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A Culture of Poor Baltimore

I tend towards not writing about places that aren't known to me and Baltimore fits that on multiple levels. I've never visited there, never had any conference to attend there, nor do I know its history very well. It must be like every other place with its eccentricities and culture, but some of it, from what I've been researching, is well known. Right now, people seem to be talking about the violence there without actually talking about the violence there. In an NPR piece that ran across my feeds this morning I read the headline, On the Streets of Baltimore, Trying to Understand the Anger. It immediately occurred to me that this article wasn't meant for me. I mean, it wasn't written for me in mind. The author isn't trying to talk to me about understanding anger that comes from systemically racist practices that got Baltimore here. 

That part, I understand. I understand the anger. 

What I could use help with, then, is understanding their history if it is so different from what I know and have experienced and have studied. Yet, it's a history which seems to be the apartheid history of the United States.

This is the easy part because having an understanding of the capitalism that requires the sustainability of inequality is what America is built on and we fool ourselves into any other version of that truth. The inequality is, by far, projected onto Black communities that have crumbled and are designed to do just that thing.

For instance, it's not lost on me that we had article after article recently of how Child Protective Services are going after mostly White, middle-class families in an attempt to curb their "free-range" parenting while stopping children on school busses in Baltimore are directly moving mostly Black, impoverished children into harm's way. That was neither an accident nor was it done with the safety of children in mind. It was malicious and disgusting to stop bus service at the end of a school day.

It doesn't even take much of a cultural awareness to see these things, either. Honestly. I'm no smarter than any other person paying attention. I'm no more ingrained to an intellectualism that allows me to see this iceberg theory of culture playing out in Baltimore.

There are the obvious parts of the top of the iceberg when it comes to culture. There's art and literature and food and concepts of beauty and entitlement to celebratory manifestations. 

It's the underneath part of the iceberg that's biting us all in the behind right now as we fight over property being more valuable than human life.

Underneath, there are rules of governing and patterns of handling emotions in the civic arena. There's body language and dog whistles and leadership and logic and validity. There are arrangements of physical space and social niceties. There are attitudes about poverty and dependency. There are the problems of mobility, both physical and economic. 

Keeping all that down is a White wealth escalator that drains expenses and marginalizes a population that is kept in place on purpose.

One of the activities we had to do during a workshop I recently attended on Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism was to build a poor community. We did this by drawing a poor community (and, by no means am I trying to characterize all of Baltimore as poor, but to show how we keep such neighborhoods in check) and listing things that we know are there. We don't have to live there to know what's there. 

It was an exercise in absolute exhaustion and I felt like we needed a trigger warning for "Americanism". 

Actually, the exercise was extended to include the "kicking feet" on communities that we try to keep down.

Just for a moment before you read on, think about the makeup of a poor community before I tell you what we came up with as a group.

Here's a sampling of what we listed:

Currency exchanges

Bars and liquor stores

Missions and food banks

Day labor

Mom & Pop shops

Storefront churches or old church buildings that have been made into something else

Empty houses

Section 8

Rent-to-own furniture and electronic stores

No sidewalks or curbs or fixed potholes

Limited transportation hubs

Crumbling homes and unkempt parks

Railways going through neighborhoods

Dialysis and diabetic health

Public health

Gas stations that double as grocery stores

Social services

We also discussed, quite extensively, the fact that we weren't going to add grocery stores to this neighborhood because there are so few. When there are grocery stores, they are some generic brand that offers few nutritional choices in the way of fruits and vegetables and sells red and purple "juice" in plastic milk jugs but very little actual food. We also left out industry and manufacturing plants because, of course, that's where the jobs are and if they're in your neighborhood you're likely to be one of the lucky ones.

The large colorful sticky notes surrounding the 'community' are a part of what keeps it that way.

Here's the thing: every poor community looks the same in these regards. I don't have to visit Baltimore to know what it looks like though it may have its own flavor of some of the things stated above. People wander around searching for jobs that don't exist. Kids are bussed to other parts of towns where those buildings have had better upkeep since theirs have been shut down. (I'm looking at you, Chicago.) 

People, well-meaning people sometimes, want to visit these neighborhoods and talk about violence but never offer jobs to those they are keeping down. Make no mistake: someone benefits from us having a poor population. People working in cities like Baltimore or towns like Ferguson are doing the most with their policies to make money off the backs of the poor all the while policing them in whatever manner they choose.

A friend recently shared some of Baltimore's statistics:


  • The population is 622,793.
  • There are approximately 16,000 abandoned homes.
  • An estimated 3,000 are homeless each night, an estimated 30,000 each year.
  • The Baltimore City high school graduation rate is 68.5%. The national average is 80%.
  • The median per capita income is $23,333. Nationally that is between $32,140-$39,509.
  • 63.7% of the population of Black.
  • The homeless population in Baltimore is steadily increasing; it exceeded 4,000 people in 2011.


