Bringing it Back to Bmore

7 May

It’s been a while since I’ve written here… in fact, I haven’t attempted to put anything to paper since I returned to the US back in August of last year. Things have been pretty standard since then… uncertainty, ups and downs but at its core a very standard experience of a young professional.

That is, until my newfound home and city slowly worming its way into my heart, Baltimore, erupted into violence just over a week ago.  Unfortunately trying to move your entire life in the middle of the week in a city where you have few true friends during a state of emergency and a curfew, well, it doesn’t leave much time to sit down and pen anything of substance. The fires have quelled, the officers have been charged and here I sit, with enough time to finally sit down and reflect in a more complete way on everything that has happened this past week.

The last few years have been a surreal experience, and dealing with political unease, violence, civil unrest and being a white minority in a majority black area are not new concepts to me. I’ve seen them play out in homes and former homes time and again for years now.

I swear I’m not cursed.

But  this story isn’t about me, or about being a minority white boy, or even about political unrest. Instead, it’s a human narrative I’ve seen play out in the media, in my conversations and in my own head over the past week, and it’s this feeling that grips me every day on my drive to and from work, and I can’t seem to shake it.

My new residence in Baltimore City has given me a new drive to work, one that takes me through the heart of West Baltimore. Only about a mile from the focal points of last Monday’s riots, I drive myself down US Route 40 everyday, watching Edmonson Ave wake  up in the morning, and then revel in the bright afternoon sun.

I see this, from the comfort of my car twice every day, and twice every day I look and streets and have to remind myself that this, just like everything on the other side of MLK Jr. Boulevard is our city. These homes, these communities, they’re only miles from my comfort and convenience, my stereotypical middle class American experience. These people walking the streets as I drive by were born under the same flag, in the same land and conceivably the same opportunity. But I look at the streets I drive down, and it becomes impossible to believe that the last part is true, that the people here had the same odds I did, could be the same person I am.

Because the fact of the matter is, they didn’t.

The people of West Baltimore are just as American as I am, but live with so many fewer things than I the ones I take for granted every day. Although many of these things are material in nature, some of them are harder to see, more intangible, but incidentally much more important. Security, safety, the ability to walk through the streets without being judged, harassed. Without being labeled because of the color of your skin before you even have a chance to open your mouth. In a very small way I know what that feels like, to feel like an outsider. But in your own country? On your own streets? To deal with that negative stereotype every day of your life in the only place in this world you’re supposed to be able to count on? I have no idea how that feels, nor will I ever.

But that acknowledgement over the past week, watching the riots erupt and the pundits take sides, forced me to remove myself and my own experience from the equation and ask myself a simple question: what makes me different from one of the kids with a brick in his hand, one of these so called “thugs?”

I kept mulling it over in my head, again and again and kept coming back to the same conclusion… experience. Experience differentiated us, and nothing else.

I look back on my own life, on my own accomplishments and am extremely proud of where I stand. I’m proud of where I have gone, what I have done and the person I have become. Through hard work and striving for self-improvement I’ve become, in my humble and horribly biased opinion, a damn good person, and will continue to strive and get better. But this person, the one typing on this keyboard, is in no way shape or form the same person that existed under this name and social security number 10 years ago. Nope, that kid was much more uncertain. He was much more afraid, more timid. He cared more about video games than the world around him, and had a much weaker control on his emotions and how to deal with the world. You put that kid under the gun, under some pressure, and he may very well make a hot-headed and brash decision.

And that’s just it. Place that 15 year old version of myself in a circumstance like you see play out in West Baltimore every day of the week, the profiling, the tense relationship with the police, under a different name growing up on Edmonson Ave… and all of a sudden I’ve got a brick in my hand. I have become a “thug.” I’m no different. at the core I’m the exact same flesh and bones, the same brain, the same heart… but I’ve gone from citizen to menace.

Although where I stand now is a result of everything I’ve worked for and continue to work for, I look back on who I was and thank my lucky stars that I grew up in the family I did, the community I did, and that the things that needed to break my way did. Play with those variables, play with that past and who knows who you’re going to have waiting on the 25 year-old end of that spectrum.

