Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Return to Urban Kids

During our final week in West End, Lauren, Jarrett, and I helped out at Urban Kids. Every day we tutored several children at a time in reading, writing, and math. Although I have enjoyed all of my experiences during this Exploration Term, I have to admit that working with the children every day this past week was one of my favorite parts of the month.
Teaching and playing with the kids reminded me of the importance of creativity and enthusiasm in both academic and social environments. I was so impressed by their desire to work with us on their fractions and division, scarcely complaining if I decided to throw in some extra math problems “for fun.”
I thoroughly enjoyed playing “Wax Museum” and other made-up games with them; their ability to take whatever resources are available to them to create entertainment led me to reminisce about the days when my friends and I would play hide and seek or crocodile hunter, using only our imaginations (and maybe some sticks we’d find lying in the grass).  Together we crossed the molten lava jump rope and fashioned fantastical creatures out of clay. I think one of the things I gained most from spending time with the kids was the reminder of the freedom that comes with using your imagination. That sounds corny, I know, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
At several points during this January journey, I have found myself feeling discouraged and dejected by the daunting reality of all the complexities of poverty. The energy I experienced from the children at Urban Kids—whether inspired by the newly remodeled library, the field trip they took this week, or Jarrett’s parakeet Buddy—rejuvenated my spirit after an intensive and exhausting three weeks. They reminded me of why I chose this exploration term: to build relationships and get to know the surrounding communities so that I could find out what I could contribute to them, but even more so, what I could learn from them.
In my coming years at BSC, I hope to remain involved with the Bunting Center and to maintain my relationship with Urban Ministries and the West End community.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Week 3

                  As I worked today I was reminded of the assumption we discussed at the beginning of this semester that service is good. I was also reminded of what one of the people we had a discussion with at the West End library said when she conveyed the message that when “they” have us come into a community to pick up garbage on the corner “they” are wasting our talents. At Cornerstone today we cleaned a kitchen that the school no longer uses and moved aluminum folding chairs from storage and took them to the dumpster. Though it bores me, I am perfectly fine with doing manual labor. However, what annoys me is when the work I do is of no consequence. Aluminum can easily be sold as scrap metal at about $1 per pound and we moved at least 50 chairs. Estimating the weight of each chair to be about 7 pounds this could have netted the school about $350. One teacher even requested to set aside 10 chairs for her as she walked by and I assume asked what we were doing with the chairs. Essentially, there were many different ways that I would have considered me moving chairs being service. Today I did not feel as if my time was being used in service but as cheap labor.       
                  I don’t blame anybody for why I felt the way I did today  by doing the work we did, but I like knowing that the work that I am doing has some sort of overall goal or long-run objective. Service is definitely a complicated concept in itself, and the way I see it, at times it can be hard for someone to find service work for a group to do. Overall what I learned from this experience is that as I progress through life and explore how I am supposed to serve it should not be in something that I am just doing to do but rather something that I do because I want to see the long-run objective accomplished and has a mission that I believe in.        

More Woodlawn!

Hello! I’m Anna, one of the seniors involved in this service-learning interim. I’ve learned so much from these past three or so weeks. But before I launch into that, I would like you to know that my fellow students and our course instructors are some of the most admirable, intelligent, and kind people I’ve ever met. Also, this might be the most random, unorganized post you’ve ever read.

As I write this entry, I am listening to President Obama in his State of the Union address. “The State of the Union,” he says, “is getting stronger.” There is a lot of hope in that statement; it may sound assertive but it feels hopeful. In much of our interactions over the past three weeks or so, hope seems to be the battery. It keeps these communities going. Politics is a recurring topic, too. Us students shake our heads. We hate politics. But we’ve been encouraged more than once to run for office. “I’ll move wherever you go and vote for you,” people have told us.

