Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moving Out of Ward 3

This might be an essay too much about me, but it is also a little a bit about the differences between Ward 3 and Ward 8 in Washington, D.C.  I have been looking for a rowhouse or townhouse in Anacostia to buy since last winter.  There are plenty of houses selling for about half price because the previous owner went through a foreclosure.  Either someone just beats me to the house, or the house is in such bad condition it should be razed.

I get a lot of, shall we say, quizzical reactions to my desire to move from Ward 3 to Ward 8.  Anacostia is synonymous with urban blight and decay.  In the company of RICH's MATHletes from Anacostia, our banker in Shaw remarked about how dangerous Anacostia is.  And then there are the statistics:  Only 10-15% of our student population at Anacostia High School, where we started working last fall, is on grade level in math or reading.  Only 15% of the students have a father listed on the student directory.  10% live with neither parent.  Unemployment in Ward 8 is officially 28%, the highest for any urban area in the country.  Nearly 5% of the adult population is HIV-positive.  There are similarly high rates of alcohol and drug addiction.

To buy fresh vegetables, the Safeway or Giant is over a mile away for most residents, most of whom do not have cars.  The Metro is also over a mile away for most residents.  There are virtually no medical professionals except for the clinic for which people by the dozens line up every day hours before opening.  In Ward 3, I can throw a tennis ball and hit the building where my dentist works.  Medical professionals are everywhere within walking distance.  There are five Whole Foods markets within 4 miles, three within 2 miles.

Now that RICH is working at the community space at the Oxford Manor apartments in Anacostia, I have learned the surrounding streets and neighborhoods.  I drop in on kids who have no phone to make sure our lines of communication are still open.  People see me walking, biking, and driving.  Some people are really friendly, but in others' eyes I see the fear of gentrification.  And why not?  There is no reason to trust a white person who says he is going to come in and do something good.  These people and their ancestors have been betrayed over and over again.  One friendly gentleman saw me walking around on July 4 and wondered if I was there protesting something.  I guess I looked like an aging hippie with my 70's haircut and cutoff shorts.  On the other hand, a bunch of men hanging out after dark saw me approach my car and thought of the first white bread name that came into their head.  "There goes Zach Morris," one of them said.

Is there a lot of crime?  Might a white person be a target?  Sure, but I need to be in Ward 8.  RICH needs to be in Ward 8.  Talk to our tutors who are also relatively new to working in Anacostia, and they say things like, "I really believe in this, Paul."  "You [They should say 'We'] are on a fantastic mission."
The beauty is that kids don't care what color I am.  The younger ones see me just as any other teacher, as someone to whom they want to show their good work.  The older ones, in high school, know by now they have not been dealt a full deck.  They might not have met someone like me before, but my race is the last thing they care about.  As I mentioned to Channel 9 last year, these kids are overwhelmed by the fact that we believe in them.  When they believe in themselves, then we know we have done our job.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"I Was Going to Use My Pay Check for Eye Glasses"

As I write this, RICH is in the middle of its first serious summer program, at the Oxford Manor community space in Anacostia.  Oxford Manor is one of the wonderfully refurbished apartment complexes built and managed by the Community Preservation and Development Corporation.  One aspect of the program is the MATHletes, elite students, mostly from Anacostia High School, who help tutor the younger residents at Oxford Manor for two hours and then sit for two hours of enrichment learning on topics they should get in school but probably won't:  matrices, probability, linear programming, and financial literacy.

Where I live in Ward 3, most kids can either afford camp, swim clubs, or private school lessons.  In Ward 8, the swimming pool at Fort Stanton is closed.  The DC government has cut back on both summer jobs for kids and summer school classes.  I'm glad RICH can provide just a little bit for some of these children.

RICH is paying the MATHletes as well as the Word Stars, profiled in my previous blog post.  The MATHletes work 20 hours/week in addition to the homework they do for their enrichment class.  At $8/hr, that comes to $160/week, a small price to keep these diamonds in the rough doing something constructive this summer.  The best result of the program is that all 8 MATHletes are convinced they have bright futures, with college scholarships on the way as long as they keep working.

These are students who are broke, either with no cell phone of their own (rare these days for an adolescent) or home internet access.  Only one of them, E, lives with both biological parents.  It was he who had told me he was going to spend his first paycheck on glasses.  He was giddy when I told him and two others that I had found an eye clinic at the Lens Crafters in Pentagon City which provides free eye exams and glasses, courtesy of One Sight.  But it was really W who needed glasses the most.  W is 15 and last had glasses four years ago.  After one day teaching W, I realized he could not see the white board 10 feet away, even while squinting. 

The good folks at the eye clinic were shocked to see how neglected W's eyesight had been.  W lives in a dingy, dirty apartment building in Anacostia.  I know because I had to drop by when he did not show up to our orientation meeting.  (He had gotten lost.)  Four gentlemen were in the front hall of W's building smoking dope, loudly and profanely talking, in the middle of the day.  Trash was strewn everywhere inside and outside the building.  This is where a straight-A student lives, a boy who, I found out, would go up to the board to read what he had missed after class was over, who never complained about his eyesight but now, with his glasses, will be able to recognize me as I walk toward him on Martin Luther King Avenue, as he wasn't able to do back on July 4.

W is of slight build but has a voice like Denzel's in "Training Day."  Now that he can see, I am curious how strong his voice gets.  Will he rise to even greater heights as a student?  I can't wait.