Stories We Tell & Stories We Don’t: Racial Peekaboo in the Lives of Youth

I recently read Everything I Never Told You by Pittsburgher/Ohioan, Celeste Ng, who grew up here and in ShakPic of Celeste Ng and Everything I Never Told of Youer Heights, OH. The story is set in a small, all-white town in Ohio and revolves around the death of teenager, Lydia Lee, the bi-ethnic child of Chinese American, James Lee, and White American, Marilyn Lee.

Despite the rave reviews, and my love for the title, I was pretty much “meh” about the story: it dragged in too many parts, I wanted the characters to take on racism in more dynamic ways and while Ms. Ng (pronounced “ing”) lets us see how the Asian characters struggle with their own racial image, we don’t get that opportunity with the White characters.  In this way, the story suffers from unexamined whiteness in kind of the same way the Asian characters in Everything I Never Told You suffer from the unexamined whiteness of the all white people in the all white town.

Still, it is not without interesting moments. It was intriguing to hear the voices of the Chinese American father and his bi-ethnic children (while the town calls the children “Oriental” we do not learn how they make sense of their ethnic identity) as they struggle with INTRA-racism, how they internalize racism, and INTER-racism, how racial ideas are imposed upon them in their interactions with white people. Interesting to me was the way the intelligence of the characters was never at issue, almost always a part of the racial oppression of people of African descent. Rather, the characters struggle with both standing out and yet being ignored in their community – what the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond call the hyper-visibility and invisibility that people of color experience. In keeping with this motif, the Asian-nesss of the story’s fulcrum character, Lydia, goes unseen by her White American mother. Even as Marilyn reflects on Lydia’s death, we don’t hear her comment or even think about what her daughter might have faced as a girl of Asian descent.  In the Chinese father we see the hope that class privilege and a quality education will overcome the child’s “otherness” among all-white groups of children and allow Lydia  to experience a full childhood outside the box of race.  Sadly, that’s a time-tested formula that never works and, ultimately, contributes to Lydia’s death. This is not to say that Ms. Ng is not writing about race and racism, she is, but she just doesn’t sufficiently take on whiteness IMO. Critical in the story is the fact that Lydia is the rare person of Chinese descent to have blue eyes, and not coincidentally, she is the clear favorite of her parents (a shout out to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye?). All of this is then wrapped up in how we grow to understand Lydia’s death. Btw no spoiler here, Lydia’s death is noted in the book jacket cover.

Sadly, sickening, frustratingly, too, death regularly visits teenagers and our families in the Hill District. While white supremacy plays out differently than we see in Everything I Never Told You, hyper visibility and invisibility are in full effect. As happened with Lydia Lee, and with middle class white youth as the norm, in death the media seizes on our teenagers’ otherness, their exoticness, on the racial stereotypes that will somehow justify the tragedy as their fault and the fault of the family with no implications for the surrounding (read white, middle class) society. This is the hyper visibility. The shootings that we hear blamming out multiple times a week in the Hill deserve a wide-ranging, community wide, public health response, not just a police response. But we do not see it. Year after year, the deaths mount. The invisibility.

About two 1/2 months ago, my nephew, Eric Young was killed on his way to school. Through sadness, anger and frustration, I have watched this cycle of visibility and invisibility “Now I see you. Now I don’t.”

Eric's playfulness, ignored in media accounts

Eric’s playfulness, ignored in media accounts

First, there was the initial hyper visibility of certain elements of the story i.e. “teenage student shot to death on his way to school” , a picture of Eric with a gun, another with money. At the same time there is the almost complete invisibility of his death and hundreds/thousands of others in the public narrative, including public officials and philanthropy. Despite, or maybe because of this reality, young people keep his name in public spaces as they do so many others they’ve lost. They’ve changed their twitter names, held public gatherings and are still tweeting with dedicated hashtags. These expressions of love & pain are part of the ongoing memorializing that makes visible the loved ones who have been taken. Those who couldn’t be saved. I see this community pain and trauma in the Rest in Peace/Rest With God t-shirts, hashtags, twitter names & “gone but not forgotten” tattoos. These  are  ways that so many  keep their missing friends and family alive and present, while the public narrative draws our attention to the event, the spectacle and turns its eye from a coordinated response.

