Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Government Housing

The following pictures are of a new government housing project that has just been built. Orange Grove looks brand new. The houses are painted, the lawns are green, all the windows and doors are intact. This is what Roger Williams, R V Taylor and Josephine Allen looked like when they were built a few decades ago. The houses are built with cheap materials, as they are meant to be transitional living for families in need. But when talking to families in these projects, you quickly realize that this is not temporary housing. Generation after generation will live in these housing units, and because poor resources and lack of up-keep are commonplace, the new houses of Orange Grove will slowly begin to rot, become invested with bugs and consumed by molds. Lawns will dry-up, and windows and doors will be broken and boarded-up. Eventually, these housing units will deemed uninhabitable and the project will be shut down like Josephine Allen, displacing hundreds of families.

Orange Grove Housing in Mobile, located next to the highway:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sleep In-Home Surveys and Chatting with a Mom

Our last couple of weeks was filled with conducting surveys at sites, doing mop-up, and administering in-home sleep surveys. I was assigned to school sites mostly. We had to recruit in a ghost town, Van Lee Circle. Almost every housing unit looked like the following pictures.

I also administered my first sleep surveys during the last couple weeks. The study was designed to look at sleeping problems and habits of MYS participants, ages 14 to 15. The survey takes about 45 minutes to administer and we ask the participants a series of questions about their sleep habits, nightmares, depression, substance abuse, and chaos in the home environment. This data will then be matched to the MYS data to see if any attitudes, experiences and behaviors may predict or be associated with poor sleep outcomes. In theory it sounds like a fascinating study but it was extremely difficult to read and very repetitive. The kids also only received five dollars, which they were not too excited about. Our goal was to administer 150 surveys throughout the summer, which doesn't sound like a lot but it was very difficult to reach.

My partner and I headed to R V Taylor to recruit and administer sleep surveys. We finally found a girl that had time to take it. We usually split up reading the in-home surveys, so the partner not reading doesn't get too bored. My partner began reading the survey and I started chatting with the participant's mother, Charlotte. Charlotte had lived in R V Taylor since she was a small girl. She had a hard life with men and drugs. She never actually said this to me but kept saying that the "devil had tempted her to do some bad things in her life". Her boyfriend had a lot of trouble with drugs, so assumed she was mixed up in it as well. However, when she became pregnant at around 16 (she couldn't quite remember), she knew she had to change her life. She found God. We talked a lot about her church community and how the father of her child decided to move in with her. They were going to make a life for themselves. She had four children with this man and they are still living together.

She was extremely proud of the fact that her man (not sure if they were married or not) had stuck with her through all her pregnancies. She felt very blessed that God had given her such a reliable partner. I chose this word "reliable" carefully because she was not referring to having a loving partner, she was happy with him because he had stuck around. She then said how blessed she was to have her four children and that she was happy not to be having anymore because she was grandma now. A little infant was resting on her chest the whole time we were having this conversation; it was her baby granddaughter. Her daughter had unexpectedly become pregnant.

Two very interesting conversation stemmed from this. First, we discussed birth control, and then we discussed men's lack of involvement in family planning and how the burden lay entirely on the woman. Charlotte got pregnant young and she was not in denial about her girls becoming sexually active at an early age. While she tried to tell them to wait, she knew how the neighborhood worked and that this is what young people did. She brought her 15 year-old daughter to the doctor to get her on birth control. Many of the girls in the community had trouble complying with taking a pill everyday, so the doctor was promoting the birth control patch. Charlotte was so upset talking about how much trouble her daughter had with this form of birth control. It was constantly falling off and her daughter sometimes forgot to change it. However, Charlotte did not know what to do about this. She did not go back to the doctor to try and get another form. She just accepted the patch as the only form of birth control for her daughter. Low and behold, her daughter got pregnant and her beautiful granddaughter was born.

I was so disheartened by this story. Here was a woman that had done everything right for her daughter. She had accessed family planning services for her daughter and the system had failed her. I was also upset with this physician. I was trained in family planning education, and the fact that Charlotte had heard that the patch was her daughter's only option was very upsetting. Later, my partner and I speculated that this could be because it is a cheap form of birth control and something it alleviates the burden of taking a pill everyday. But more options should have been shared with Charlotte and her daughter.

Charlotte then turned her focus to her 14 year-old daughter that we were surveying. She asked me about birth control options for her. I told her about all the options I could think of and referred her to Planned Parenthood's website that explains all these options. I stressed that there were options and what works for one person, doesn't necessarily work for another. She was so happy to have someone talk to her frankly about birth control and she thanked me for not judging her. I told her I would never judge a mother that advocated for the health of her daughters and that I wished more mothers were involved with their daughters' lives.