On Friday, we drove to Woodlawn. At the resource center, we got a brief on Medicare, Medicaid, Cooper Green, and a possible outcome of the implementation of universal healthcare. We learned that with the passing of the new immigration law, Cooper Green has seen a 58% drop in total patient care. Jefferson County, according to our speaker, is the third most obese county in the country and is ranked fifteenth for the amount of STDs. African-American women ages sixteen to twenty-three have the highest rates of HIV.  We learned that UAB has a free birthing ward, and that Princeton and Brookwood do take charity cases, but other than that, Birmingham offers a small amount of  free healthcare to its people. You might not know (I didn’t before this January) that there is such a thing as a Blue Card; it’s eligible for use at Cooper Green, a county hospital. With the Blue Card, a person can receive free medical care. To receive the Blue Card, a person must prove that she or he has been living in Alabama for a year, and in Jefferson county for at least one month. This is problematic for many people who do not have identification or proof that they have indeed lived in this area. There is also an income limit; I do not have the specifics on that, but if your income is above (even slightly so) the cutoff, you are ineligible.

After this medical affairs briefing, we headed over the Interfaith Hospitality House to watch In Time starring the one, the only Justin Timberlake. In this movie, time is the new money. Everyone walks around with the countdown to their death on their arm. Those with a lot of time left are the wealthy; those with, say, 14 hours, are the poor. The wealthy humans live a few “time” zones from the poor. To even get to the rich time zones, one must exchange like 2 months or a year. This is already getting tricky to explain but really the major point is that there is a major time/income gap between these two sets of people, and that the wealthiest didn’t get their centuries of time by working hard; they got that time by exploiting people. Justin tries to set this right, but really just ends up robbing time banks and giving time to missions for people who are out of time. Effective? Hmm. Efficient? Not really. But it does point to the hard part about systems: they are frustrating and controlled by people who may or may not have the best interest in mind for the people living within those systems.

We had the weekend off, but Monday we were ready to go. Due to some bad weather the night before, there was a change in plans. The Woodlawn group (Julian, Courtney, Rachel, Jackie, and I) helped out at Urban Kids with the West End group (Jarrett, Lauren, Lindsay, Mrs. Becky, and Dr. Tatter). It was fun. The kids read their books to us, but really couldn’t wait to play in the playroom with the basketballs and jump ropes. Jarrett brought his pet parakeet Buddy. Buddy did well for a tiny bird around tiny children.

There are many questions that I have—of myself, of my fellow college students, of the American government. Things feel hopeless often times. I feel hopeless that the public education system will ever improve in Birmingham, for instance. But really, truly, we can’t give up. Maybe “rights” don’t exist, but people do. People like you and me who love music and books and basketball. So we keep hoping for something better because…well I don’t really know, honestly. It might go back to the Golden Rule. It might come down to seeing the divine in each person that we meet, or feeling solidarity with our fellow humans. Maybe it’s all we can do to keep moving. I’m not in a position of power; I used to assume this meant that I couldn’t  do anything effective, anything worthwhile, since those systems would still be in place—making life harder than it has to be for many. But we can do little things to offset the effects of these systems. So, I think we should never stop asking questions and expecting more out of our leaders. Also, turn right off of campus.

Oh, and one more thing. When you have the time, watch this movie.

Thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

M-Th in Woodlawn

After a week in West End, we spent a week in Woodlawn on the other side of town.  Here is a taste of what our first few days were like.

