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.

One thought on “Volunteering in Trenton

  1. Trish

    Oh my gosh. Crystal. I have to respond! I hope to find some time tomorrow to write something. I think what I write will not please my Princeton friends. Of course, I know not everyone can make the same decisions that I have. I think what you wrote offers another alternative for some to consider, even if it may 🙂 e fraught with uncertainty.

    Reply

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