And that’s just it. It’s easy to write people off. It’s easy to identify the choices people make as the problem. Because if the choices we make are the problem, then the blame rests solely on the shoulders of the individual. Not on us, not on society. No, it rests on the shoulders of Freddie Gray, on the rioters. If only they hadn’t run, if only they hadn’t let the emotions run over and become a violent outburst. It’s them, it’s never us.

And that’s what I can’t shake… that thought in the back of my head eating away, thinking “there but for the grace of god…”

I’m not condoning what has occurred, the good innocent people who’ve suffered because of the events of the past months… or hell, the past 100 years in Baltimore City… but at the same time I also don’t think any benefit whatsoever can be derived from placing the blame solely on the shoulders of those who participated in the madness last Monday.

Somewhere in between condoning and condemnation lies the truth, lies the solution.

The police are never going to pull me over for no reason. They’re never going to stop and question me with no clear probable cause. My mother won’t ever have to worry that routine police stop goes horribly awry and I end up on the business end of a Beretta because I panicked and made a mistake, because chances are I won’t even be in the situation in the first place.

Not because I’m a law-abiding citizen… but because I’m white. And I’m never going to understand what the other side of that feels like, because I’ll never have that experience. I’ll never be a black man in America. And the only way we’re going to work to change the narrative is if everyone who shares my race and gender acknowledges the same.

And when you boil it down, when you cut away the actions of last week, the images of burning cars and looting, when you peel all of it back you’re just left with a bunch of humans, a bunch of aggregate experiences of struggles, of hopes, dreams and fears, of people reacting to a situation.

And when you look at it like that, you start asking better questions. You start looking at those instances of violence for what they are, a symptom of a much bigger problem, a problem each and every one of us is complicit in, and each and every one of us needs to work to solve.

Riots are nothing new, and what was born out of last Monday was born out of a pent-up anger and frustration that, though many of us may never fully understand, is very real to those living it.

Think back in your life.

Think of a time your emotions ran too hot and you did something stupid. You did something you regretted. Think of a time you were bull-headed, when you refused to give in regardless of whether or not you should have.

And remember that what happened last week was a massive groupthink of the same origins. We don’t have to accept the actions of last week, but we need to accept that a society that births these sort of outbursts needs some serious introspection and change. We need to accept that the question needs a more nuanced answer than scolding the rioters like you would a small child who pulled his sister’s hair.

There is pain and poorly constructed institutions in this country that will continue to birth these outbursts, these tragedies. But that discomfort, that unease we feel, that lack of security… we need to embrace it, we need understand it and where it all comes from. Maybe then, just maybe, the next time we break down a wall, it’ll be one that shouldn’t still be standing in the first place.

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A PCV on Privilege

26 May

One of the blessings/curses of living in the big city of Dakar is relatively consistent access to the internet, meaning relatively constant access to the media, leading to me read and see a lot more than I’d like to see sometimes. Recently a string stories and articles have popped up on news feeds concerning things such as “white privilege” and “male privilege,” and now that I’ve finally had the chance to digest my thoughts and feelings about my Peace Corps service, I felt that I wanted to share a little perspective on this, you know, as a white privileged male.

I am white, and I’m a male living in West Africa. Needless to say, in this specific environment, I am somewhat of a minority. People make black and white assumptions about my inherent wealth, my culture and my upbringing. Children shout “toubab” (white/western person) at me on the streets, and I get heckled and hassled in various ways that I probably wouldn’t if I looked and acted like a Senegalese person. Walking out my front door every morning, I am the perpetual outsider, no matter what I do, no matter how many people I greet and talk to; I will never quite fit in here, especially in a huge metropolitan area like Dakar.

(Let me just be clear: this, just like everything else, is not a monolith. There are plenty of warm, welcoming and incredible Senegalese people, these issues only stem from the loud and unavoidable heckler minority that exists anywhere you are in the world)

When I first experienced these things, I thought it gave me perspective on what it must feel like to be part of a marginalized population, to be a woman, to be a POC, to be LGBTQ in the United States.