Our conversation then took a turn to male involvement in birth control. She explained that men just refused to wear condoms and that was the way it was. I had heard this from many other mothers. She said she was glad she was done with pregnancy; she had gotten her tubes tided. I asked her if she had asked her partner if he would get a vasectomy because it is a simpler procedure. She just laughed at me. She said, "Honey, that's what white men do. They have their little ladies tellin' them what to do and they do it. A black man wouldn't be caught dead doin' that." I asked her why she thought that was, and she said because black men never stay put. They may leave their woman and they need to be able to have kids with their new woman.

Again, this was hard for me process. This culture of hypermasculinity astounds me! It was very similar to what I heard in India. Being "male" is very much connected to potency or the ability to have many children. I just wonder how this gets taught to young men in the community. Why don't they fear getting someone pregnant? Why don't they want to use condoms? Why don't their mothers, who are very involved in their daughters' sexual health, have these conversations with their sons? In India, a male troupe set-out to do puppet street performances targeted to men. They wanted to tap into masculinity, by claiming that the "manly" thing to do is to take care of their family and this means protecting their women and children from diseases by wearing condoms. I am very curious how condom use and negotiation is discussed in these neighborhoods. According to the women I talked to, condom negotiation appears to be nonexistent. They simply say that boys refuse to wear them, so the girls must take birth control. But what does this mean for sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. Every kid we surveyed said they were scared of AIDS... but how do they protect themselves from HIV, if they are not using barrier methods? It is a very scary reality!

I learned a lot from Charlotte and it made me more curious about this masculine culture surrounding pregnancy. It is a reality that is so different from how I grew-up, a practice and mindset that I had equated with cultures outside of the United States. Again, I was surprised to find it here in the United States. However, it is also uniquely American, a culture of teen pregnancy complicated by a cyclical pattern of adolescent pregnancy that is rooted in poverty, historical racism and strict binary gender dynamics.

Consequences of Residential Mobility

I would like to get back to an issue that was highlighted with the brawl that broke-out at R V Taylor, discussed in an earlier post. It was a fight that began at the Boys and Girls Club, when a kid from a different neighborhood entered R V Taylor turf. After this happened, we discussed in class how residential mobility can have devastating consequences for young people. This will soon become a reality for hundreds of young people living in Josephine Allen, when they shutdown the housing project. Families will be relocated to already overcrowded housing projects, like R V Taylor and Roger Williams. While constant residential mobility adds stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation, and school and social disconnect, increased vulnerability to violence is a harsh reality that many of these young people will also face.

Contrary to popular belief that "turf wars" are exclusively connected to gangs, it is a much more complicated issue in these neighborhoods. Most kids bond together with other kids in their neighborhood, regardless of gang affiliation. When they move, they loose the protection that comes from their friends and are more vulnerable to social exclusion, bullying and getting beaten-up by kids in their new neighborhoods. The MYS data also shows that high neighborhood mobility is associated with carrying weapons and negative attitudes toward their current neighborhood. So why do most planned mobility studies claim that residential mobility from low income families is a good thing?

First, most residential mobility studies are artificially created to move low income families into higher income neighborhoods. These studies demonstrate short-term benefits for children, as they are exposed to better schools and safer neighborhood environments. The problem is that this is not the reality for most low income families. They are not choosing to leave their homes for better neighborhoods, which is known as the "pull effect". In most cases, they are forced out of their homes because they can no longer afford the rent, or their homes are unsafe, or housing projects are being shutdown. This is described as the "push effect"; families are essentially being pushed or forced to move because of external factors, they are not choosing to leave. Residential mobility studies focus on the "pull factor", the idea that if circumstances are right (support mechanisms are in place), poor families would choose to live to higher income neighborhoods, and thus, have a better quality of life. However, these studies do not examine the "push factor". In reality, most families are forced to leave their homes and find homes in other poor neighborhoods.

Our professor conducted an adult survey of MYS participants' caregivers for several years. In this survey, about 40% of caregivers said that if their forced to move in the next week, they would look for places in West Mobile (middle to upper income neighborhoods). However, looking at their past moves, many of the respondents had moved to low income neighborhoods within a couple miles of their current homes. The majority of families would move into friends or relatives homes or get advice from friends about where to look for a new residents after being forced to move. Again, the "push" factor is the reality of residential mobility, very few families choose to move because they acquire the financial means and resources to live in higher income neighborhood. The fact that caregiver respondents desired to live in richer West Mobile neighborhoods also highlights a trend we see in the MYS data. It is the idea that people wish or desire better things in their future but they do not have intermediate steps in place to acquire these dreams. For instance, many of the caregivers lack the financial resources to afford homes in West Mobile because they are unemployed but they still desire this in their future.

Most policy makers are oblivious to harmful behavioral consequences of low income families constantly moving and they examine residential mobility as choice. They believe that if families are given the opportunity to move to better neighborhoods, they will, and their kids will benefit from this move. While this may be true for some low income families, what is the point of developing housing programs around this premise, when this is not the reality of how people move when they are living in low income neighborhoods? Where are the studies that inform policy about the "push" factor, rather then the "pull" factor?

