Thursday, September 30, 2010

Racial Residential Segregation Meets a “Being With” Model for Engagement with the Poor

According to the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 19.6% of Arizona residents live in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the nation after Mississippi. It should also be noted that the poverty threshold in this country is a wholly inadequate measure of real, experienced poverty. If you’re living in poverty measured by federal standards, you’re making it (or not) on very, very little.
After this statistic came out on the 16th of this month, I spent some time thinking about what it means for 1 out of every 5 residents of a state to live in poverty. It’s tempting, I think, to draw the “If I’m sitting at a table with 4 other people, one of us is poor!” conclusion, but I’m fairly convinced it’s not that simple. If you’re not poor, it’s unlikely that you sit at metaphorical tables with poor people. The law of large numbers does not apply as easily here because people self-segregate. A convenience sample of your friends or, more importantly, your neighbors, is unlikely to reflect a trans-neighborhood sample.
Racial residential segregation and the housing prices in an area cause a self-selection phenomenon creating areas of concentrated poverty and, often, nonexistent or insufficient community resources. If you’re uncertain as to how widespread racial residential segregation is, check out these maps of major US cities by Eric Fischer: On these maps, concentration of color is concentration of race, which in many cases translates to concentration of wealth. From these threads of thought I’ve realized that, if we adopt the (perhaps too simple) idea that all “neighborhoods” are of equal size, what 19.6% in poverty really means is that 1 out of every 5 neighborhoods in Arizona is a whole community of very poor people. This is including and especially children, the elderly, and people of color.

The question we face, then, is so what? What can we do about concentrated poverty?

The first and too obvious solution is to empower people to move out of poverty. History shows us, however, that people who move out of poverty also tend to move out of their neighborhoods. A cycle of that type of movement leaves a neighborhood in an even worse condition of poverty than it was before some of the better educated, motivated, connected, whatever families left the block. So what about integration? Integration--while in my view an excellent way to challenge racial prejudice and diversify and more equitably distribute social capital across communities—often leads to gentrification of a neighborhood, whereby poorer households are priced out of the local housing market and are forced to move elsewhere. On a macro level, gentrification just scrambles the squares on the racial checkerboard of a city but does little to shrink or eliminate them. A third solution moves closer to a model of community organizing, whereby an area’s relative homogeneity becomes an asset for coming together for a more influential voice in the city. In this way, people of similar backgrounds and interest become a powerful voting bloc. This does less, however, to create opportunities for relationship-based anti-racism work within a neighborhood.
I’ve mentioned before a course I took at Duke on the ethics of poverty. This course put forth an interesting 3-pronged model for community engagement: (1) working for the poor, (2) working with the poor—the model by which most conscientious anti-poverty agencies work, and (3) being with the poor. Since that course, the idea of “being with” has intrigued me. “Being with” essentially means that the non-poor look for opportunities and spaces where they can be part of multi-racial, multi-SES conversations and not be the facilitator or the leader or even a contributor. “Being with” is all about listening and showing compassion and, where possible, empathy. It is about the value of human relationships in and of themselves, but also about creating a solid understanding of poverty on which to base more “working with”-based programs. One way of “being with”, according to the professor, was to move into a poor neighborhood. It is easy to sit in an office or community center and work with poor families, it is certainly harder to commit to the poor by living with them. As a white female, however, I worry that my presence in a poor neighborhood would be viewed as the first step in a gentrifying process that would push the poor out of their homes. I worry that my presence would fundamentally change the dynamics of a neighborhood. If that neighborhood was non-white, I worry that my presence “at the table” would change the conversation, regardless of whether or not I ever opened my mouth.
I remain in an inner struggle with myself to think about my participation in anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts. How can I be a valuable contributor to the effort and when is my presence and participation harmful? What are the unintended consequences of my actions to impact poor communities? How do I, as a middle-class white woman, think about and protest against, if appropriate, racial residential segregation? The idea that 1 in every 5 residents of Arizona is poor is an unfortunate, though manageable idea for me. I can approach one person with compassion, humility and open-mindedness. The idea that 1 in 5 neighborhoods is poor is a far bigger, daunting concept as I am left on the outside looking in.
Photo created by Eric Fischer, New York, NY as of 2000 Census

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fish Jambalaya

Hi friends,

I'm writing to you from the Phoenix Public Library!!! Let's just say I have a new favorite (albeit nerdy) hang-out spot. I found more books than I could ever read in three weeks and have been engaged in conversation by some very fun and interesting locals. Who knew the library was a such a happening locale?!