I was only half right though. I was now an outsider, with no hope of blending in, but at the end of the day this disconnect I felt was something I chose. I chose to serve in the Peace Corps, I chose to come to West Africa, and I chose to live in these communities. The fact of the matter is that when I move back home to the US, these problems, these frustrations, they all go away, disappear into the milieu. When it comes down to it: I’m still the lucky one, I have a choice in the matter, I get to escape.

That’s not the experience that many of my friends and colleagues will share.

When I go home, the unwanted attention and random grabbing and touching (which has been on the rise of late…) I receive will more or less disappear. If I was a woman, moving back to the states might mean a decrease in the most overt and blatant forms of sexism and this type of unwanted attention, but I wouldn’t escape it completely. A female PCV can move back to the US but will still be objectified, still groped in public, still cat-called by drunkards and lesser men, and still paid less than a man for the same work.

When I go home, people will stop judging my socioeconomic status, my culture, perceived personality and beliefs based upon the color of my skin. If I was a POC returning back to the gold old US of A, people would continue to judge me, treat me differently than everyone else because of the color of my skin. Judge me according to some monolith popular culture has engrained in their psyches instead of who I actually am as a person.

When I go home, people will stop overtly judging me for who I am as a person, stop judging me against a singularity of my culture they’ve seen and decide before I even open my mouth that I’m a terrible person. If I was a member of the LGBTQ community, I wouldn’t have such luck. I’d be welcomed back into a country still so full of bigots, of people who think of me a lesser person because they’re under the false impression that my sexuality somehow threatens their way of life, that I would still fear for my safety on certain street corners across the country.

I am privileged, if for no other reason than the fact that I will never have to experience those injustices in my own home.

No one will cat call me.

No one will become noticeably disturbed, angry or skittish for no reason when I approach them.

No one will direct their rage against me for merely being who I am.

I will always be privileged because of these things, and I accept that. I have a leg up, I have an easier time than all those other groups of people will ever have, and if they want to tell me that, then that’s their prerogative. I will never be able to fully empathize with those injustices or understand those struggles because I will never have to endure them.

It’s also not my place to judge people for how they handle those injustices, how they cope with those pains, how they rationalize them to themselves.

Instead, it’s only my place to acknowledge them, and to speak out against those injustices when I see them, something I didn’t do much of before I came here, before I became the outsider and realized just how much that one person in a crowd standing up for you can mean, how it can turn your entire day around. But just like the Senegalese who restore my faith in humanity when they come to my side in those times of conflict, when people harass me, I need to be that person who stands up when he sees this conflict, and prove that not everyone is like that, not through empty words and lip service but through actions.

I, just like everyone else, was born this way. And I consider myself lucky and privileged that the only burden I bear from that is being self-aware enough to accept it, and to do everything in my power to prevent that system from pesisting.

The 30-Month Retrospective

18 May

It’s been nearly ten months since I’ve updated this blog. Ten. This may be the second longest hiatus I’ve had, and that includes a nearly two year stint in the U.S. Unfortunately I’ve found updating this blog to be a very mercurial job. I write when I feel something deep enough that I want to share it with the greater world, and unfortunately I’ve been so incredibly busy for months now that I haven’t been able to let a worthy thought fester long enough that it sprouts a post… until now. I’m a little out of practice, but here it goes…

The Retrospective

I don’t think you can say that there is a single instance of someone having an “ordinary” Peace Corps service. Most involve hanging off over-crowded public transport, stumbling through a language other than your native one and making connections with people and seeing places most Americans have and will never even consider getting near. Take that kind of an experience and now make it your metric for normal, because mine has been even significantly less “ordinary” than that.

Before I get started at the beginning of this wild ride, I think it’s important to frame this story like they do in the movies, where the bulk of a story is a flashback brought on by an event. For me, and for this story, that event was a trip back to Kédougou, the city that had been my home for the lion’s share of my Peace Corps service. I went back to introduce my replacement to the community after having been gone for 6 months. Although it was good to be home, I was hit with a wall of emotion that sent me sailing back to where it all began: a hotel conference room in Philadelphia on October 27th, 2011.