Again, actually going into these neighborhoods and talking to folks about how and why they are constantly moving is a good place to start.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The 9th Ward in New Orleans

I have traveled to New Orleans three weekends during my time here in Mobile. The drive is an easy 2 hours and the city is so vibrant, with incredible jazz. But as many of you know, the devastating effects of Katrina still linger in almost every neighborhood. And the 9th Ward, is still littered in vacant, damaged houses. Many of us noticed how strictly similar Mobile and Prichard neighborhoods looked to the 9th Ward. Instead of gutted water damaged homes, Mobile and Prichard homes are burned and boarded up. But unlike the 9th Ward, many residents still live among these burned and abandoned homes in Mobile and Prichard. While the 9th Ward is beginning to rebuild and some families are moving back. It is still pretty desolate. We just couldn't believe how similar these home devastated my natural disaster looked to the homes in the neighborhoods we were working in.

Here are some comparison photos of the two areas to exemplify what we saw:

Home in Prichard (still being lived in):

Vacant Home in 9th Ward:

Apartment in Van Lee Circle, Mobile:

Apartment in 9th Ward:

Vacant Home in Prichard:

Vacant Home in 9th Ward:

This is a community garden in the 9th Ward. I have yet to come across a community garden in Mobile or Prichard. Our professor said that some mixed-income and middle class neighborhoods in Mobile have gardens but no low income or Section 8 housing neighborhoods have these urban farming projects.

This is a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's 9th Ward Rebuilding Project Homes. Check-out the sweet solar paneling on the roofs. We saw a ton of people living in the area but wondered how very poor families that were displaced afforded these new-age, modern homes.

This is a home that someone turned into a giant chalkboard. People write down what they hope to do before they die. It was so fun to read and we all added our hopes for the future.

Returning to R V Taylor Public Housing

During our first week of training, we visited R V Taylor Public Housing. The brick one-level housing units are set-up in a circular pattern in a giant field of dead grass and dirt. No housing unit has a distinct yard, the only outside area designated to each house is a cement porch outside each door, covered by the extended roof. All the windows and doors have metal bars over them. In the back of each unit, there is usually two poles connected by a clothes line. The clean cloths blow in the dusty, hot breeze. There is not a shade tree in sight. We were told to go out in this neighborhood and just walk around, talking to whoever we saw outside.

I remember being so nervous. It was pretty easy to talk to the older residents out on their porches but I was very awkward in conversation, always fishing for things to say. I was so surprised at how all the children and even some adults addressed me as "ma'am". It was especially unsettling when people older than me addressed me as "ma'am". I made a very conscious effort to call everyone older than me "sir" and "ma'am", and thanking them for taking the time for talking to me. We saw a boy dressed from head to toe in royal blue, a visual sign of affiliation to the Crips. I was hyper vigilant of my surroundings, looking around for any signs of danger. But mostly we found mothers, grandmothers and their children. We went to a playground and raced children through the trash covered ground. Broken beer bottles littered the periphery of the playground and many of the children were running around barefoot. And this was my first experience in one of the projects we would be working in.

In week 6 of this internship, I returned to R V Taylor. I freely went up to houses, not hesitating at the doors, practicing what to say or preparing myself for the smells that would come when the door was opened. I had smelled everything from marijuana to mold to rotting dog, so nothing phased me anymore. I reminded whoever answered the door to have the participants come to the Boys and Girls Club for their survey and quickly moved on to the next house. The broken car and house windows, the boarded up windows, the head nods from groups of men congregating outside were all familiar sights now. I no longer felt afraid in the neighborhoods and dealing with uncomfortable situations was just second nature.

With this familiarity came positive and negative feelings. I am happy that I feel more comfortable interacting with people that live so differently from how I was raised. I love being able to chat about anything, not just focus on discussing the survey and justifying my presence in their neighborhoods. But I also feel like I am loosing sight of the reality of violence that exists in these neighborhoods, as well as the extremely terrible living conditions. I guess it is a hardening effect that is beginning to set in. I would not be able to handle this position everyday, without distancing myself from the reality of these young people's lives. I use to try to see how the young people were answering the survey questions (I know the IRB would have a fit about this) and when an answer was put down that alluded to a terrible trauma in their life, I dwelled on it. But you just can't do this for every kid. The more and more kids I saw putting down these answers, the more hopeless I felt. I know I can not save all these young people from the reality of violence, drugs, and engaging in high risk behaviors, and I know that this is not why I am in these neighborhoods... but it is really hard not to get attached and want to directly help them.

We had a very successful survey site at the R V Taylor Boys and Girls Club. We had mastered catching scammers and we didn't have too many "parents" claiming they had 6 kids to sign-up that were miraculously all born in the same year (oh yes, this happened a lot). But after we packed up one day, a huge fight broke-out over a kid who was from Josephine Allen and was on R V turf. One of our interns that was recruiting talked to a mother and her daughter about it. They both had black eyes. Apparently, their cousin had gotten caught up in the giant brawl and they had tried to pull him out of it. It sounded like there were over 30 people beating each other spurred by this kid being in the wrong neighborhood. No one was killed and no one was arrested.

