Digging a Hole

Monday, August 17, 2009

Complaint Box Complaint Box

Oh, werd?
For those of us who still subscribe to a paper copy of the NY Times, there are many changes. The paper is smaller which has actually been great for people like me who did not have the six foot wingspan necessary to turn the pages of the old paper. The Sports Section is hidden inside the Business section (and is now renamed the Fraternity Section). To me, the saddest change, though, was when I flipped through the Saturday Times and could not find the New Jersey Section.
Now, in all honesty, the New Jersey Section sort of stunk. It was written entirely by people who live in Montclair which made for many articles about the trouble finding a good nanny, those darn potholes on Mountain Avenue, and the experience of writing for the New York Times. Also, NY Times writers hated New Jersey, so there were frequent essays entitled "Why I Still Spend All of My Weekends in the City- Omygod! Why Did I Have Kids and Move?!" I was still pretty sad, though, when I realized that all of the weekend local sections had been rolled into one "Metropolitan Section" with a NJ calander of events tacked onto the end. If Brooklyn is a part of New Jersey, then the local coverage is quite good.
This Metropolitan Section has a new weekly essay called "Complaint Box" where people write an essay about something really small and trivial that they really hate. The first essay was about people not respecting the rules at the YMCA pool. Yes, it was the Montclair YMCA. That ought to cover the Times' New Jersey quotient for the remainder of 2009.
The most recent Complaint is from Lorraine Heber-Brause of New York who HATES street petitioners. Like, REALLY HATES! The language used in the essay would be funny if the overall lack of empathy hadn't made me so angry.
For example:
"While there is no reason to doubt their commitment to save the world or advance a cause, their numbers and intensity seem to be on the increase."
This is something you say about an invasive species or like, the Taliban, not under-employed college students. Throughout the essay, Lorraine is mystified as to why there are more street petitioners this summer than in the past. Amazingly, she appears to be completely oblivious to the fact that we are in the middle of a massive recession with disproportionate unemployment for the young and recent grads.
"Now I must plan out my errands like army maneuvers. Thinking through where the enemy troops were last positioned — and how, day by day, they slowly move up and down the street — I try to avoid the battle zones."
If Lorraine was a woman in a refugee camp planning her trip to collect firewood or fill a water jug, this statement would make sense. Unfortunately, and painfully ironically, Lorraine is a wealthy New Yorker plotting how to ignore people who would like to tell her about women in refugee camps. While those women risk rape, Lorraine risks hearing about it. I see the clear need for military metaphors there...
And finally:
"They wonder why I don’t care about undernourished children in Ethiopia (I do, just not when I am running errands). "
Let them eat cake.
Maybe Nicholas Kristoff should offer to take Lorraine on a trip.
Maybe Lorraine is a pompous jerk.
Lorraine would definitely never move to Montclair.

Full disclosure, I tried street canvassing for a month, and it was the single worst job I have ever had.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Spending the Stimulus Money!

Oh, werd?
So, it's been over a month since I wrote in my blog. Usually, that means that someone in my family has died. Fortunately, the reason I took so long to write in my blog this time is that I have had way to much fun this summer. I gallivanted with the B6 Chicks in Cape May, relaxed at Relaxicon 09 in Ann Arbor, caught a bass at Family Camp with Eric, and saw a drive thru (!) movie. I even attended a Real House Party of Bergen County.
No, the Great Recession has not kept me down this summer. In fact, NJEF has been given some stimulus money to be a part of a green jobs training program in Newark. We have had a great urban youth training program in community organizing for about a year now, so it seemed like a good fit. Newark young adults would spend six weeks learning how to install solar panels and six weeks with us learning organizing skills to lobby for green jobs opportunities to come to Newark. They are paid for attending the classes as if it's a job, and NJEF receives stimulus money to fund the program based on how many students attend.
I spent one morning volunteering with a few other canvassers to prepare the students for an afternoon of gathering signatures on a green jobs petition. Eric and I drove a couple of 'burbs into Newark to meet the class. Eric wore his white panama hat, I believe, to blend in. He didn't look like he was from Newark, but he did kind of look like a bad guy from Clear and Present Danger.
We arrived to find the students already restless. A few of them were still participating in the discussion on organizing, but one side of the room was whispering among themselves and deliberately ignoring directions from the group leader. This was what I had dragged myself out of bed and escorted Eric the drug lord through Newark for? Finally, one of the students staged a semi-walkout in protest of the lunch break coming late. I have to say, they may not have realized it, but that was a fine piece of organizing.
Over the break, our North Jersey organizer explained some of the challenges. The stimulus money is paid out to the organization on a per student basis, so even if one or two students are ruining it for everyone else, you can't remove them from the program without also losing thousands of dollars. In addition, some of the students were struggling with the legacy of spending twelve years in public school classrooms where teachers could not control the students. One shy young man only had a second grade reading level. The green construction jobs could be his salvation.
After lunch, the class was broken into small groups that would each be led by one canvasser. My group and Noel's group engaged in some friendly competition to motivate the students.
KPd.: Group 3 rules! We are SO going to get more signatures on our clipboard than Group 2!
Noel: Bring it!
Noel (later, aside): Is it bad that to motivate the students we are perpetuating a gang mentality?
The students practiced their raps and rehearsed what they would say about the issues.
Student 1: If you sign this, we will call you about a job.
Student 2: Oh hell yeah! Give me a pen!
KPd.: Wait a second guys. This is a petition, not a jobs listing.
Student 2: Yeah, but I signed it. So who cares? No one is going to care about this stuff.
Student 1: Everyone wants a job. It will work.
KPd.: Yeah but you are organizers. What if people who put their name down now find out you were lying to them later? They'll never help you to achieve these goals again.
Student 1: No one will help anyway. Nobody in Newark cares about any of this.
KPd.: Let's see what happens at the festival.
We piled into the new 'burb, the Yukon with the tinted windows and sun roof, and traveled two feet. The tire exploded on a broken bottle. Eric, in Panama hat, sent everyone else off to canvass while he stayed with the vehicle.
The class was slated to head to a local neighborhood to do door to door canvassing, but a spate of random shootings in Newark just days beforehand led us to change our plans. We would instead canvass the crowd at a gospel festival in the center of the city. We could not have picked a more friendly group to reach out to. Noel confidently strode up to the first person we saw in the park. The students stood with me watching to see what would happen. With a smile, an older woman gladly signed the petition.
Student 1: Yo! Give me a clipboard!
Student 2: This is easy!
Soon, the NJEF canvassers stood aside and watched as the class blossomed. Even the shyest students were positively beaming as older Newark community members asked them about the issues, praised their efforts, and signed their names. Uplifting gospel music swelled in the background.
KPd.: It's kind of like one of those movies from the 90s. I feel like Whoopi Goldberg should appear dressed as a nun any moment now.
Noel: This is pretty great.
Class leader: Where's Eric? You guys didn't leave him alone in a hot part of Newark with that vehicle, did you?
Noel: Um...
KPd.: A what part of Newark...?
Class leader: Well, hopefully that goofy hat of his will intimidate people. I'll call Triple A...

So, if you were wondering where the stimulus money is going, here is one place. (Oh, and paving every single highway in New Jersey at the same time.) Hopefully, the jobs will come to Newark. The good thing about green construction is that solar panels can't be installed on a house anywhere else in the world. You can't make a home more energy efficient by shipping it to China. It's a job that's guaranteed to stay in the area. We just need people like Mayor Corey Booker to keep thinking boldly about the future of Newark and the potential for this city to rise again.