I guess I just don't think about this being only about the killing of Freddie Gray. It is about politics and class warfare and crushing poverty from the kicking feet of capitalism. It is about the assumptions and privileges and benefits that people exploit in order to put a man with a severed spinal cord in the back of a van that leads to his death.

I remain perplexed by those who wonder about "understanding" the anger that led to the current events in Baltimore. I persist in confusion of those people asking about violence being the answer as if they somehow had it magically hidden in their back pocket the whole time.

Here! I had the answer! None of y'all asked me!

It was the original question: what happened in this city to this man and why is he dead? that leads me to watching these false narratives unfold about "riots" and come up with at least one answer. It is the perpetuated culture of the poor and the kicking feet of capitalism. It's the history of what White America inflicted on thriving Black communities (and those who allowed it to happen) not to mention the colonialism and disenfranchisement of Native Americans and Chinese and other cultures crushed by the wealth escalator that benefits Whites (and those who choose to identify as such).

But, what do I know? I don't live there.


Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism: A Seminar Recap


I often ask myself the question that seems to permeate every part of my pedagogy in American public education: who is this for? It's simple at the outset, but, when answering it, I find myself at an intersection of American pathology that is fraught with complications and, more importantly, American history. I'm native to a complicated membership of a working class that's known both desperate levels of poverty as well as upper education struggling within the middle class. Living there, then, means that while I'm able to go to the grocery store and purchase whatever I want there is a lingering and aching part of me that remembers saving pennies found in the couches of my friends so that I could make the ends meet. 

All of that is seen through the lens of a person who also critically recognizes race. It is not a popular place to be, but I'm comfortable there now.

Last week I took part in an important conversation not just in my city but within the confines of the school district for which I work. It's crucial to note that it wasn't an accident. I might go so far as to admit that I lobbied for this, both in my writing and the important work of institutionalized racism. The topical racism which has become a momentous conversation in the United States scratches the surface of what we're truly built on, but it seems that if one permits entry into that discussion one is, somehow, less patriotic.

I call shenanigans on that.

The seminar, put on by CrossRoads Antiracism Organizing & Training, put things into perspective for me and other participants in a way I have never before experienced at a conference. That was, of course, the point. Led by Robette Dias (a member of the Karuk Indian Tribe in California) we went through a number of activities that helped us see America as she truly is: an Apartheid nation built with a framework of a European Colonialism power structure that never lets us forget who wants the power and what lengths they're willing to go through to keep it.

That's a strong sentence, I know. But, if we're going to talk about institutional racism we have to remember that racism is the enemy and the enemy uses pawns to complete the work.

One of the tools used by CrossRoads is to create an unabridged version of American history in an exercise called The Wall of History. Four large sections of wall were used by the audience to note the building of our nation from the knowledge of the participants. We didn't use our smart phones or Google to come up with what we've learned but rather worked together to create a comprehensive list of our knowledge of the past. It helps, therefore, to have educated people in the room with you. For example, when asked about the year that the first enslaved African was kidnapped and brought to the shores of this country, I was grateful that Kathryn Harris (whom I have written about before here and here) was sitting at my table. She's an African-American research librarian who has just retired from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. (As luck would have it, she and I keep running into one another since then.)

"1619," she shouted out through the silence of the room. No one else knew that answer off the top of their heads when Robette asked the question.

Robette reminded us of the name of the ship that brought him here: Jesus. And, I thought, "Jesus. Really?" (Named both The Good Ship Jesus and Jesus of Lubeck.)

The 4 quadrants were broken down into categories so we didn't fit too much on each wall. The top portion was for us to name racism/racist practices and laws that helped build this nation. On the bottom, we later put resistance to racism. If you don't think American nation building is important or why there's such resistance to teaching history then look no further at why libraries were the first things to be burned down when a conquering culture tried to take over.

1492-1790 European Colonialism and U.S. Nation Building

1790-1954 U.S. Apartheid, Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism

1954-1973 Movement Time

1973-present Criminalization, Racist Multiculturalism, Color Blindness, "Post-Racial"

I should stop to mention that there were multiple institutions in that room. Education (both public and parochial), media, a medical school contingency, a local public university, and city organizers. It was hosted by the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism (SCoDR) in the Sacred Heart Convent and one of the Dominican Sisters, Sister Marcelline, has pushed for this work for years.

In a sincere moment, I pulled Sister Marcelline aside and asked, "Why do you do this work? I mean, why is antiracism so important to you?" and she promptly answered, "Because, as a Sister, I'm involved with social justice." She actually continued on for quite a bit detailing the work that's important to her as a follower of Jesus and I told her that she could have left it at that one sentence and I would have understood. 

Back in January, my father saved an article from our local independent newspaper, Illinois Times, because he wanted me to read about the work the church is doing (he's a die-hard Catholic who found a church quickly once he moved here) and he asked me if I knew some of the people mentioned in the article. I hadn't, but I got to meet them during this 3-day training.