See the news coverage of this at the following link: http://www.fox10tv.com/dpp/news/crime/around-100-teens-fight-in-neighborhood

This event spurred a very interesting discussion about the violent repercussions of youth being moved out of their neighborhoods. As I mentioned in a previous post, Josephine Allen will be shut down soon, and the families will be relocated to other projects in the area. This means brawls over turf will become more frequent. This is just another negative consequence of the high residential mobility of youth in this population. I will continue this discussion in my next post.

While I realize that I can not directly help the young people I have met. I hope studies like the MYS will influence responsible programming that truly addressed the experiences of this population. Utilizing MYS for future programming and policy in high poverty areas is how I identify the impact I am making in these communities. And on a more humanistic level, just being here is important. Being present in neighborhoods that are feared, isolated and forgotten. Not giving voice to these young people but listening to the voices they already have and encouraging them to use them to share their experiences. This is why I am here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pictures of Prichard

I took the following pictures while recruiting in Prichard for another survey site at Whitley Elementary.

This picture is of partially burned house that we had on our recruitment list. The family and previous survey participants are long gone. The mangled house was surrounded by occupied homes. I can't get over how aesthetically displeasing these houses are amongst all the occupied houses in the neighborhood. It was the first time that I had recruited at a burned home. We see them all the time but I have never had the address of a burnt house on my recruitment list.

Here is another example of a vacant home that is not burned. This is a very common sight and several of the addresses we recruit at get a failure code for being vacant.

Here are some examples of occupied houses in Prichard.

Dowtown Prichard is now a ghost town of boarded up buildings and barred stores. Here are some pictures of the main street.

Here are some positive messages on billboards in the area. The HIV/STD rate is extremely high in Prichard, so efforts for public health campaigns constantly include public service announcements, such as the one below. My partner and I were also inspired by the billboard from this Prichard mother, celebrating the successes of her children. It is also very interesting how idolized these few success stories are in the community, when they are not the reality for so many young people living in Prichard.

The Boys and Girls Club in Roger Williams Public Housing

This is Roger Williams Public Housing, which is located in Mobile. We spent about two weeks recruiting and surveying kids here. We got very close to many of the kids at the Boys and Girls Club, where we administered the survey. Roger Williams is one of the most crowded housing projects in Mobile and has a very high crime rate. The housing units were similar to Happy Hills but were brick with about four housing units per building. Many of the families from Happy Hills will relocate to Roger Williams after they shutdown Happy Hills in the next year. I have no idea how more families can fit into these congested, old brick buildings without building more units. No one seems to know.

During recruitment, several interns passed by a recent murder scene that took place in one of the units. Everyone in the neighborhood kept talking about how the heat made young people do crazy things. It is interesting how aggression and crime are constantly connected to the extreme summer heat. However, I see some truth to this. The heat is extremely uncomfortable, and as a result, you constantly feel irritable. This is a picture of the crime scene:

Before we begin the survey each day, we drop-off reminder cards at the houses of every kid signed-up to take the survey that day. While dropping off reminders our first day, we saw a freshly burned house off the main street. I am surprised how desensitized I am to burned houses now. They are everywhere and the community just continues about their daily business around these burned plots.

While we drop-off reminders, mothers usually say that their kids are already waiting at the survey site. Kids are scheduled for a specific day and time slot during recruitment to help us plan for the amount kids we will be surveying each day. However, most of the time kids come the first couple of days in the morning. Once the word gets out, every kid and their mother is at the site trying to take the survey. We have a very "elaborate" system to see if the kid is who we surveyed in previous years and to make sure kids are not taking it multiple times in the summer. We have a master list of all the previous participants or newly consented participants, with their birthdate, street address and a column that contains the date that the young person took the survey. If this column is filled with a date, the youth is not surveyed. If they say a completely false birthdate, they can not take the survey. And if they are not on the list, they need to bring a parent to the site to consent them as a new participant.

We now take a day to process the consent paperwork, so we can cross-check the kid with school records. We are catching so many kids that "don't exist" this way. Either they have recently moved and are not in the records or they are fabricated because they want to take the survey again under an alias. While some kids may have dropped-out of school, we are able to look back at school records for several years and can usually find them. Additionally, the kids that recently moved are not ideal participants because they can not accurately answer the school connectivity and neighborhood violence questions for Mobile and Prichard area.