While many such as Richard Garland,continue to work in this space and advocate for even greater attention to this public health epidemic,  that work is being supported with micro responses that help us  understand and respond to white supremacy  (shout out to my friend Heath Bailey who yesterday had an fb post asking friends to call out white supremacy  as the psychological health problem that it is). Of course by “us” I don’t mean African Americans alone. One of the encouraging and distinguishing things to see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the way white people are bringing attention to their own whiteness in these murders. Locally, there is the work of  WHAT’S UP Pittsburgh an anti-racist organization with an acronym that stands for “Working & Healing to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege.”  One question might be what does focus on whiteness from white people  look like as a movement to educate white children? This too is already taking shape and a number of ideas can be found on twitter at #FergusonSyllabus.

But I think the white community has so many models to take from the International African and African diasporic  community in this area as we have dealing with the pain of internalized racism for going on five centuries. One example of this movement is a project with which I am directly affiliated called the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy. Beginning February 7th at the Kingsley Association, Iota Phi, the local chapter of my

Flyer for 2015 Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy

Flyer for 2015 Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy

fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., will begin our 4th year running this ten week, Saturday school teaching arts, history and science in an African American cultural context. Dr. Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History” and the founder of The Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History, the organization responsible for Black History Month, was a member of our fraternity. This program is designed as a programmatic response to his most famous work The Miseducation of the Negro. Among many themes, “Miseducation” deals with how intra-racism is developed in African American students through the educational process and how this then shows up in all kinds of ways in the lives of African American people and communities. Iota Phi developed the program as one response to a rash of murders four years ago and it continues in that vein. If we want Black young people to live by the creed #BlackLivesMatter, we need an educational process that lives that creed as well. For more information or to register your children, please call 412.200.7829 or email us at iotaphichapter@gmail.com.

If you have gotten this far, thank you. Love and light to the spirit of Eric Young, the Young and Potter families, and the families and friends missing young people  this holiday season due to what so many see, but some do not, Pittsburgh’s ongoing homicide epidemic.

Round 4 grants: Migrant rights, police violence, anti-racism campaigns…

Justin:

So the last post was on the Edge Fund and what that might look like in the Hill District. This post gives some specifics on the process, dollars awarded and the kinds of programs that received support. Things to note here that we might appreciate and model in the Hill are the speed of reporting, diversity and transparency. Characteristics not easy to find in general philanthropy, my own practice not excluded, but God’s not done with me yet.

Originally posted on Edge Fund:

chickpea facebook cover On Saturday 6 December Edge Fund members and applicants got together to decide on the allocation of funds between the final 14 applicants of Round 4. Around 60 people took part in the process, which includes short presentations, opportunities to have discussions with the applicants and then members and applicants voting (with chickpeas) to determine how much each applicant receives.

As usual, migrant groups did well in this round, and also there were a number of groups working on issues of racism in the criminal justice system, such as deaths at the hands of the police. Grants agreed at the meeting were:

  1. African Rainbow Family (£5,000)
  2. London Black Revolutionaries (£3,000)
  3. Manchester Migrant Solidarity (£3,000)
  4. Sex Worker Open University (£3,000)
  5. United Families and Friends Campaign (£3,000)
  6. Unity Centre Glasgow (3,000)
  7. Abortion Rights Campaign (£1,500)
  8. Coal Action Network (£1,500)
  9. Foil Vedanta (£1,500)
  10. Framework Inclusion UK (disability rights) (£1,500)
  11. Generation Revolution (film about…

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Decision Making, Democracy, Funding & Power. Feeling The Edge Fund.

Poster used to announce the launch of The Edge Fund

Poster used to announce the launch of The Edge Fund

Today, I am thankful for the model and extensive documentation of the England based Edge Fund. At the end of this post is a link to a post from this funding body titled, “How We Make Decisions” which is what motivated me to write this morning.

Inspiring.

