Monthly Archives: February 2016

Giving Time

My recent posts have been about giving money, but when a friend expressed awe at my husband’s and my generosity, I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to boast but rather to point out a need. And I know that my friend gives generously of her time. I’ve overstated the importance of money.

The gift of time is, despite the clock, immeasurable. My friend has become a surrogate mother to the mentally handicapped daughter of a friend who died years ago. Each night the young woman calls. My friend listens to the young woman recount her day and reassures her that she cares. It’s tedious but necessary. I know because I get calls from a similarly handicapped fellow I taught almost 50 years ago. I listen to the litany about his trips to Walmart, the mileage on his car, his problems on the job (with nary a question about me). But he calls only once a month. Listening every night is true generosity, and I admire my friend’s devotion.

Another friend has chided me for seeming to belittle the time given by Princetonians who volunteer in Trenton with TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer. I apologize. Time given to otherswhether individuals or organizationsis time taken from oneself. And driving to Trenton adds more time. Of course, time spent with others can be rewarding. I enjoyed my time teaching so much that sometimes I’d forget it was payday, and the school secretary would have to wave my paycheck to catch my attention as I clocked outbut only sometimes. Nowadays I devote a day each week to visiting my paralyzed friend in her nursing home. Time spent shopping for her and sitting with her eats into time to accomplish what I’d like to get done, but I love our visits. She does too. Time is a gift.

Then I remember her exclamation of joy, “I can look out my window!” For a year, she had lain in bed or been placed in a wheelchair facing the TV. To see outside required turning her head because she was unable to move her chair. Medicare had promised a mobilized wheelchair as long as she stayed in her home, and we tried to keep her there until it arrived. But bureaucracy delayed delivery; money for round-the-clock care ran out; and she had to go into a home as a Medicaid recipient. Medicare doesn’t give motorized chairs to people in nursing homes, and even the appeals of our Congressmen couldn’t produce a waiver. Finally I bought a Jazzya bright-red, motorized chairand unwittingly gave her the simple joy of looking out her window.

My thesis collapses. Which is worth more: the time I spend with her or the time she spends looking out her window and driving independently around the nursing home because I bought her “Jazzy”? I guess the answer is: give time, but, if needed, and if you can, give money too.

Giving – With Strings

Since the publication of my article “Volunteering in Trenton,” I’ve found a young man, recently home from the army, who needs financial help. He’d like to become an EMT and then go on to college to become a social worker. He was on the way to his goal— had gotten a job near a bus route, saved money, bought a used car, and then found a better-paying job to which he drove fellow workers. But the car broke down one morning on the way to work. He called at 7:15, but my husband and I, cozy in bed, suggested they take a taxi. We weren’t getting up to drive to Hamilton and rescue them. It turned out that he and his fellow workers were fired for failing to show up at work. Without savings to fix the car, he fell into depression, rarely leaving his bedroom in his mother’s house in Trenton. Six weeks later I learned the whole story.

I could have suggested that he buck up, borrow bus fare, and start all over again. But since I’d just told my readers that the “effective help” Trentonians need is money, or at least a ride, I’d have felt like a hypocrite. Besides, depression is a disease. Instead, I suggested to my husband that we get the car fixed and pay the tuition for the EMT course so he could start immediately. He’d be responsible for finding a job that fit with his class schedule, maintaining the car, and getting his financial house in order for the future.

My husband surprised me. He balked. “We don’t have the money.”

“How much do we give to charity?”


“Couldn’t we make him our charity for 2016?”

“Yes, but how do we know he won’t waste it?”

“How do we know for sure that the charities we give to don’t waste it?”

“OK, but what if he doesn’t finish the EMT course, and we lose our investment?”

“I think we can trust him. We’ve known him since he was a little kid.”

“Don’t you remember the Land Rover?”

Ah yes, the Land Rover! Almost twenty years ago, we supported one of my Trenton High students through college and then added his wife and her tuition, a car, and, eventually, their child. Of course, maintaining such a household wasn’t cheap, but it was an excellent investment. They earned degrees, got good jobs, and finally were on their own. Then the first car they bought was a new Land Rover. We were dismayed. Why something so ostentatious? Hadn’t we taught them not to waste money?

But it went deeper. I was reminded of the stereotype of black people and cars and felt a chill. Suddenly the young man who called me “Mom” was not like me: he didn’t share my values. For my husband it was a slap in the face. The person he’d been supporting at my request now drove a more expensive car than he’d ever owned. Given all the money he’d shelled out, the Land Rover should have and could have been hisif he’d wanted one. That Land Roversynonymous with being taken advantage of.