Doing the work of anti-racism is where I am right now. For the last 10 years of writing online my writing has morphed into doing this work and not just the calling out of racism. This work, institutional work, is where we break down the barriers that intersect race and gender and class. It's not binary work, either, as discussions and caucuses moved us into groups of White/European and People of Color. Robette, being a Native American, got us to think about this country as a practice/culture of Apartheid but she also mentioned that the colonialism for Natives still hasn't ended.

"They still haven't left," she said dryly during our discussion. It was a salient argument in a sobering moment.

When people ask me what they can do, and those questions come with more frequency than ever before, this is what I want to tell them to do. Get your organization or institution this training. Get your politicians to look at our history and how we continue to perpetuate racism as policy in this country so we can have honest conversations about change. Get to de-constructing this national practice so we can move forward.

Honestly, we can't do it without this framework.

Image credit to Vicki Davis


Virtual Field Trip: Wild Biomes

This is a sponsored post. However, my passion for education and global water concerns are, as always, my own.

I am supremely disappointed in my inability to grow things in a sustainable manner. It's not entirely my fault, though, because I grew up learning how to fix things and cook so that's my wheelhouse. When I first became a homeowner I envied the manicured lawns and flowers my neighbors kept but instead of trying to grow anything, I bought potted plants that lasted only as long as I remembered to water them.

This house, though, the one that I share with The Cuban, is laid out in such a way that makes it possible for sunlight to hit it just right for a nice garden. You'd think I would have a nice one, but weeding is truly a pain and one that I grumble through as a chore each summer. We've tried growing some food but with the woods so close to our house the bunnies ate everything or the bugs got it and the weeds OH MY GOD ALL THE WEEDS. 

I freely admit that I fail at such things.

However, this year we're trying hydroponics and we're not doing it outside at all. The Cuban is spearheading this and building things and he made a bell siphon to keep the water flowing. It's all very complicated and I'd explain it but I do best just eating the tomatoes and cilantro and rosemary he's growing. It's our own little biome but not really, you know? (See? I told you I shouldn't explain those things.)


But, do you know what time it is? It's time for another VIRTUAL field trip.

I truly enjoy sharing these because you can do it at home or in your classroom. You don't even have to pack a bag for this.

The Nature Conservancy's Nature Works Everywhere's is planning a live Google Hangout for grade 3-8 classrooms focusing on comparing and contrasting the role of water and how it works in two dramatically different biomes – the rainforests Washington State and the desert in Arizona. Students can learn how water affects and is affected by the people, animals and plants in these two distinctive ecosystems. (So, a bit different than our homemade hydroponics.)



The Virtual Field Trip - Wild Biomes: From America’s Rainforest to America’s Desert

If you're a classroom teacher, here are the bare bones details:

  • On April 8, 2015 at 12 pm ET, The Nature Conservancy is putting on a virtual field trip they've titled Wild Biomes: From America’s Rainforest to America’s Desert. The Nature Conservancy’s senior hydrologist on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water team will be teaching the science behind how people and nature can work together.


  • Teachers and parents can sign up to take part in the virtual field trip here: 


  • Why sign up? The aim of this virtual field trip is to build students’ knowledge of and emotional connection to environmental issues that are at the heart of The Nature Conservancy’s mission. 



  • For teachers: The Nature Conservancy and NatureWorksEverywhere are excellent classroom resources for science and geography.

Tomorrow, my own 6th grade students are participating in our culminating project on sustainable and clean water. We do this every year in order to learn how water affects people and how clean water is a problem in many developing countries. In fact, this field trip is a natural extension of what my own students are doing because it also looks at how people affect water. They've learned where their water comes from already and that globally we have a water crisis. 

On the field trip, students will get to hear from Kari Vigerstol, the senior hydrologist on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water team from Seattle. It's hosted by Tyler DeWitt who will introduce the field trip, interview Kari, and take questions from students. Since it's virtual, we'll travel to the lush, rain-soaked splendor of the Olympic Peninsula and explore the urban watershed of Seattle. While they get a lot of water, the challenge is keeping it safe and clean. Next, we’ll head to Arizona’s dry, desert landscape and take a tour down the Verde River, one source of water that nourishes this parched land. Here, people and other living things must adapt to a limited water supply, yet sudden and violent storms can dump seven inches of rain in a single night.

Teachers may want to pre-teach some vocabulary that's necessary to understanding just how nature and water work with people. During the chat, there will be a couple of students asking questions of the experts. These Key Concepts and Terms will get students started:


Tune in for our live Google hangout at 12:00 pm (EST) on April 8, 2015, to find out how geography, people, and water interact in two of America’s “wildly” unique biomes. It's 40 minutes long, and my students and I will be there. Join us! Maybe sometime in the near future, I'll show you how those tomatoes and cilantro and rosemary turn out.

Supplementary materials:

How Natural Areas Filter Water  

Managing Salmon to Support Healthy Forests  

Gardens Activity Guide: Water  

You can learn more about Tyler by watching his TED talk on making science fun and visiting his YouTube Channel 


Eden Project 09-10-2007 via photopin (license) Rainforest Dome via photopin (license)

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