On Monday, January 16th, the team attended the Martin Luther
King Junior Unity Breakfast at the BJCC. While the overall focus of
the event was, of course,the work of Dr. King and all the others who
strived for the reconciliation of black and white in Birmingham, it was
wonderful to hear language encouraging the eradication of racism in
all its forms. In particular, the keynote speaker Reverend Clarence
Williams delivered a clear message that to exclude certain races from the
equality enjoyed by a few is wrong, just as placing a single race above
all the others was wrong fifty years ago. To further celebrate Martin Luther
King Day,the team toured the Civil Rights Institute. Predictably, the museum
was packed. It was my first time through the museum and I found it an
enlightening if somewhat surreal experience. It takes some effort for me to
imagine the Jim Crow system as the status quo of so relatively recent a time
period. I have difficulty picturing people simply being filtered by color,
sorted into their respective places by signs and the thinly-veiled threats
behind those signs. We spent the rest of the week working in Woodlawn and
hearing from members of the various organizations active there. On Tuesday,
we learned about Main Street Birmingham and the Woodlawn Foundation from one
of the AmeriCorps Vistas working there. Main Street Birmingham is an
organization that has adopted a holistic approach to community revitalization.
In Woodlawn, they are working on economic development via an arts district.
We also toured Cornerstone Schools of Alabama,a high-performing Christian
private school in Woodlawn. We ate lunch with students of various ages(from
second graders to middle schoolers) and some of us even danced with a
kindergarten gym class.
We also got better acquainted with the YWCA this week.  We learned a little
more about the struggles many families in Birmingham face in making ends meet,
specifically the difficulty of budgeting on a meager income and common
problems associated with Food Stamps. We toured their Interfaith Hospitality
House, which offers wonderfully livable transitional housing for families as they
work toward a more stable housing situation. This is practically unheard of—
standard procedure among homeless shelters is to bar male children above the
age of ten out of concern for the safety and consideration of the former
circumstances of their female clients. We helped members of Redeemer Church
(affectionately known to the residents as “the church that comes on Tuesdays”)
prepare a meal for the residents and then ate with them.
On Wednesday and Thursday, we painted several rooms in the home of Mrs. Bennett, 
a Woodlawn resident, through The Carpenter’s Hands. The Carpenter’s Hands is a 
home repair ministry of Canterbury United Methodist Church. We were happy to have 
another chance to flex our painting muscles and spruce up a home for someone in 
the process. I have never been so confident in my ability to edge ceilings, 
electrical outlets, light switches, you name it!
Thursday afternoon, we were given a tour of Woodlawn High School by one of the 
members of its staff. He seemed enthusiastic at the prospect of Birmingham City 
Schools adopting an academy system and was eager to show us the new Promethean 
boards each teacher now boasts. He was not so eager to discuss what I think for 
many of us was the elephant in the classroom, Woodlawn’s staggering dropout rate.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This weekend we have been staying at Woodlawn United Methodist Church and getting to know the community of Woodlawn.  Tonight, our last night in Woodlawn, our discussion centered around these questions that we came up with to reflect upon what we have learned thus far:

1) What do the young people of Woodlawn have to say about it?
2) How can we/should we return to a 19th century concept of community in a deeply fragmented 21st century world?
3) What's our place?
4) As an outsider, how can I help?
5) What can individuals do?
6) How can I reconcile my personal ambitions with the poverty I'm experiencing?
7) Is it disrespectful to enter a community as non-community members with the intentions of making a change?  How is this viewed by the community?
8) What would it look like to form intentional communities of diversity?
9) As individuals, a city, a state, a country, etc.  How do we deal with racism?
10) Does arbitrary separation of communities in Birmingham adding to the separation of people, thus becoming more of a problem?
11) Where is the evidence to support what we're doing so that the change we want to implement will happen?

Through our discussions we did not come up with answers, but rather more questions.  However, voicing our opinions and talking through things that had been on our minds helped us to come to some sort of closure as the weekend ends.