Now, in our conversation about helping this second young, black man with his car and EMT tuition, my husband uses words like “hand out” and “soft touch.” But is it a hand out or a hand up? Can we just leave someone to drown in depression, perhaps become suicidal? After all, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is physically impossible. You’d give him foodthe Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is one of our charities. But isn’t it better to teach him to fish? And won’t having a car to get him to class for EMT training be like teaching him to fish?

What about returning to the army? Sure, they’d look after him, but is that his choice? Isn’t the problem that poor people have so little choice? Wasn’t the army his only option when he graduated from Trenton High? How depressing to be back at square one!

What about getting a bang for our charity buck? We just saw a segment on the PBS Newshour comparing the cost effectiveness of vaccinating dozens of children versus delivering one baby in Nepal by C-section. Yes, but didn’t at least one doctor defend everyone’s right to health care? How can anyone say “No” face to face?

I, too, hate to feel used, but we had no contract that said, “You can’t buy a Land Rover with your own money.” Isn’t any investment, whether in people or the stock market, a risk? Is a gift with strings a gift? Is giving about the giver or the recipient?

The young man has told me that he will disappoint himself, as well as us, if he doesn’t complete the EMT course. I want to trust him. I do trust him. And finally, my husband trusts me. We’ll see.

Volunteering in Trenton

The following two articles were published in the Princeton Packet In October, 2015.  The first is by my writing instructor, Anne Neumann, the second by me.  We were both responding to a question about volunteering in Trenton that had been raised at a forum we attended together.  Our responses, however, are quite different.

Volunteering in Trenton

by Anne Waldron Neumann

On September 20 the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) sponsored a panel on racism: a praiseworthy effort. But eight panel members and two topics—the Black Lives Matter movement generally and racism in Princeton specifically—made the resulting discussion somewhat disconnected and overly general.

Given two minutes each for initial comments, a Princeton historian got as far as black homeowners being displaced by Palmer Square in the early 1930s, and by Paul Robeson Place in the late 1950s. Young panel members described social media as disseminating both productive exchanges and vitriol. Ministers discussed religion’s role in overcoming racism. One panel member said that white people use “playing the race card” to mean taking unfair advantage, while black people know that race taints the entire deck.

Final questions for the panel were collected in writing. Several people asked about a clergyman’s suggestion that something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could address Princeton’s racialist history. Someone else asked about Hillary Clinton’s belief that government can’t change hearts and minds. (“I don’t believe you change hearts. You change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate,” Ms. Clinton said.)

And one anonymous audience member, presuming extreme economic and therefore class disparities between many Princetonians and many Trentonians, asked how to be involved in Trenton in ways that “might be effective and comfortable.” Since none of the panel members addressed the question, the moderator asked the largely white audience instead.

As I see it, the question was both crucial and contradictory. Several audience members did describe volunteering in ways they found effective and comfortable: serving food in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, participating in “People and Stories,” and combining a passion with outreach by coaching soccer. But wouldn’t being meaningfully helpful in Trenton entail, for most white people, being profoundly uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it clarify both the disadvantages many Trentonians suffer and the white privilege that’s usually invisible?

“White privilege” includes systems that determine wealth over generations: going to the “right” school, acquiring the “right” cultural capital, getting the “right” job, and (probably, with your parents’ help) buying the “right” house—one that will never lose value precipitously. White privilege also includes seeming trivialities such as, if you’re well-spoken, never being called “articulate” and never being asked to be a spokesperson for your “race.”

Racial sensitivity training is designed to make white privilege visible. An African-American friend described participating in a well-known exercise in which workmates stepped forward if they’d ever been asked to show identification when paying by credit card, been stopped for driving too slowly (perhaps even in their own neighborhood), and so on. By the end of the exercise, the black employees had crossed the room while white ones had hardly budged.

It’s easy to think of ways to get white people across the room in this exercise: just ask the good opposite of the usual bad questions. If you don’t know any jokes about people like you, take a step forward. If you own your own silverware, take a step forward (take another step if it has at least three initials on each piece, and a baby step if the initials are from a previous generation).

But what about good things that might get black people across the room? Step forward if you can sit on your front porch and know a neighbor will stop by to chat. Or bad things that would cause white people to step forward? “If your child ever told you to f*** off and lived to tell the tale, take one giant step,” my friend suggested.

Clearly, cultural differences as well as economic ones may divide white and black folks. So, to return to the PCDO forum question, can privileged white people genuinely help underprivileged black people? White volunteers might give some black people more experiences—hopefully positive—of interacting with white people. White volunteers might gain experiences—surely sometimes painful—of interacting with black people. As I see it, volunteering in Trenton would at best change hearts and open minds.

