Thursday, July 14, 2011

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:

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.


  1. Is there an incentive for the youth to take the survey? Why would parents claim they have 6 kids who were all born the same year or students who want to retake the survey?

  2. Hi Eme!
    The participants get paid $15 for taking the survey that takes about 1.5 hours. A lot of kids try to take multiple times in a summer for the money. We are pretty good at catching them but sometimes they use their cousins or friends names that have not taken it yet. I also caught a kid who was taking it for his cousin as his cousin. He claimed he was thinking about what his cousin did and answering for him.