First Two Days in West End

Well, the WWE troops have had two crazy but fantastic days learning about the West End area. We have had the privilege of talking to so many amazing community leaders and people doing great things in the West End area, and we have gotten a chance to dive in, see some of the issues in the area, and put our hands to good use!
After our weekend retreat, we arrived Monday morning at Urban Ministries (UM) to learn about all of the programs going on there. We met with Dorothiann, the new director at Urban Kids, an afterschool and summer program for children. There are approximately 30 students enrolled in the program, designed to enrich reading and math skills, provide children a context to practice their social skills, give them a safe atmosphere, and present them the opportunity to take field trips in the area. The program is completely free and also provides kids with one on one time with tutors and healthy snacks. Many children come from large families, but with an abundance of volunteers at Urban Kids, there is anywhere from a 1:3 to 1:5 volunteer to student ratio. There is a true emphasis on care at Urban Kids, and Dorothiann and the volunteers all care for the kids’ emotional health, physical health, and safety.
We also learned about one of UM’s newer programs: social work for the elderly. Georgia has around 60 clients, mostly over the age of 60 who she helps with finances, doctor’s appointments, etc. She helps with a weatherizing program for homes, which helps lower gas and electricity bills for the clients. UM also runs a community kitchen out of their building, where Ms. Bell cooks and serves a free lunch every weekday at noon. The meal is free, and since many of the residents in the area are at risk for homelessness, this meal makes a difference for them. Several of us got the opportunity to serve a delicious lunch of chicken and noodles, green beans, delicious breads, and cookies. They also have a fully stocked food pantry for residents, and donated bread is available for them to take with them as they leave.
For our hands-on project, the WWE group decided to revamp the Urban Kids’ library, including reorganizing, repainting, and deep cleaning the room. We began by pulling out all of the books and shelves, taking some time to reminisce about our favorite childhood books!
We also got a chance to talk to Gary, a Birmingham-Southern College senior who works part time at Urban Kids. He shared with us his story growing up in Birmingham and talked about the struggles of the area school systems and the problems he faced as he went through it. Gary, like a small percentage of the students, was once offered a chance to attend a school better equipped to help him succeed, however transportation issues arose. The morning commute would be at least an hour and was unfeasible for his parents. This situation is not uncommon, and a lack of transportation spoils a possibility that could improve the quality of education for many kids in West End. Many working parents cannot afford to take the time to drive across town, many busses do not exist, and the public transportation in Birmingham is pitiful.
Tuesday morning the group arrived at UM and split into two groups for work projects throughout the morning and afternoon. One group began on-site training learning how to weatherize a client’s house, while the other group stayed at UM to paint the library walls, floor, and bookshelves.
Dr. Tatter, Becky, Anna, Julian, and I went with UM’s two social workers to one of their client’s homes. Many residents living in low-income housing are faced with gas and electric bills that may triple in the winter, and many like the lady we visited had her gas disconnected and was heating the house using her stove and oven. Some of the doors did not seal tightly and windows were letting in cool air. To decrease the bills and retain heat in the house, people can weatherize their homes. UM’s clients are elderly, and it is seemingly impossible for them to weatherize their house on their own, since it requires getting on ladders to measure windows, cutting large sheets of plastic, taping the sheets tight around the windows, and lining doors to further insulate the space. In addition, many of these tasks we did were made easy with the help of others. What took seven of us to do would take forever for an elderly resident to do on their own or even with the help of family members.
Meanwhile, Jackie, Lindsay, Lauren, Jarrett, and Rachel made incredible progress on painting the bookshelves for the Urban Kids’ library, simultaneously jammin’ to some N’Sync. The walls and floor have been completely repainted and the shelving units are well on their way!
As a whole group we also got to meet with Jeff, one of the social workers at UM, who works with a program called HPRP, Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing which was funded to help people who have lost a job from a layoff or pay reduction maintain their housing situation or help them get into emergency, temporary, or transitional housing. We also got to speak with Nathan who works with HMIS, homeless management information system. They are in the process of issuing Continuum of Care (COC) cards for the men and women that come into the community kitchen on a daily basis. This card makes it easy for people to come and get a meal without having to fill out their personal information every time. Also with this card, people are able to go to other community soup kitchens, check in at the Salvation Army, and go to Cooper Green to get a blue card for health care. This also gives them a form of photo identification, which many may not have. Their information will remain in the system, and they’ll be able to simply scan their card and get a meal. This service is also important for governmental funding and enables institutions to get a better idea of the population they are serving so they can better resolve their problems. After we learned about the program, we got a chance to sit down with people as they came in for lunch to get them signed up for a COC card. They filled out a simple form regarding their basic information and housing and job situations, and within 3 minutes, they had a form of photo identification!
Several long days later, I know we are all so much more educated about the problems that face those in poverty: affordable housing, transportation, education, and health. We have also come to see the community here in West End and the deep care that people share for one another. It’s inspiring to see the strength of the people in these undeserving circumstances, and I’ve loved every minute of conversation I’ve had with the people of West End.  
I’m blessed to working and learning alongside such easy-going and talented students, and we have so much left to learn about West End, poverty, and our place in it all. Looking forward to the challenges, successes, and conversations that are to come the rest of this week!
Forward, ever! 

