the only way to save them. And yes, Damon is my motivation for this post.

Monday, October 13, 2008

What does it take? part 1

I think about urban revitalization a great deal. It is what I do professionally. But I live it personally as well. I sometimes cannot separate the two. My new university (where I am employed) is seizing the initiative of civic engagement. Many colleges and universities are taking up this banner to be good neighbors, to build and expand their campuses responsibly, and to bring the energy and brainpower of the university to the community in which the campus is situated. Much of this has to do with enlightening students by getting them involved in the world off campus - to get them out of the ivory tower. The rest has to do with the University as a big physical institution that takes up a lot of land and has development interests that affect the city.

My interest at this point is two-fold. First is how to get students to think about the surrounding community in new ways (and in Camden, that is a herculean task), and second is to understand how the first task may affect the University's perception of the community and ultimately race relations. My school is a white institution in a black and hispanic city. The student population is diverse, but mostly white students from the surrounding suburbs. They have been immersed in a culture that has taught them to fear this city and to get in/get out as quickly as possible. Some faculty I have met have the same conception - drive in, teach, do your job, leave and get the hell out of dodge. A colleague mentioned that they had no idea there was a neighborhood next to the campus (where I live) because they get on and off the expressway and never venture beyond the campus. Someone on campus said to me the other day that if our school were located in the suburbs, we would have tripple the student population we now have. They said our location is a deterrent and we have to improve the city to make it work for us. Hmmmm.

I am building an army, a force of students, to rethink their relationship with Camden. There are over 5000 students at our campus. If there were 5000 people supporting this city, advocating for it, treating the city with respect while here, talking positively about the city to others, and getting involved - even if only to patronize a merchant off campus, imagine how that might affect the city's ability to thrive. I am not suggesting a missionary contingent. I am suggesting a listening party. A group that steps out of the way and in so doing, empowers the community.

What's needed is an army of people who will listen to what the city is really saying, listen to what the people are saying and how they want their city to be. Stop being an impediment by being so right about what you know this city to be.

I see Camden's decay as a result, at least in part, of the abuse the city takes from people that don't live here and have no stake. This includes the executives and workers that drive in and leave from their heavily guarded parking lots and buildings. This includes the students, parents, alumni, staff, administrators, and faculty that cruise into campus daily and leave as quickly as possible under the watchful gaze of a campus security force and a campus police force. These are similar groups of people that reinforce to each other that their perspective of this city as a dangerous place is spot on. Daily, I see and hear comments and actions from students, faculty, merchants, and public/civic leaders that reinforce that worldview. And then we all spend a lot of time trying to "improve" Camden. Doctors, heal thyselves!

Camden is a tough, crime-ridden city. It is in stark decay. It is poor. It is overwhelmingly minority. But treating the city with disrespect when you don't live here is not helpful. Yes, you are right. The city is a model of urban blight. But how does you being right improve the situation? It merely confirms the obvious and makes you feel justified in trashing the city. Imagine if you lived in a neighborhood where every day the newspaper said it is a rathole, people who drove in to work did not want to have anything to do with you and would not patronize your businesses. Imagine if your neighborhood were under strict supervision by authorities to make sure you and your neighbors did not get out of line, but rarely helped you. Imagine this went on for 40 years after the jobs left, after people left the rest of the city and after the money left. Welcome to inner city USA. Welcome to Camden.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Go Donna!

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign and is a perennial commentator, hits a home run in this clip on race and politics. Go Donna! (thanks to Sandy P. for sending this to me).

Given where the McCain campaign is taking itself these days, her remarks are on the money. What is the strategy when Palin states that Obama does not see America like we see it. What is she talking about? Who is we? Why would the campaign feel it necessary to reduce the discussion to an us v. them unless they were trying to use race as a wedge?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Unsung racism

Nicolas Kristof has written the definitive essay on racism without racists. Check it out here .
The best part of the essay is the hundreds of comments on the blog site

Very thoughtful readers discuss the issue of racism, subtle racism, and more in this election cycle. I need not write anymore on this topic as this will give you the full 360 on the topic. Read, learn, think, enjoy, share. The election is but a few weeks away and never has there been a more important one than this.