The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, June 23, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Public Policy ...

I spent over 11 years of my life working for an organization whose mission was (and still is) to improve the lives of families and people living in the economically poor communities of a run-down Eastern city. The families and people living in these communities are mostly “people of color”, largely African-American but also some Hispanic and Carribean-Afro heritage mixed in. As a younger man, I wanted to devote at least some portion of my life and its energies into changing the world, fighting injustices, and “making real” the religious beliefs and values that my parents had instilled within me. (Obviously I felt that they hadn’t done such a great job of realizing and living these beliefs, and that I could do much better than they did).

That all came to an end over a decade ago. Since then I’ve remained in the same city, career-wise, but have shifted my career efforts to a major law-enforcement agency having jurisdiction over the communities that I had previously hoped to help “save”. Recently I asked myself, how much have I changed over the course of these two career terms? Why don’t I feel the same drive and excitement towards the notion of “saving the poor” anymore? Can the poor in question actually “be saved”?

As with many young people of a religious and politically liberal background, I once believed that the undesirable social and economic conditions generally experienced by black and Hispanic people within depressed urban neighborhoods (e.g. high rates of violent crime and homicide, frequent single-female parent childrearing, high rates of unemployment, sub-standard housing, schools that don’t do a good job of teaching, high degrees of substance abuse, shorter average life-spans, etc.) were almost entirely imposed upon them by the sins of the white leaders of society who enjoyed high levels of economic, political and social empowerment, going back to even before the founding of our nation. What I was seeing in the city streets was all a matter of slavery and racism; the communities of color in the inner-city were obviously still suffering from the residual effects of this, along with continued neglect on the part of the majority. The people living on ground-zero were almost all good and capable people who could be freed from their chains of oppression, if only we the empowered would give them the right information, opportunities and infrastructure in sufficient quantities.

That was basically the credo of the organization that I became involved with. When I started doing volunteer work there back in the later 1980s, the leader still spoke optimistically about “neighborhood transformation”. During an auto tour of the neighborhood that his agency served, he told me that “transformation” was getting closer and closer, it was almost in sight; it could actually happen if they could just grow some more and garner a few more million dollars of cash. I was still young enough then to find this all quite intoxicating. I was finally going to live the dream. Through some months of volunteer effort followed by over 10 years of professional employment (more-or-less “professional”) in this organization’s development office for facility, program and funding expansion, I was going to help my new hero make his (and my) vision of urban social justice finally be realized. And if we could do it, no doubt our approach would be quickly adopted in Philadelphia, Chicago, Birmingham, Los Angeles, where ever poverty and racism had condemned millions to lives that would be entirely unacceptable to the suburban majority of our nation. I would live to see a virtual end to the economic injustice that had become a rampant infection within America’s inner cities over the past 50 years. I would be a small part of a major advance in achieving something a bit more like God’s kingdom on earth, right near my own backyard.

So what happened? What happened to me, what happened to those who believed (or appeared to have believed) in what I just described, and what happened to those who we would have rescued? Well, as to the inner cities, not much has really changed. In some places and in some ways, things have gotten better (new housing and homeownership opportunities — at least until 2008 — plus new schools, especially charter schools, and occasional new job opportunities); while just the opposite is also quite common (fewer well-paying jobs, more street gangs, more guns, formerly stable working-class neighborhoods going downhill). The families that manage to garner stable employment and balance their budgets (often with the help of inner-city development agencies such as the one I had joined) usually move to better neighborhoods.

As to me, eventually I moved on, but I didn’t move far away. I am now in a better position to see just how self-destructive people within these communities — not all, but way too many — can be. Obviously I stopped believing that the inner cities could be “rescued”; both in terms of their problems being much more complicated than simple repression by a conspiracy of greedy outsiders, and in terms of debunking my own “social justice superhero” mentality. I started taking the notion of “culture of poverty” a bit more seriously, while still well aware of the dangers of pushing that notion too far. Many conservative pundits would advise against any further efforts and funding to “rebuild the inner city”, saying that such programs (especially those started in the 1960s under President Johnson’s “Great Society” ) have backfired and have only increased poverty levels. I would disagree with that; but then again, there is a valid argument that society might waste its resources by continuing or starting more “urban development” projects that go well beyond the basic services, the things that are part of our inherent social compact; i.e. schooling, police and fire protection, and emergency medical services. Just providing those services in the troubled urban neighborhoods is quite costly, if they are done right (and I definitely agree that they MUST be done right if the cities are to remain viable).

