For the last several days I’ve been watching events spiral evermore out of control in Baltimore feeling helpless and discouraged by yet another instance of police violence and sad, but not shocked, by the corresponding outrage and violence among young people in Baltimore. My first social work job was in East Baltimore and I well remember my first weeks there in the summer of 1988. I was as confused as I’d ever been in my life. Talking with mothers who could not get landlords to do anything about mice infestations in their homes; being paged back from lunch because a baby found in a dumpster would shortly be arriving in the ER; talking with a mother whose 13 year old son had hidden under a car to avoid police dogs that had been unleashed on him; sorting out six siblings abandoned for drugs to the care of the oldest, age 4, for four days; putting a young woman in a taxi because she was too afraid to leave the hospital at 6 pm because her leg had been grazed by a bullet the previous week. She showed me the hole in her jeans to prove it. The anecdotes are endless.
At that time, legitimate industry in Baltimore was in decline and the drug trade was on the way up. The young people I knew had fathers and uncles that had made careers in the steel industry and the shipping yards. Many young men who were un-invested in school would say to me, “I can always get a job down at “the point.” They meant Sparrow’s Point, the huge steel plant that was in decline and would be completely dismantled by 2012. See this story in the Baltimore Sun for more on its history. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-29/news/bs-md-backstory-sparrows-point-20131129_1_sparrows-point-yard-steel-mill-maryland-steel-co
I tried to communicate that such options probably would not be open to them; that without a high school diploma at a minimum, legal work would likely mean a service sector job, not a job that paid a living wage, had benefits, or allowed them to provide a decent existence for a family. But just as my teen age son doesn’t completely believe the doom and gloom stories I tell him when he’s not doing what he’s supposed to, these young men didn’t really believe me either. And the lure of easy money and tough guy personas was strong and standing right outside their front doors.
Couple these temptations with the realities of the “education” these young people were being given in public schools. One young woman who had made it through high school with straight As and started at a local community college, sat in my office devastated because she had been told she would need to take remedial classes before she could possibly do college level work. Juxtapose this with a friend who was attempting to teach middle school in a neighboring and equally troubled community, who was asked by his principal, “How could this student get a D? He/she came to class each day,” implying that the quality of the student’s worked mattered not at all.
Systems failed right and left. When a 15 year boy came to my office asking for help after he hit his girlfriend for the first time, I had to call, cajole, and finally threaten to call the press in order for the domestic violence shelter that ran groups for male batters to even talk to him. They wanted to “assess his sincerity.” Likewise, a police detective that told me a twelve year old girl brought a gang rape on herself because she voluntarily skipped school and went to the home of a 17 year old acquaintance. (I told him it didn’t matter if she had walked in completely naked.) Then there was the child welfare worker who dropped off six children under six – none of whom were toilet trained – with a childless aunt and was horrified when he saw the children in the hospital 9 months later severely beaten or otherwise maltreated. The agency had provided no follow up over those 9 months. And the main reason I was able to make any difference was because I was employed by a large, prestigious institution and people reacted to that name. It shouldn’t take that.
Each of the systems I have named are filled with well-intended, under-resourced, people. Not just in Baltimore. This is true for publicly supported social service institutions in most places in the U.S. Without revenue –yes, I mean taxes – schools can’t provide what is needed, drug treatment centers can’t help addicted parents, child welfare workers cannot do the assessment and monitoring needed to actually support families back to health. Policeman can’t receive the training that would help them to make better decisions under very real pressure.
My younger son was recently doing a unit in school on “early humans.” As part of this work, he did a series of drawings illustrating the “needs of humans.” (Both early and otherwise.) The resulting project is sweet and true showing the respective needs with corresponding pictures: things like clothing, food, and protection. But the last square on the page had the header “Social Acceptance and Meaningful Work.” He had drawn a picture of two people building something together and I’ve found myself thinking about social acceptance and meaningful work as I think about all that is happening in Baltimore right now. For too many young people, poverty, lack of jobs, and non-functioning societal systems communicate to them that they are socially unacceptable – not worthy of investment. A lack of legitimate, meaningful work that pays a living wage produces a situation in which meaning is often found in dark places.
Societal problems can only be remedied by societal resolve. Until all of America decides that circumstances like those I’ve detailed here are not only unacceptable but are each of our problems to solve, there will be no change no matter how much outrage is expressed on TV. We have to take seriously the question Jesus of Nazareth posed to the man who said “who is my neighbor?” In essence, he replied, “Who is not?” The people we see on TV throwing rocks, jumping on cars, standing in riot gear, launching tear gas all of them are our neighbors. And to care for them, we have to invest in them. Not with the occasional donation to a charity, although we should do that too; not through the life cycle of a grant although we need as much knowledge about what works as we can possibly get; but in a sustained way over multiple generations. That is what government is for, to solve problems that are too big for any one group or person. There is no one silver bullet – not education, not better policing, not saying no drugs, etc. Or, maybe I’m wrong. If there is a silver bullet it is the decision of a populous that says we want an America in which we all, white, black, Latino, old, young, urban, rural, work together to build something, a place in which everyone has the real opportunity for social acceptance and meaningful work.