Anyway, I digress. I've been working on a post about religion and social justice but I just found a million books on the topic and I'd like to read them before putting anything too ignorant out into the blogosphere. Instead, I'll share a recipe I tried and loved!

Fish Jambalaya
From $3 Low-Calorie Meals by Ellen Brown

Matthew made this one while I my sick self rested on the couch. :) He used an extra clove of garlic, brown rice (and increased cooking time), fresh tomatoes rather than canned, and some hot sauce. It turned out exceptionally well. Lots of flavor but not overly spicy. We chose tilapia as our white fish, but I suppose any could do. I highly, highly recommend this one.

Makes 6-servings. Total prep time 40 mins-1 hr.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves peeled and minced
1 green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, and diced
2 celery ribs, rinsed, trimmed, and sliced
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 tablespoons paprika
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 bay leaf
1 pound thick white-fleshed fish fillets, rinsed and cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Heat oil in deep, covered skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, green bell pepper, celery and rice. Cook, stirring frequently for 3 minutes, or until onion is translucent. Add paprika, oregano, and thyme, and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
2. Stir stock, tomatoes, and bay leaf into skillet, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes, or until rice is almost tender. Stir in fish and peas, and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until fish is cooked through, and rice is tender and has absorbed all of liquid.
3. Remove and discard bay leaf, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Hope you enjoy! I hope to write more often now that I have a new laptop! I'm looking forward to some good reading on liberation theology, feministy theory and white privilege. Also, look out for a post on a Food Stamp Challenge being undertaken by my fellowship field site, the Arizona Community Action Association. Check out our (still developing) blog and my post about the Challenge here:

Grace and peace,


Monday, September 13, 2010

First Week in Phoenix

Hi friends!

I arrived in Phoenix safe and relatively unscathed after the 17-hour trek from Dallas. I was surprised by how beautiful Texas became as I traveled toward and through El Paso. It was wild, too, to find Juarez, Mexico literally a stone’s throw from the highway running through El Paso. A giant Mexican flag billowed in the wind above the city.

After doing some couch surfing for the night, I got into Phoenix around 2 in the afternoon. Matthew and I spent the next few days sampling the local cuisine (carne asada!), shopping for our extended stay hotel suite, and being generally ridiculous. The space is smaller than I was expecting and we don’t (and likely will never) have internet access in the suite, but the full-sized kitchen appliances and comfy bed were pleasant surprises. It’s been very interesting, after a week of extended stay hotel living, to see how true the Nickel and Dimed story is here in western Phoenix. From my observations and a few conversations with residents, the people staying here will live here for the foreseeable future. They are not transient, white business people as I would have guessed before arriving, but rather a diverse group of residents whose colors and socioeconomic backgrounds seem to mirror those of the surrounding neighborhood folk. This hotel seem to be functioning, for most, as a low-deposit, utilities-included apartment building. I have been most surprised at the community feel here. I’ve starting seeing the same people around. Children who have made friends play soccer together in the courtyards. Toddlers ride their tricycles down the path outside our door. One of the windowsills of a room in an adjacent building is lined with tall candles of patron saints. Children wait for the bus near the hotel marquee outside. Today I helped a young girl carry an overflowing laundry basket up the stairs to her room only to find half of the hotel’s children sitting on the couches, the floors, on the kitchen chairs. Just like us, people have made their homes here.

