I’ve had a lot of things on my mind as of late. 2017 marks my 10th year living east of the river and nearly my eighth year working on community projects here. A lot of things have changed in the community and on this very blog. I spent a lot of my early years discussing the blatant racism and bias that was contributing to the negative perceptions of those looking outside in. I wrote posts on how "Southeast" was code for "black and dangerous" for a lot of DC residents and members of the media. I called out inappropriate (and sometimes just plain racist) tweets. I put folks on blast; I took journalists to task and spent a lot of time trying to do my part to change the narrative by interjection a bit of transparency and outrage. I like to think I've played some tiny part in a more balanced view of Wards 7 and 8.
Communities east of the river aren't perfect. That said, we did seem to get more than our fair share of people spreading the bad word about staying away from Southeast. That the best approach to our community was to avoid it at all costs.
I am happy to say that that perspective is changing. I think people are getting a bit better about learning about our community. Not every neighborhood east of the river is called Anacostia. Not every SE block is "dangerous." Not every SE resident is a criminal. There is still a lot of work to do but progress is being made and that is a very good thing.
That said, I occasionally find myself encountering the soft bigotry of low expectations that is often disguised as "help" from those on the outside looking in. Lord knows most of these advocates mean well, but their own racial and/or economic pedigree can cloud their view of our world. Intentional or not, minorities in underserved communities are generally cast in one of two roles: hardened criminal or hapless victim. It's like there is this invisible line where Black people -- or perhaps it's just poor Black people fall under. Sometimes I think that the dividing line has to do with age. I've sat in a lot of meetings over the years where the focus is a lot of times on "helping the kids" without a single mention of the teens, adults and seniors who live here. To be clear, there are some really amazing organizations east of the river who are doing great work in the community but for every adorable little black boy that is embraced there is the adult black male who never seems to be mentioned (or mentioned positively). The later is to be cuddled and the former avoided at all costs. I know quite a few families east of the river that have an involved mother and/or father in the home but for some reason we don't hear (or see) a lot about those functioning families. We don't see those faces in the ads or in the calls for action. Sometimes we actually crop out the responsible parental figure to tell a more compelling story of children lost! At this point I have seen a bit of it all. I know it's not intentional but it's no less depressing.
Not to say that there aren't family issues and challenges in our community. I would be naive to say there are not. But I don't know why it is more compelling to package our community only as the least and the lost while ignoring the sense of pride, activism and community that has made us so great -- the very core of what our civil rights movement was all about.
I'm down with keeping it real but what when did it become more important to sell the pity than encourage the homegrown pride? How can we build a community based on strength and self-reliance when we are always being cast in the story as either the villains or the victims? Where do our black males fall in that spectrum? Where do our future mothers and fathers learn to become the leaders of their homes and community when all we feature are the negative stereotypes? How do we prepare our next generation of children as leaders when they are constantly being packaged as the "disadvantaged"? What happens if no one ever comes to "save" them?!
How comfortable are we with this narrative? I know a lot of engaged and involved fathers who live and raise their children in Ward 7 and Ward 8. They aren't extinct. They aren't a myth -- they really and truly exist. There are hard working people east of the river and they make it happen every day -- with and without a degree. And of course, we have a lot of single women living and working right here in our community who are killing it in their fields every day. Black people do have families. Black people do go work. Black people can in fact be successful -- very much so! Why do I rarely see these people reflected on the boards and advisory committees of nonprofits and businesses who do work here? How can we strive for the outer limits when we are put in such tiny boxes? Why aren't we telling the story of positive Black family bonds and stability too? Why aren't successful Southeast residents marketable? Why can't we tell the story of Black people giving back and being the vehicles for positive change?
There is probably more I could say on this subject but I think I just wanted to start here today. In some small way perhaps I wanted to challenge the status quo, challenge the narrative and yes, challenge that next grant application and mission statement. Perhaps it's time to think of another way to market that fundraising campaign.
Communities east of the river may be underserved but they shouldn't be undervalued. They shouldn't be painted with a broad brush or used (albeit with the best of intentions) as a compelling exercise in charity. Because at the end of the day we aren't props, we are people. We are descendants of kings and queens. We are the very backbone of this country's success.
Act like you know.