Jabriel Hasan, Marymount University, worked in Chester, Pennsylvania
I remember sitting down to discuss our Community Learning Agreement with Dr. Janet Riley-Ford, the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Chester. As interns, ready to impact a community of overwhelming social need, we crafted a Community Learning Agreement expressing our desire to see a dramatic change in the children, which we hoped would then influence the larger community. Dr. Riley-Ford probed us about our objectives, making it clear that we expected to see too much of our impact. In a community like Chester, where parents have to worry whether a child will encounter gang violence on his or her walk home from school or wonder if their child is even safe outside at night, pressing the value that we should all be treating others as we want to be treated is a little naïve. This core value is the ideal operative value in any just, well-functioning society. Nevertheless, the reality is that inner city environments like Chester are often defensive, unstable places. Commuting an hour-and-a-half on the bus and train everyday through a city notorious for crime and abrasiveness made me too feel a sense of insecurity and defensiveness. While Dr. Riley-Ford expressed hopes that we find the experience rewarding, she also encouraged us to be realistic in our expectations. The impact we were to make on the children’s lives would probably not be visible in the six weeks spent with them.
After reading my blog post, Dr. Riley-Ford reminded me of a common shortcoming of many people who speak on social issues. We often unknowingly disregard the humanity of people affected by circumstances and even use language that worsens their situation: even the term “disadvantaged” fosters a negative perception of the people rather than addressing the problems they experience. Many people who come to the Center do not view themselves or their situations as “disadvantaged.” That I referred to poverty as a dark disadvantage is even privileged and elite, because I had the privilege of labeling a group of people according to circumstances. In hindsight, the language was probably too impersonal to the people of Chester and presumptuous regarding their mentalities and living conditions. Nevertheless I felt confused about how I was supposed to discuss and think of the experience. In school, writing instructors encourage students to master the English language by speaking in a direct, affirmative, active voice. We are encouraged to draw conclusions about our thoughts. Yet, my thoughts on poverty remain inconclusive. I came to find that every child and every situation differs.
In the beginning of my internship, I remained hopeful that I could still effect large-scale change in the behavior and attitudes of the children in my group—at least while they participated in club activities. I thought that I could use discipline as a tool against bad behavior and teach ethical values of caring for others and communal well-being with some positive change. I wanted to demonstrate my success. It was probably two weeks into working with the children in my group that I realized that many of the issues they faced could not be mended with my instruction at summer camp. This was the beginning of the harsh phase in my internship. Because the club did not ask parents for their children’s medical histories, I am quite sure some of the kids in my group struggled with undiagnosed ADD or ADHD that I had no planned way of handling. The children seemed to reflect the social pressure of their environment in various ways. Many refused to listen or respect my authority—not out of disdain for me, but because respect for authority was probably inadequately modeled for them. I constantly functioned as both a disciplinarian and caregiver. Our supervisors told us not to smile during the first few weeks for our kindness could be mistaken as weakness. Putting on my tough facade, I challenged the children’s attitudes and behaviors. I also recognized that the severity of punishments had to be proportional to the severity of their actions, and the severity of their actions was relative to what’s socially accepted in their environment. I saw children hit each other and speak harshly about each other on a daily basis, but I corrected them with only verbal warnings. Poverty often contains people in condensed, shared spaces that leave them tense and dependent. Children tend to reflect this reality with harsh behavior. Touching another person is an impactful way of relating to them. Talkativeness and loudness can be a way of gaining the attention.
I struggled with a child whose mom had killed his dad. Many of the children’s fathers were absent from their lives or their parent’s were separated. Standing at the bus stop, I saw an old woman urinating and applying a sanitary wipe down her pants in a public square. Every day, the train drove past dilapidated homes in some of the roughest parts of the city in West Philadelphia between 69th and 46th streets. There were times when I saw children selling fruit snacks like lemonade on the train while their parents went behind them collecting money—but for who and for what? I saw how circumstances significantly influence the lives of individuals. Where we are born often predicts our futures. I think that the future is truly open for a limited number of people, but many people, unfortunately, end up repeating or doing only slightly better than the surroundings. I was frustrated because I feared that many of the children at the Club would struggle in the future unless some drastic change affected their lives. Many will struggle to integrate their social skills into larger society and to communicate with those privileged by different circumstances. Most of the kids in my group had never even been asked about their dreams and aspirations. They found it strange when I asked about future careers. They will struggle to compete with children who have been prepared for prestigious colleges. I was so hurt by this reality. One day, I sat on my bed and wept because I could not contain the pain of these realizations. I felt insignificant and incapable of changing a cold world. I felt alone.
Towards the end of my internship I began to accept the reality. That is not say that I think the current reality is immutable, but rather I accept that it exists. I accepted that I am personally not responsible for changing the entire world, or every child with whom I work. I can only do the best that I can with what I know and have, and hope for the best possible outcome. I accepted that the buses and trains are crazy and crowded and that much of Philly is dangerous and impoverished. I am committed to helping change this reality, but I know now that I cannot bear the entire weight of this world. It is too painful. There was a time in my internship when I felt torn between wanting to make a career out working with a community directly or channeling my communications degree towards a more corporate function. I do not know where my learning will lead me. I continue to learn.
Reflecting months later on my experience, I do know that I am extraordinarily blessed to have had it. I still remember their smiles and personalities. I remember the hugs they gave me the day I left to go back home. I realize that it was worth it. It was all worth it.