And my journey was more-or-less tracked by the organization that I become involved with. Again, when I started there, the “dream” still seemed to be alive. But after a few years, as our programs quickly grew and new people were hired and more and more money was handled, it became apparent that we were suffering a lot of internal crime, mostly on the part of those people of color who hailed from the neighborhoods that we were trying to help. We gave them jobs and opportunity for advancement, so you would think that they would have bought in to the mission.

As such, we “saviors of the poor” became quite confused by their betrayal. Sure, there are a few bad apples in every barrel, but it became apparent that financial crime was a never-ending dilemma on the part of too many of our employees. Add to that those who carelessly or intentionally damaged the housing and program centers that we built so as to make life in the neighborhood better; who wouldn’t take advantage of the educational, career and personal finance programs that we offered; or who joined but soon dropped out for lack of patience or discipline. Add to that the increasing crime, drug abuse and violence taking place on or near our facilities. Throw in the venality of the local political leaders and government employees who were supposed to serve and represent this community. It could all get you down some days.

At the same time, the local and national press found out about our amazing growth in the early 1990s (which I was helping to fuel through frequent grant funding applications). Within a few years, we had reporters visiting us for the grand tour with our founder almost every other week. His name seemed to be everywhere; his face could be seen on TV. The NY Times even called him the man who had built a “City of Hope”. I could see what was happening. We were soaking in all the glory and acclaim, so as to help forget our disappointment and our growing realization that “transformation” just wasn’t going to happen. No one could actually say and discuss this. We needed to keep on growing, to keep rolling money in for more buildings and programs, so as to gain even more acclaim in the public’s eye. There was no time for doubt and inconvenient truths.

Of course, it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. I wanted to find more secure and remunerative work, so as to start preparing for old age (the community agency did not have any sort of retirement or savings plan). And I was just tired of all the pretense. I was burned out. As to the agency itself, they are still in business, but they eventually lost all the press attention and had to abandon their visions of grandeur. They made at least a 1/3 reduction in staff, buildings and programs over the following decade after I left. They still do many good and necessary things for a disadvantaged community; but actually, so does my current employer, the law enforcement agency. We both sometimes help certain disadvantaged people or families in certain situations. But neither would imagine that “neighborhood transformation” is possible because of our efforts. We cannot imagine any end to the unfortunate co-dependent realities that many continue to face in the urban area in question (and in similar urban areas throughout the nation).

So what would I say today to a young social-justice firebrand who wanted to go to the city and help put an end to the injustices that transpire there on a daily basis? Or what about an idealistic young billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, who imagines that his millions ($100 million, to be precise) will make a difference in the failing school system of an urban center like Newark, NJ? (Some reports say that much of the Zuckerberg funding spend thus far has gone to consultants, analysis and administration, and a portion of it may possibly be used to buy-out underperforming unionized teachers through negotiated “incentives”.)

I guess that I would still say “yes, go indeed, get involved”. Your efforts will certainly help someone, probably many someones. But someday you may reach a place like I have reached, where the fire and inspiration is gone, where you see the strict limits as to what you or anyone else can do. What then?

I’m not pushing myself to get “back into the fray” in inner-city restoration work. But then again, perhaps at some point I will have some further involvement with it, in the final working years of my life. Because, “just being there” may well be a very important thing, more important than any visions of “transformation and justice” or “the coming of the Kingdom on earth”. If I had done any good in the past, it was mostly from just being there, from quietly acknowledging that a community so different from those that I hailed from is nonetheless still part of an overall “web of humankind”. My community has its goods and bads, just as the inner city communities have theirs. We “suburban knights” can occasionally help certain inner-city people in various ways; and likewise, they can and will help those of us who become involved there (as I found out; hopefully Mark Zuckerberg will too, in good time).