It was there that I had my first staging event for Peace Corps Mali, there I met the group of forty or so people I thought I was going to spend the next 27 months of my life getting to know, becoming family. Unfortunately I was with those same people less than six months later at a hotel in Ghana deciding what we would do next, since Peace Corps service in Mali was no longer an option open to us. I, along with a small group of those same individuals, decided to give this whole thing another shot right next door in Senegal.

So there we were, eight months into this roller coaster and in our second Pre-Service Training. We were miserable and angry, every last one of us. Although we all coped with it differently, none of us coped with it well as we could have, and it showed through to the staff and our fellow bright-eyed stage-mates. Unfortunately, I think it was unavoidable. Now that I’ve seen many of these Peace Corps “refugee” groups move in and out of countries, I’ve realized that that feeling of despair, of being uprooted so quickly during such a formative life-experience is something you can’t put into terms. You can’t make it understood, it just sucks, and someone who hasn’t been through it can be sympathetic, but they’ll never truly understand that specific and acute emotion. Period.

Because of this it’s not something that will ever be a phenomenon well-understood by the greater Peace Corps community. Regular volunteers who serve normally will never understand or be able to fully empathize with that aspect of a transfer’s service. It will forever remain this strange but strong bond evacuees from anywhere in the world will share… this understanding that transcends all other lines. It’s probably one of the closest things most Americans will ever feel to being displaced from home, an experience I don’t wish to belittle with this anecdote, since our displacement is a much easier one to recover from. Regardless, I feel it still stems from the same basic human emotions, forceful and unwilling removal from a place you call home.

But I digress… back to the story.

Once training was over it was off to Kédougou, the place I would slowly develop an intense love-hate relationship with. It was a strong departure from my first site, a small village of 500 Bambara Christians in a dry dusty area of Mali a few hours south of Mopti. My new site was 20,000 people, regional seat of an area in the midst of a gold rush, mountains and trees. Over the course of the following 17 months I would stumble my way through work, family and social scenes trying to find my place in it all. Eventually I shed my anxiety, my constant comparisons to Mali, and truly became a Peace Corps Senegal Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer.
Enter 2013.

A quick and turbulent year later, I was already finishing a third-year extension application having finally decided to “extend” my Peace Corps service instead of packing it in after a strange but ultimately rewarding 27 months in and out of West Africa. I chose instead to take the helm, and become the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the CED program, moving up a rank to manage the very same people who I had come into this country with, the very same who remembered me and my compatriots most vividly for what can only truthfully be described as a piss-poor attitude.

Those people, the same people I now had to encourage, support, and lead. Needless to say an easy transition it was not. I had little experience with leadership up to that point (being the president of a college club doesn’t prepare you for a role like this), and I stumbled pretty hard out of the gates when I first made the shift of hats during the Pre-Service Training of the September 2013 group.

Sitting in-between the volunteer community and our superiors, trying to manage relationships is as diplomatic a manner as possible, was no easy task, especially considering that I had no legitimate seniority over the people I was trying to lead. But, just like in Mali, and again in Senegal, and then finally for this third time in Dakar/Thies, I adapted, picked myself up and found a way to make it work, finally hitting a stride with the Pre-Service Training of the March 2013 group. And finally then, as I sat back where the second leg of this crazy adventure began, the place that will always for me be my service and my Peace Corps, that lovely little town of Kédougou, the true weight of everything I’d done, everyone I’d met, everyone I’d come to love and care about, and all the places I’d been… it all hit me.

I’d stumbled and wandered my way through six countries, three separate and distinct services, thirty months and too many experiences too accurately count. I’d met more people and made more friends than in any such period of time before in my life. I also, I’d like to think at least, grew up in the process. These thirty months, and the three months to come… I’ve gained so much, more than I could ever hope to give back to these places, these people.

My service has been a little more exaggerated and theatrical than that of your average Peace Corps volunteer, but I’d challenge anyone to find another volunteer who doesn’t share a fair amount of these same emotions, these same experiences. Blood, sweat, tears and a host of other bodily fluids… laughter, love, exasperation and every emotion in between… Peace Corps service takes a lot out of you, but you get infinitely more in return. And I don’t think a single one of us would trade it for the world. I only hope my next adventure is half as rewarding as this one.