By Alice Matthai
Ms. Matthai is Academic and College Success Coordinator at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with an Anthropology major and Poverty and Human Capability minor.
“…struggles like these that allowed me to learn the valuable lesson that we, as those trying to help, must remember to start at the root of the problem and if we cannot start there, to at least acknowledge that it is there,” writes Matthai (W&L 2014).
Having worked both in Tanzania and in Baltimore, I constantly wonder if I am the best person to help those whose lives I have pledged to improve. I spent two wonderfully educational but very difficult months in Tanzania for my Shepherd internship, after which I received feedback from one supervisor that my two co-interns and I were nothing but spoiled white girls who just wanted to have fun in Africa. This accusation is far from the truth and did not encompass our attitudes or our efforts while in Tanzania and although I knew this, it hurt. This nagging pain stuck with me through my last two years at W&L and persists now in the racially charged atmosphere in Baltimore and on a smaller scale, at the nonprofit at which I work.
I work at Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH) of Baltimore with a small group of academically high achieving middle and high schoolers from low-income backgrounds. As a post-graduate fellow from Washington and Lee, I have fallen short of an exact job title and instead tend to fill in the cracks when needed. The biggest role that I have filled is helping the seniors prepare for college. These three students have all come from very different Baltimore backgrounds and very different family situations. As strong students, they do not have the stereotypical struggle of a minority student consistently falling short in school. Instead, they seek validation of their efforts and of what they must overcome in a predominantly white world. This problem is endemic regardless of academic ability and in my experience at BHGH, has been the most harmful legacy of poverty on the scholars, leading some to drop out of college or even the program because this need was not met.
To validate others – their fears, their ambitions – is an inherent lesson that was constantly enforced in all poverty classes but is one that I did not truly realize the value of until working at Boys Hope Girls Hope. When I first started, my objective was clear: work with the boys to help them get the best grades that they can possibly achieve on a college bound track. The first hurdle I had to clear was the very stark differences between our daily realities simply because I am white and they are not, which, in Baltimore, has significant class distinctions. Many of the impoverished neighborhoods in Baltimore are either black or minority populated. This is incredibly significant, because simply by my race my students were able to rightly assume my upper middle class background. The second hurdle was guidance from, and accessibility to, leadership and mentors. Not having an accessible leadership team has minimized productivity and, at times, led to an isolating work environment. The more I got to know and understand the boys and what they struggled with in regard to their background, the more I wanted to voice my ideas and opinions about ways to improve the program and improve their outlook; but I haven’t gotten that chance. My ideas and my work rarely get validated and as frustrating as it is, it brings a much needed reality check. This is a problem for me in one aspect of my life but, it is a problem in countless other aspects for my students.
Armed with this knowledge, it has been easier to work with the college bound scholars and make a concerted effort to give them ownership of their college process. It has taught me to consider the type of help I am giving, how I am giving it, and most importantly, to listen to their needs to determine the best solution. Although the racial and class differences between my students and me are significant, the effort to listen has made all the difference in my success or failure at being a positive presence in their lives.
The experiences I had in Tanzania and in Baltimore both caused frustrations, although for very different reasons, with the structure of non-profits. There is often too much to do for the deeper matters to adequately be addressed. It was struggles like these that allowed me to learn the valuable lesson that we, as those trying to help, must remember to start at the root of the problem and if we cannot start there, to at least acknowledge that it is there.
I plan to take this reinforced knowledge and pursue a medical degree following this position. As medicine was my original plan when I started at Washington and Lee, it does not feel strange to pursue it again but I am happy that I will have spent almost two years at BHGH. I have had the chance to accrue a greater knowledge base and understanding of the dynamic complexities of the world of people.