The Edge Fund is an organization whose work I am very interested in for work I do at The Heinz Endowments, where I am a Senior Program Officer for the Arts & Culture Program. Part of my work is focused on increasing arts experiences for youth in African American/distressed neighborhoods in a program called the Transformative Arts Process. I’ve passed along The Edge Fund to the program’s Advisory Board as an example of the way it could make decisions on recommendations to the Endowments about how it should spend $ on a field building process we are now focused on. A process I have not documented on our website, another learning from The Edge Fund which has done a meticulous job documenting its process. Another fundamental difference is that the Edge Fund’s member decision-making process is the final decision-making process on the dollars where our process is an advisory one. For the purposes of Hillombo,  I am wondering how this example might apply to the Hill District. Specifically,  the Hill District Growth Fund and the Fund that will support development in the Hill District that was part of the deal  between the Penguins, the City, County and The Hill District Development Corporation. For of my comments on my work as a Program Officer, check out my blog “Philanthropic Windows” .

The link at the end of this post was written  by folks at The Edge Fund and describes how it makes its funding decisions. It gets me jazzed to think about how communities like the Hill could even model for Philanthropy how it could better involve those most impacted by the problems that it says it wants to solve and in doing so be more effective. In the case of The Edge Fund, this goes beyond “involvement in decision making” to actually “authority in decision making”,  a fundamental difference between the work I do at Heinz and how The Edge Fund functions. To date, my sense is that the Growth Fund has operated with very little understanding in this neighborhood as to how it works or how it can help people who live here, falling into a trap of so much of philanthropy. This is trap is why you see efforts like Glass Pockets, the Center for Effective Philanthropy and The Fund for Shared Insight. Efforts not above scrutiny either, but interested in helping/encouraging Foundations to be more open in their processes.

My experience in the Hill is while we have some ideas on power our understanding of how to build power is constrained by our belief in power in particular individuals and positions rather than broader efforts that help us build power as a neighborhood. This diminished power then shows up in what we are able to secure in battles like the one we most recently had for the Lower Hill District where we did not make our goals on the amount of affordable housing we wanted or in the earlier battle with the Penguins over the Community Benefits Agreement where the Penguins were able to get off with relatively small investments. For my ongoing commentary about how leadership in our neighborhood often actively resists engaging its residents to its own detriment,  see previous posts on transparency,  The Preliminary Land Development Plan Process and my first post on the The Hill District Growth Fund. I wasn’t blogging at the time of the One Hill battle, but while it had a larger community base/democratic process than the previously mentioned efforts,  the involvement of community members was lessened towards the end of  that process and it served to weaken us there as well.

An image from the website of the Edge Fund, I believe they are reviewing proposals

An image from the website of the Edge Fund, I believe they are reviewing proposals

The challenge of course with engaging more folks in the decision-making process is that it is extremely time-consuming and if it is not properly staffed, the process can get weighed down by the lack of capacity and speed can grind to a halt. This is the challenge I am facing now with my work as a steering committee member of the the Hill District Consensus Group’s  (HDCG) Arts Plan process (HDCG receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing is a co-director there), so….there’s that as well. I really want to learn more about the Edge Fund’s work as their structure seems to take these capacity issues into account and strike a good balance. To see for yourself, check out the link below “How We Make Decisions”.

How we make decisions.

Hill CDC Meeting Announces Lower Hill Deal

Take two after losing the post I wrote last night. Last night, The Hill District Community Development Corporation (The Hill CDC) had a community meeting focused on two subjects: The recent deal outlining what would come back to the Hill from the gift given to the Penguins by our local government in order for them not to leave i.e. the rights to develop the 28 acres in the Lower Hill District.  The second element of the meeting was an envisioning of what might happen on Centre Ave. As there were a lot of details and potential implications to both issues, I will not try to handle this all in one post. First- what I heard from Councilman Daniel Lavelle re: the deal on the Lower Hill.