The moral of the story is that this is not an exact science, the IRB would never let us use photo IDs to help identify kids that are suppose to be de-identified, and forcing families to produce birth certificates is completely unreasonable. However, we did have a mother bring her children's report cards to prove who they were. So birthdates and middle names are our best defense against scammers. Here we are at the check-in table:

Imagine the perfect adolescent survey... kids are in desks facing forward, spaced apart from one another to ensure confidentiality. The room is completely quite except for the clear voice of the survey administrator reading each question. The room is a comfortable temperature with no other distractions, which facilitates complete participant concentration on the survey. Now imagine the exact opposite scenario and you have the survey environment in Roger Williams. Kids are at crowded tables lining the edge of the gym, where loud pick-up games of basketball are being played amongst young children screaming and running around. Survey participants are laughing about the questions, looking over at each other's answers because they are so crowded at the tables, while the survey administrator battles to be heard over the gym chaos, and constantly reminds the participants to keep their comments to themselves and eyes on their own surveys. This is the reality of the Mobile Youth Survey (MYS), and clearly this has a negative effect on how young people answer the questions. However, the alternative is missing this population all together. MYS goes were the young people are... neighborhoods the few researchers dare to enter.

We had so much fun playing with kids at the Boys and Girls Club, when we were not administering surveys. Here are a couple pictures of hanging-out with the kids:

I will end this post by sharing an inspiring piece composed by a six year old. One of our interns asked this girl what she would do if she were president. He wrote down her words displayed in the following picture (click on picture to enlarge):

The optimism, passion and resiliency of these children is inspiring. I am truly a better person because of the time I have shared with these children. It is a gift they have given to me that I will carry and cherish throughout my life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Week at Josephine Allen's Survey Site

This is a picture of the typical housing units, known as "gun-shot buildings".

Josephine Allen, known as "Happy Hills" to the residents, is located on the border of Mobile and Prichard. A three streets deep periphery surrounds the government housing project that is at the heart of the Happy Hills. The housing development has almost no trees, with rows of rundown, single- to double-floor apartment complexes that all look identical. Many are boarded-up or have broken windows. There is strange color paneling from the 1970s architectural design. In the center of the project, there is an overgrown baseball field with scraggly grass and a pavilion with grills and picnic tables. However, they looked completely unused and no children were playing on the baseball field. It is too hot and too run down to entice the children.

All the children congregate at the Boys and Girls Club located by the government housing office. The club has air conditioning, a ping-pong table, two pool tables, basketball, computers, video games, books and board games. It also serves lunch to the kids everyday but Sunday from 12 noon until 1 pm. Bulletin boards display pictures of the kids and activity sign-up sheets. There are also some field-trip sign-up sheets for the beach and museums in downtown Mobile. This was an oasis for kids and adolescents, a safe space to hang, out of oppressive summer heat. I was so happy this building existed for the kids.

In Happy Hills, we surveyed in one of the vacant housing units a block from the Boys and Girls Club. Earlier in the week, Cassie (our field coordinator) had to check-out the site and found that part of ceiling was caving in. They promised to fix it before we came but ended up giving us an apartment by the Girl Scouts housing unit. This unit was very hard to be in. The kitchen floor had glass from a broken window. The bedroom had a large office desk that took up the entire room. The bathroom could not be used and the air conditioner in the living room was broken. And there was a small air-conditioner unit in the kitchen that spat dust and smelled terrible. I felt very ill the first day from all the molds, dust and lack of cool air. This was the first time that I truly realized the importance of living in a safe household environment.

It was in this small apartment that we surveyed over 150 young people. We had groups in the living room, bedroom and kitchen, and young people that needed to be taken away from the larger groups because they were too slow took their surveys in the bathroom or out on the porch. It was miserably hot, and the kids were packed in for an hour and half. This survey setting really made me question how accurate our data collection would be from the site because the kids were just so hot and tired. Several times, I would catch kids just filing in the same letter for every question because they could not focus. We would try to make kids erase sections and re-read the questions for them but I am sure we did not catch every kid.

We checked kids in for the survey on the porch outside the apartment. Things ran smoothly for the first couple days but at the end of the week, word had got out that the "survey people" were in the neighborhood and the scamming began. Several kids that took the survey were found to be younger then 10. There was the fake name scam and the stolen name scam. Kids would make-up names or would steal their cousins or siblings names and take the survey twice.

We would not find-out until their siblings or cousins came to take it and we said they already took it. Some kids were really ingenious and got their parents or older friends to pretend to be their parents and consent them as a new participant. We even had some 20-25 year olds take it, with their girlfriends pretending to be their mothers. Most scams we could detect but we could not do anything about the newly consenting "parents" signing up their children. At the office, they could usually weed these surveys out by matching them with school records but we had to administer the survey to them and pay them the $15 for their time. Some of the 9 year-old scammers that we caught ended-up hanging out with us for the rest of the week.