I do think government can also help change hearts and minds. The presidency is a bully pulpit, after all. But, by and large, I’m with Hillary Clinton. Not that Princetonians shouldn’t volunteer in Trenton. But we need to change the laws and systems that determine how resources are allocated. We need, as Thomas Piketty argues, to tax not just return on capital but its possession. We need to make rent partly tax deductible, not just interest on mortgage payments.We need equal treatment under law enforcement. We need universal voter registration. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting districts set by bipartisan commissions.

In short, we need the healthful society that promotes healthful hearts and minds. We need to make volunteering in Trenton both comfortable and unnecessary.

Volunteering in Trenton, Part 2

by Chrystal Schivell

In last week’s “As I See It” column, Anne Neumann discussed a recent Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) panel “Getting Beyond Racism.” Like Anne, I was troubled by the question about “how to be involved in Trenton in ways that might be effective and comfortable.” As I listened to audience members mention TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer, I remembered situations I’d encountered in my 23 years’ teaching at Trenton Central High School:

A young lady in Trenton High’s nursing program has prepared diligently for the test that will certify her as a nursing assistant and allow her to work in a hospital after graduation. The test is on a Saturday, and her father has agreed to drive her. The father fails to show up; a taxi is out of the question. She misses the test and is not certified.

Tamara, the vice-president of student government and a gifted student, is accepted at Syracuse University, her dream school. Buoyed by monetary awards she received at graduation, she attends freshman year. Back home, her mother is in a traffic accident, a new car is needed, and insurance rates go up. Tamara’s family can no longer afford Syracuse, and she enrolls at MCCC.

A Trenton High senior has been accepted at Georgetown and runs to show a black teacher the letter. “Why did you choose such an expensive school?” is her response, not “Bravo!” But she’s intuitive: no guidance counselor has explained to this bright young man how to apply for scholarships. His regal bearing belies his financial ignorance and need as the son of a single mom, recently arrived from Jamaica, who works as a domestic. At Georgetown, one week, his meal ticket runs out. He’s “hangry” (hungry and angry). Friends ask him to join them for drinks. He covers with “No, you guys run along. I have to study.” But he cannot study, cannot sleep. He remembers he has $4 in his bank account, but in those days the minimum withdrawal from an ATM is $5. He goes to the gym to work out, finds a $5 bill on the basketball court, buys a TV dinner, and credits God for his luck.

A colleague asks me whether I have any candle stubs. Her electricity has been cut off.

The effective help these people needed was moneyin some cases advicebut primarily money. Were the members of the forum’s audience aware of the need? Did they feel a need to address it?

“Trenton” is a code word for “poor black people.” Let’s examine what happens if we split “poor” and “black.” Probably we white Princetonians who become involved in Trenton see our involvement as enriching the lives of black folk. It soothes our guilt. But if, as panelists noted, race is a fictionwe are all members of the human racewould we be equally satisfied helping poor white people? Is our emphasis on poverty or race? I’ve known black teachers and counselors who cared little about enriching the lives of their black students; some even resented their success, jealous that the students might be getting ahead of them: “You’re from the projects. You’ll never become a doctor.” My point: effective involvement in Trenton means addressing its poverty.

Anne Neumann called for legal and systemic changes to lessen economic disparity. I agree, but meanwhile, for me, the disparity is immediate and has faces. A Trenton High colleague often said, “You can’t save all the whales,” his analogy for dealing with the poverty we witnessed. No, but my husband and I saved two.

My advice is to find among the poor children in “People and Stories” or on the soccer team one with whom you have a natural affinity. Ask permission of the parent(s) to become financially involved in their child’s life. If they agree, start with emergency funds for that taxi or TV dinner. Give your phone number and be prepared to drive the child to tests, science fairs, or out-of-state competitions. Suggest joining the parent(s) for parent-teacher conferences. When necessary, provide tutoring and pay for SAT, and AP tests. Invite the child to your homeand to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. Use your experience to help the child plan for college and then check that the scholarship money and student loans really do cover the child’s needs. The list will go on: will you help with housing if the child goes to graduate school? What if the child needs a car to get to work? It’s the commitment that’s crucial—being there for that phone call if things go awry.

Money is never a comfortable topic. And if you treat your financially adopted child as you would treat your own child, you may find that you spend very generously. But you will have been effective. The enrichment you gave initially with soccer and “People and Stories” will enhance your adopted child’s futurenot dead end in frustration.