I came in on the tail end of the presentation and so the part that I was able to hear pertained to a fund that will be created to spur development in the entire Hill. According to the Councilman, the fund will get its dollars from  a TIF or Tax Increment Financing deal that will send 65% of the increase in taxes raised by the redevelopment of the Lower Hill to the Hill District Growth Fund and 35% back to the City of Pittsburgh. TIFs are something I am still trying to get my head around, so I hope to come back to that in a later post, but the headlines that I heard are the following:

  •  the deal could lead to anywhere from $22 million to $70 million in dollars to fund development across the Hill District;
  • the signatories were the Mayor, the Councilman, the Penguins and the Hill District CDC;
  • the committee currently managing the Hill District Growth Fund will appoint new members to the body and other political entities, such as the city or county will not be able to weigh in on who sits on the committee;
  • the agreement will be posted on the Councilman’s page.

Questions from the audience ranged from how would the fund be governed and ensured to benefit the Hill District residents to could the fund help with the eventual tax increases that property owners in the Hill will face as a result of the new development, which is a fascinating idea in and of itself. Wouldn’t that mean from a taxing strategy perspective that the city was developing property in the Lower Hill to raise taxes for its own operations, sending a chunk back to the Hill to help it redevelop “itself” (the Hill is still a part of the City) and then some of these same dollars were then coming back to the City treasure chest in the form of abatements given to residents to offset the the taxes caused by the redevelopment?  Owning two properties in the Hill, I can’t say I’m mad about that idea, and what I like about it is that it essentially means that Hill District residents would not have to incur the same price for the redevelopment of their neighborhood, but could reap the benefit in increased home values.  Interesting.

Anyway, the Councilman’s response on making sure the dollars allocated to the Hill were actually going to benefit the Hill had much to do with governance. Here he talked about the way the current members of the committee managing the Hill District Growth Fund would manage these dollars and that this committee would be the only one with the power to appoint new members, so that there could be no interference from other entities such as the City or County. This was posited as community control and while it surely will be controlled by residents and stakeholders of the Hill District (there was a resident clause to the membership on the committee that I missed), I have raised questions going back a couple of years as to how “community” is operationalized. This will be key if the fund is going to provide anything approaching equal access to all ideas and not be severely weighted towards those close to the Councilman and the Hill District CDC, which can happen even without intentions of graft, corruption and the like. Funding organizations (and I work for one) are notorious for providing access based on proximity to the board and staff of the organization, so this fund, garnered in the name of the Hill District community, has both the opportunity and burden of actually developing a process that leads to attracting and fairly funding all kinds of community ideas and to date. One idea I suggested two years ago that I don’t believe has happened and was not mentioned last night was to rotate members of the committee governing the fund.

The opportunity is to set a standard for how communities could decide funding processes and priorities for themselves and that all kinds of funding orgs, like philanthropy, government and intermediaries could learn from or be encouraged to take up. From what I can see this hasn’t happened to date  I was encouraged that the Councilman spoke of a need to think about the processes governing the fund, but said it was best to speak to the POISE Foundation as to how this would actually happen. In a later twitter exchange that included my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, who has written about anti-displacment policies and how cronyism helps to foster and preserve slums, Councilman Lavelle weighed in that he agreed that the governance of the fund and its transparency was all important.

Lavelle Laing twitter exchange

As Mayor Peduto has said this is the largest TIF deal in the city’s history, there will be much to think about as to how this will benefit the neighborhood and I am very glad we have this to think,  talk and act about.

 

Hey, Affordable Housing in the Hill District is About You Too

The brownstone across from my sister’s house.

I was just at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY and so was in one of the most talked about places in the country when it comes to gentrification, so I will try to avoid the clichés and focus on a piece that I think connects well to the Hill District and a larger issue re: owner choice when it comes to prices. She has lived in Brooklyn for 11 years and Bed Stuy for the past 8. Nina is a renter and has been blessed to live in an apartment that has not had its rent increased since she moved in. After seeing the housing prices of this neighborhood, I attribute this lack of an increase to the personal values of the owner. The issue of owner values is important because it contradicts the always repeated mantra of “the market” as this is  a giant from the hills that we have no control over (Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man”  uses this analogy to talk about people asking about the direction of Hip Hop) . The market as price raising giant. A giant wholly separate of the values of the people who actually own the thing. C’mon. Stop that.