We were constantly surrounded by younger boys, sitting on every surface. Some even helped us check kids in for the survey. The kids just wanted to feel like they were a part of something, like they had a job or a task at hand. It became apparent to me how much this survey really means to these communities. Professor John Bolland kept telling us that the communities see the MYS as a program, even though we are with their kids for less than 2 hours a summer. But I saw this materialize in front of my eyes. Kids who were not even old enough to participate hung-out with us all week, sometimes they would just sit with us. They just wanted to help-out the "survey people".

Two not-so-fun events happened at Happy Hills. First, the very kids that were hanging-out with us all week threatened one of the interns at the end of the day to give them all the left-over survey money. While she knew they would probably not hurt her, they said they would shoot her if she didn't give them the money. Luckily, the situation was diffused by Cassie coming to make sure the site was shut down for the day. But is was disheartening that our little buddies would do this and we realized that although the kids may be very sweet at times, we still need to be guarded.

The second event, happened when I was talking to a little old lady that always walked by our site. She would come and chat with me everyday to rest in the middle of her walk home from the store. She told me one day that her son was shot and killed in front of her and that her younger son swore he would go murder the man that had shot his older brother. She said she had to turn her younger son over to the police in order to save him from spending a life in prison for killing his brother's murderer. She just kept repeating "My poor heart done seen a lot of pain and grief. It's broke." Again, no words came to me. I just listened and mumbled that I was sorry and I couldn't imagine loosing a son. She said no mother should have her baby taken from her like that. The gun violence down here is just insane! I see so many kids answering "yes" to carrying a gun on the survey or witnessing people being shot or being shot at. It is a shocking reality that is appalling and has really made me think about the need for more stringent gun laws. While I know many Americans argue for more lax gun laws that embrace their right to carry and conceal a weapon... I can't believe that any American that saw the gun violence that these children witness, would stand for lax gun laws that put weapons in young people's hands.

While there were chaotic moments during the week, I enjoyed my time in Happy Hills. We left by giving the boys that helped us some money for the ice cream truck. It is strange to think that I will never see these kids again. I wonder about their futures... and pray that they believe they have a future. So many of the kids believe they do not have futures... especially the boys. They see older brothers and cousins consumed in gang life, drugs, in jail and sometimes killed. It's hard to imagine that this could be the future for these boys that played hand games and tic-tack-toe with us. I hope this does not become a reality for them, like it has for so many of their older family members.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

My First In-Home Interview

It was too far and unsafe for the young people living across Highway 45 in Prichard to make it to the Head Start testing site, so we had to administer in-home surveys to them. We had difficulty finding previous participants because the population is so transient and so many families are moving out of Prichard. Sometimes they had never heard of the family or child, which usually meant that the kid used a fake address and/or name to take the survey multiple times. Sometimes houses were completely boarded up or were vacant with broken windows. Some addresses were simply no where to be found.

We finally found a family with a 10 and 11 year old that had time to take the survey. The house was very old and run down. Paint flakes littered the dirt around the house, exposing large areas of rotted wood on the house. The house was also on brick stilts, elevating the house about a foot from the ground. A porch with a grill and rocking chair extended about three feet from the weathered door. Heaps of tires and empty lighter fluid containers were in corners of the yard, which was all dirt except for some straggly bushes around the absent house foundation. The 11 year old daughter told us that the people on the list no longer lived in the house but that she and her sister were old enough to take the survey. She disappeared into the house yelling for her mama to come out and sign the consent papers. A very heavy set woman came to the door fanning herself with a rag. She told us to come in out of the sun to talk to her.

The house was very dark with bright green living room furniture that was awkwardly angled because it was too large for the space. A pink TV rested on a stack of books across the living room and every inch of walls was covered in family photos. A giant wood table was at the other end of the room near the door to the kitchen, again too big for the tiny space. A strange assortment of dressers lined all the walls and a small bathroom and two bedrooms were off the large living/dining room to the left. For a mother and two daughters, it was tight but seemed comfortable enough. However, we found-out later the woman's fiance and some of his kids sometimes lived there, so it was extremely crowded and there were not enough beds for everyone. While the furniture appeared to be from the 1970s, it was in relatively good condition but the walls, carpet and floor tiling was in horrible condition. There were also dead flies and roaches speckling the floors. A giant blanket was nailed across the top of the kitchen door to try and keep the oven and deep-frier heat from escaping into the rest of the house. I got a small glimpse of the kitchen, which was also very run down. An old laundry sink held the deep-frier, and dirty dishes were piled on every service.

Jayrrd began reading the survey to the two girls and my job was to distract mom from listening to some of the sensitive questions about alcohol and drug use, neighborhood violence and sexual behavior. Our conversation began as small talk. I learned about when they had moved in, what she cooked for the family, she teased me about sweating so much, and she told me about her fiance and his children. I learned through the conversation that she had just moved back to Mobile (we were actually technically in Mobile and the next block over was Prichard) to be closer to her mother and to get her daughters out of the fast-paced life of Orlando, Florida. It was interesting that she referred to Mobile as country. This has been a common theme, which was explained to me more as a culture, rather then a physical rural location. The slower paced and more isolated feel of this neighborhood in Mobile mixed with the deep South culture was defined as "country". Some of the interns who grew-up in Georgia and Alabama also refer to the kids as "country".