West End Retreat Weekend

This past weekend we spend 3 days in the West End of Birmingham in order to prepare for the work we will do there this upcoming week.  We stayed at the Walnut Grove facility and spent time touring West End and hearing from some residents.  
Friday evening, after we toured Urban Ministries and settled into Walnut Grove, we had the pleasure of hearing from Kristina Scott from the Alabama Poverty Project.  During her presentation, "Poverty in Alabama", we focused on the challenges of poverty and the importance of relationships that will repair Alabama.  We did activities that helped us realize the challenges that families living below the poverty level face and the sense of hopelessness that they can be filled with.  One of the most important parts of this presentation, however, was the effect that hope can have.  Before she left, Kristina made a point to impress on us how important it is to be hopeful for change and stay positive through all the hard times.  
Saturday morning we heard from Mike Harper, a minister who grew up in West End, and Michael, a resident of West End and worker at Urban Ministry.  Our conversation with Michael made the reasons behind West End's poverty more evident, and made it easier to understand the transition West End had under gone.  Birmingham's focus on steel ("Pittsburgh of the South") and refusal of many money making opportunities (Sears and an International Airport) kept the city from growing and prospering.  
After hearing from these two men, we were taken on a driving tour of West End by R.G. Lyons (pastor of Church Without Walls) and his wife, Mary Paige.  This tour really showed us that one of the major challenges the poor face is reliable transportation.  1/4 of houses in West End do not have a car.  This makes it very hard to get groceries, or even obtain a good job.  
We then spent some time at the West End Library and heard from Alice, Michael Morrison, and Earnestine Redman; two city officials and a resident of West End.  Hearing from them, we learned about government problems in the city, and the unfair problems many people face on a daily basis.  We also got to talk to three teenage girls who are very successful sophomores in high school. They have aspirations and dreams.  They know what they want to be when they grow up and they work hard on homework and do well in school.  They are three very normal teenagers who love to do the same things that any of us do on the weekends.  They go to the mall and movies and get too loud in public.  But will they achieve their goals?  Because they do not have the same resources as we do, will they be able to go to college and achieve their goals?
Sunday morning we attended church at New Hope.  The service, I'm sure was more than any of us were expecting, or used to, but was a wonderful experience none the less.  It really exemplified the community and love that we heard about from so many people.  It showed that even though these people suffer and struggle daily, they are filled with hope and love for one another that gets them through the days and gives them the strength and courage to keep trying.  
What did we all take away from the weekend?  Well, I can't speak for everyone, but my impression of West End was completely different than I originally thought.  Meeting residents and hearing just a small portion of what their lives are like, was an eye opening experience showing that people really do live in poverty and get by on $2 per person per day for food.  Despite the sobering facts we heard and the depressing stories people told us, for me, there was an overwhelming sense of hope by the end of the weekend.  Relationships and hope are what can save West End and Birmingham as a whole.  If you look at all the problems at once, things may seem hopeless, but if you look at the smaller picture and take small, but necessary steps, improvement is possible.