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.