She explained that she liked the country life of Mobile because it was safer for her babies. She said her 11 year-old daughter had friends that were already pregnant and stripping in Orlando, and young girls were constantly targeted by pimps and men that wanted to exploit them. She said her baby developed very young and that she was afraid she would be rapped or wind-up pregnant. Two things struck me as interesting from her story. First, that this Mobile neighborhood has more concentrated poverty and a very high rate of unintended adolescent pregnancy. While it sounded like her Orlando neighborhood was a dangerous place... this neighborhood was probably just as dangerous. But it was home to her and she felt safer raising her girls in what she termed as "slow movin', country livin'". The second thing that struck me was her mentioning that her daughter "developed" early and because of this, she would be targeted by men that wanted to sexually exploit her. This was very difficult to hear for me, and unfortunately, a reality for many of these young girls. I was also surprised how openly she discussed her daughter hitting puberty with me. No parent I have ever talked to has casually mentioned their child's early puberty to me in any context.

I decided it was appropriate to ask her more personal questions about her daughter because she seemed to offer information about her hitting puberty so freely. I asked her if she had talked to her daughter about sex yet, especially after her friends got pregnant. She laughed and said "Honey, they ain't a day go by that I don't talk to my girls about sex". Again, a statement that completely upset my preconception of low income parents not discussing sex with their kids. I realized that my sex ed training in parent involvement pertains to middle and upper class folks, and lack of parent involvement in sex education may not be as persistent of a problem in low income communities in which adolescent pregnancy has become normalized and is very prevalent. Here was a mother that did not finish high school that realized her daughter's friends were having sex and getting pregnant, and actively initiated having conversations about sex with her 11 year old daughter. I saw this as an example of model parenting. When I asked her if she thought other mother's talked about sex with their children, she laughed and said that all Mama's don't want their babies making the same mistakes they made by having kids too young, so they need to talk to their daughters.

She did not say anything about boys... in her mind, boys were the problem and the burden of teen pregnancy was on the daughter and her family. "The little boys just run home to their mamas and we're [the mother's of the daughters that get pregnant] are left with another mouth to feed". This statement upset the misconception that young women become pregnant from older men. On the survey and through talking with people in the neighborhoods, most girls are getting pregnant from boys about their age or younger. There is about a 4 to 1 ratio of women to men in the neighborhoods, so many young boys have older sexual partners.

I was very disheartened by how she villanized boys but I understood why she did because in most cases, the father is uninvolved or does not have the resources to be an involved parent. She constantly said that little boys are running around getting girls pregnant and spreading diseases, and that she had to protect her daughters from them. One way she protected her girls from unwanted advances from boys was by telling them how beautiful they were everyday. She said that if she told them they were beautiful everyday, then when boys complemented them, they could say, "I know I am, my mama tells me everyday" and they would not have sex because they had poor self-esteem and liked the boys positive attention. The rigid gender norms of a dichotomous hyper-masculine, predatory male and weak female that needs to be protected, was how she conceptualized heterosexual relationships. While her sex education talks with her daughters were very sex-negative, at least she was talking to them about sex and pregnancy. Again, she used a lot of scare tactics by villanizing boys and there was no talk about preventing STIs and unintended pregnancy. But she was not naive about how young children initiated sex in the neighborhood.

We ended the conversation with her saying, "I just want my daughters to do better than me... to graduate school and make something of themselves." This is every good parent's dream for their children. I learned so much from this mother about parent involvement in informal sex education with their children. One of the most profound things she taught me was that teen pregnancy has not been normalized to the point where parents are fine with their children having babies, which is a common misconception. However, it is a reality of life in these neighborhoods and more than an open parent dialogue is needed to prevent children as young as 10 and 11 from having babies.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Recruiting in Prichard, AL

This is a picture of our intern team this summer. We come from all over the country and even have a Canadian. We range from 20 years old to 37, with a wealth of life experiences and academic training.

Downtown Mobile, Alabama is nestled on Mobile Bay on the Gulf Coast. A seemly small city in which cruise ships begin their exotic vacations to the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Mexico and home to the United States' original Mardi Gra celebration. While I began to explore Mobile as a tourist, enjoying the beautiful beaches of Dauphin Island and the best shrimp I have ever eaten, the Mobile I work in is a different place. A place where the isolation of rural living seems to meld with the crowding of congested urban living. Neighborhoods that have been sliced in half and bound by highways, physically separating the poorest neighborhoods from the middle and upper classes of Mobile.