No one should expect any major, radical transformations in places like South Chicago. But no one should become entirely disheartened by that fact. And we must not forget the inner cities when our politicians divide up the economic pie; even if there is no way to create the millions of good-paying permanent jobs that would provide “transformation”; we must still seek to innovate and improve on the basics, i.e. schooling, health, and criminal justice / law and order. Oh, and financial / banking programs may also be needed, especially if homeownerhip is ever to get a new start in the cities after the 2008 collapse.

I certainly did feel bad about my losing faith and leaving, and what then happened to my former employer and the communities that it serves. After all these years, I still struggle to work it out in my head — even though I am becoming more convinced that overall, I did what I had to do. I guess it’s just another part of growing old. And yet, I’m not dead yet. Perhaps there is still time for one last urban encore for me? We shall see.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:05 pm      

  1. Jim, You bring up a multitude of issues in this blog. I certainly can understand what you are talking about here. In my own way I’ve had a similar approach to life as you have had. But over the years I’ve realized (and it could be said learned the hard way) some things about the situation you describe.

    There are some points I’d like to pull out and comment on. First of all, regarding all the unfortunate individuals (of whatever race, creed, or color) living in poverty: I have learned that the important thing in “helping” these individuals is *not* to come to them with the “solution” to all their problems, which often is a kind of unspoken and implied idea in the concept of wanting to “help the unfortunate”.

    Only those who *want* to change their situation in life in some particular way will be the ones to benefit. Those not interested in changing their lives will not change. Often the mistake is made that every person living in what seems to others “unfortunate” or “poverty” circumstances wants help. Oddly enough, some people would *prefer* living the way they live. They may have some mental problem that is the cause of this; perhaps they have grown up in such circumstances and cannot conceive of living any other way; there are quite a few reasons why someone living in what some people consider “unfortunate” circumstances might not want to change their circumstances. These individuals will *not* change. No point in trying to help them. They will “work the system” to get as many benefits from it as they can and be very happy with that, continuing to live as they prefer to live. It’s their choice. (And I find myself wondering: Is it really so wrong to help these individuals?)

    The ones to “really” help are those who *want* some kind of change in their lives, who struggle in their own way against the odds set against them. Often in institutional situations both these groups of people (those who want help and those who are satisfied with how they are living) are co-mingled and “lumped” together; it’s part of an institutional approach. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    Institutions often start out very idealistic, but I’ve noticed that it seldom takes much time before they become politicized in one way or another; and before one knows it, the institution becomes more important than the people it was meant to help. This problem, of the institution becoming more important than the people it was meant to help, is one I’ve seen in not only secular institutions but also in religious institutions.

    In one’s young days it’s not unusual for one to envision helping people throughout the world. But there are only a few individuals who are able to do that. The ordinary “working stiff”, like me, for instance, is not able, and never will be able, to help “the world”. It’s a limitation one must face.

    I *do* think that when one thinks of crime in the big cities, that’s a matter for good police work. For the institutions and individuals who might have a calling to “help” the “unfortunate”, that problem is not in their purview, at least that’s how I see it. Some people are just going to commit crimes; they see crime as a job; it’s as simple as that. These individuals either need to learn what their mistake is or, if they simply want to continue on with their way of criminal life, must be placed where they cannot harm other members of society.

    I found something years ago from the book, “Thomas Merton, Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox”; this is from a “Letter to a Young Activist” by Merton. I take it out and read it now and then. Perhaps it applies here, in what you are saying:

    “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be *apparently worthless* and *even achieve no result at all* [emphasis added], if not perhaps results the opposite of what you expect. [I find myself mentally putting a ! after that sentence.] As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down but it gets much more real in the end; it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything . . . .

    “The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen and we can share in them but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

    “You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work . . . .

    “The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth, and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes . . . you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments.” [End of Merton quote. It was long, but I tho’t worth it.]

    I didn’t really mean this to get so long; but, I’ve found the above from Merton to be sustaining more often than not in my own life. I like his concept of “personal relationships that save everything”. But even there, and maybe especially there, with personal relationships, one can feel, to say the least, inadequate most of the time. Seems to me, as you say (but in different words) all one can do is keep plodding on through life and not lose the calling. MCS

    Comment by Mary — June 26, 2013 @ 10:29 am

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