I started work last Wednesday and am enjoying the experience so far. The staff is exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable in their respective fields. Though the organization doesn’t provide direct services, my need for interaction with community members has been met while manning the phones and referring callers to our partner organizations. I’m also looking forward to the interviews with community leaders and local people as called for in my work plan. Though the office is relatively young, I’m the youngest by several years, so I think I’ll have to pursue other avenues of making friends my own age…

I’ve been treating food shopping as a cultural, recreational activity. Today I went to Food City, a grocery chain catering to the tastes of the Latino population. When I drove up and parked I was surprised to find a grocer set up under a white tent, roasting huge green peppers over a gas flame. The produce section boasted both cactus and banana leaves. The beef portion of the meats/poultry section was perhaps 5 times longer (grocers often measure in linear feet for displays along a wall) than the poultry portion. After experimenting with pulled pork and “season chicken” (mmmm!) in my slow cooker this past week, I bought the fixin’s for teriyaki chicken kabobs, tortilla soup, and fish jambalaya. Expect a report back on the jambalaya—I have my doubts but remain optimistic.

Lastly, Matthew and I made it up to beautiful Sedona, AZ this past Saturday. After impulsive stops at a local, cheap Mexican lunch spot and the Gap outlet, we drove over to Baldwin Trail. The red rock is beautiful beyond belief. Pictures don’t do it justice, but we tried anyway. After a longer-than-expected hike we stopped at a coffee place, and I indulged in an iced tea and carrot muffin. We didn’t get to do much else—I’d love to go back and cliff dive—but it was an exceptionally nice retreat from suburban Phoenix.

I’ve went to First Congregational UCC of Phoenix on Sunday and was so impressed with the progressive feel and genuine hospitality. Unfortunately it’s not as multi-ethnic or young as I would like but isn’t that the truth with too many churches…I’m thinking of going to a lecture series on social justice and the Bible. In any case, very excited about this find in such a conservative state!

Much AZ love,


P.S. I'm having a hard time uploading my photos to the blog, but, if we're friends, please check them out on my Facebook page!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Second Try

I've just finished training for the field site-portion of my fellowship. What I'm feeling is a bit too nuanced for late-night words, but most of what I feel is either gratitude, amazement, or humility.

On the first day of training, we were asked to do something creative that would speak well to who we are. I feel like I copped out with a rhyming poem and a few off-color comments I instantly regretted. I'm going to try again using an absolutely brilliant format introduced to me by my new friend Lindsey. It's a piece called "I come from", that recognizes that we come not just from places, but also from relationships, hobbies, experiences, and "aha!" moments. Here's where I come from:

I come from a brick home under a huge Texas sky
I come from a table set with pot roast and overcooked vegetables and chocolate ice cream
I come from the hugs and kisses of a mother, a father, a sister
I come from privilege I was privileged not to realize I had
I come from a community that always says yes and never says no
I come from camping trips with hikes and s'mores and autumn leaves and dogs barking all afternoon
I come from friends who inspire, challenge, support and humble me
I come from a history of both hard work and unearned, lopsided reward
I come from poor choices, honest efforts and trying relationships
I come from ambition, self-doubt, creativity, ignorance, faithfulness, faithlessness
I come from high standards and burn-out
I come from a school culture that taught me that I was better than everyone else
I come from professors and classmates who were unceasing in their efforts to show me what really matters
I come from a struggle with my color, my gender, my hair, my intelligence, my failings, my ego
I come from a church that loves and a Church that excludes
I come from Guatemala City dump, Pete's Pets homeless shelter, Urban Ministries of Durham
I come from a love for my body, frustration that my body cannot be a perfect representation of who I am
I come from a time when people are still figuring out what it means to be created equal
I come from kumbayas and pop-up books and days and days in the swimming pool
I come from a movement for hope and change cruelly juxtaposed with the ease of inertia
I come from dance and paint and clay and color and voice and paper darkened with heavy words
I come from optimism, trust, empathy, love, patience and a soul on fire for something more

Where do you come from?