Prichard, a town bordering Mobile, is the first place I recruited, and home to some of the poorest and most violent government housing developments in the state. To make matters worst, it is now bankrupt, which has caused police to loose their pensions and thus, their incentive to protect and actively patrol the neighborhoods. Residents are lucky to be employed in this town, and those who are, usually live in the safer neighborhoods in Mobile. The "downtown" is two blocks of gated and barred pawn shops, bars, barber shops, convenient stores and furniture stores, with an equal amount of vacant store fronts. There is not a tree that lines the streets in downtown, and dust and liter consume everything. Street signs are almost nonexistent, house numbers bounce around in no particular order, and many are drawn on to houses. The isolation is felt everywhere... streets are circular and randomly change into other streets. Houses are very spread-out, consumed by over growth and have burned junk piles surrounding them. Many houses are boarded up, with broken windows and some plots only hold the foundation of a house with a staircase leading to nothing. We later found that many of these houses were burned to the ground by landlords to avoid increased property taxes that were instituted after bankruptcy was declared. Landlords could claim arson, which is the most common crime in these areas, and receive insurance money, while avoiding paying taxes on their houses.

After a week of intensive training, my partner and I were sent into Prichard to recruit in neighborhood known as Snug Harbor because it is pressed against the interstate highway. My partner Jayrrd's aunt knows the police chief in Mobile and when she heard we were working in this area became very concerned. When the police chief of Prichard was alerted to our presence, he said that he does not even send his cops into Snug Harbor because it is too dangerous and isolated. So there we were, on foot, winding down unmarked roads, more than a mile from our car. Occasionally, a street sign would still be intact and we could reorient ourselves on our map. We were sent to Sung to recruit young people that had taken the survey in the past years to take the survey again at the Head Start located in the neighborhood.

Jayrrd and I did not see a single person for about 10 minutes when we started recruiting on Memorial Day. We felt so uneasy and already exhausted from the 98 degree weather. At the first home we stopped at, an elderly woman answered the door. She immediately invited us in and asked us what we were doing running around such a dangerous place for. We told her we were looking for three girls that claimed her address as their own the last time they took the survey and she said they were her granddaughters but they were not home. She offered us water after laughing at how sweaty I was and had us sit in front of her air-conditioner. We ended up staying with her for almost an hour chatting about her family, looking at photo albums and family pictures, hearing about which children belonged to which family member. We finally said we had to go and that we would return to see if the girls were back to sign them up. Before we left, she took a picture of us on her granddaughter's digital camera. My feelings of uneasiness and dread transformed into feelings of gratitude. I could not believe this woman's kindness and openness with us. She sent us on our way with a warning to be careful, and our epic day of recruiting began.

Our day continued with few people home; their were some vacant houses, a couple family BBQs and another elderly man that invited us into his home and offered us water. He too was a chatter and we called his daughter to see if his grandson wanted to take the survey this year. Again, he sent us on our way with a warning about the neighborhood. We then had to knock on one of the worst houses I have ever seen. It appeared vacant but the air-conditioner in the window was a dead give away that people still occupied the dilapidated structure. The front was so over grown, we decided to go to the back where a car was parked. There was another house on the same plot in even worst shape that appeared abandoned. No one answered, so we returned the next day. When we returned, we found a run-down looking man who was the father of the kids we were looking for. He banged on the windows and yelled at them to come to the door. A 15 year old answered it and said her sister and her would take it but there brother was gone. We were trained to figure-out what "gone" meant by asking when the brother would return. She responded in a quiet voice, devoid of emotion, "He ain't comin' back mam. He got shot and killed this last year." Jayrrd and I were speechless for what felt like eternity. I broke the silence by saying I was sorry for her family's loss... nothing else came to me. We left and on the tracking sheet for the family put the "failure code" number the represented "deceased", a number the represented the horrible tragedy that this family had endured. He was 17 years old. That was the moment the reality of violence in which these kids grow-up with everyday hit me. And when the girl and her sister came to take the survey later in the week, all I could think about was that they should have been walking to the survey with their older brother.

The culture of beating children as a form of punishment was also introduced to me in Prichard. When we returned to the old ladies house, we met her granddaughter and her baby cousins. The granddaughter babysat her cousins during the summer and the three year old stepped on my bag by accident. The granddaughter started yelling at the toddler, telling her to apologize. When she did not say anything to me, the granddaughter threatened to beat her and got a ruler. I quickly said it was fine and that she didn't mean to, trying to diffuse the situation. She did not hit her in front of us because the toddler ran to the old lady as the granddaughter came toward her with the ruler. Many kids since then have openly told me that their mamas' would beat them for doing something wrong and we saw the old marks to prove it. Corporal punishment is almost nonexistent in my world or if it happens, it is seen as an inappropriate and harmful way to discipline a child. But this is not the reality in these neighborhoods. Respect is literally beaten into many of the children we have surveyed.

And so our first week in the field ended with Jarryd and I knowing Prichard like the back of our hand. We surveyed about 120 kids at the Head Start in Snug Harbor and conducted three in-home surveys for kids that could not make it to the site because they were on the other side of the highway.