So, at some point we went outside to walk with my nephew and Nina points to a house across the street and notes that what looks like a pretty basic brownstone says “I hear that place is going for $1.6 million.” As luck would have it,  the house happens to have an open house going on at that time and so we go in to check it out. The realtor makes a point to say the this three- plex over a two bedroom apartments will be sold “as is”. When we go inside to see the place, we see what he means. Stained carpet, old stove, rickety stairs, just generally kind of funky. Nina is looking around and is noting that there is no way this place costs $1.6 million.

My sister asks the gentleman how much the house is going for and he says not $1.6 million.. but $1.69 million! Wow. So, if you are not familiar with what a three-plex over a two bedroom apartment means, it means three floors of a house above a 2 br apt. I am no real estate expert, and we don’t have any traditional AA neighborhoods that are at this stage of gentrification, so comparisons are difficult, but I am thinking this house is more expensive than what we’d find in Pgh, by a factor of 5. However, what’s more telling is that the #’s were staggering to my sister who, as I said earlier, has been in this neighborhood for almost a decade.

As we were leaving we noted to the realtor that it was a hefty price tag. He commented off handedly that the reason he could have an asking price this high was because there was no space left in Manhattan. This immediately struck me and made me think of the Hill. Around 2:30 pm a ride to my sister’s from Midtown Manhattan was about a 25 minute cab ride. Take into account NYC non-rush hour traffic and we’ll call it a 15 min ride in Pittsburgh. Now keep in mind that Mayor Peduto is said to want 10,000 to 20,000 new residents in Pittsburgh over the next decade (Thanks to Majestic Lane, formerly of Senator Ferlo’s office and now of A+ schools for this info). So, if housing in the Lower Hill District will average about $300,000, what will happen to housing in the Hill District once that housing fills up? Obviously, its likely that housing prices will go up dramatically, though not automatically, since there really is not a price raising giant (there really isn’t). It’s obvious because you can drive across the Hill and back 2x in that same 15 min drive that is needed to get toinside the house top floor “The Stuy” from Midtown, so of course we will be impacted by housing in the Lower Hill. What I haven’t really thought much about is what the Lower Hill housing prices might  mean to neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville.  If Manhattan, NY’s center city,  is driving Brooklyn housing prices, isn’t that akin to the Lower Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods?  And it’s not just housing prices. My sister has noted food and daycare prices escalating as well, because owners i.e. are sensing there is money left on the table and making choices to raise prices. The issue of affordable housing is usually framed as an issue where we in the professional and “caretaking” classes talk about the impacts on poor people, but Nina and her husband are professional class folks with multiple degrees between them and the giant is impacting them as well.photo 2-2

Thus, affordable housing in the Lower Hill District is about all of us in Pittsburgh and this remaining a more affordable city than many.  Of course we know that the Penguins development is built on land given them by the city for free when they threatened to go to Kansas City and that that land was acquired by the city when it used eminent domain to take the property from its largely African American population. So, the issue of the Lower Hill is also about the increasing ways the public sector is used to enrich those who are very wealthy already,  in this case, Mr. Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Seriously, how do they talk so stridently about the market and how it can’t tolerate 30% affordable housing on this piece of land they did not buy. If a housing owner can decide to maintain an affordable rent for a young family in Bed Stuy as personal policy, why can’t major corporate owners have a value for affordable housing as a citywide policy that impacts thousands of people? Everyday we hear allusions and direct references to the values and of poor people, whether in the need for certain kinds of mentoring programs so kids can learn values “not in Mario_Lemieux the businessmantheir homes” or in the “ratchet” videos on Facebook.  However, I don’t think we spend 1/2 that amount of time thinking about the values of the very wealthy and the choices they make that impact us far greater than the young men who are sagging.  I’ve heard Pgh Black folks get on Pgh Black athletes for their lack of commitment to the Pittsburgh Black community, but what of Mario Lemieux? Honestly, what Pittsburgh athlete has received  more benefits from  Pittsburgh’s Black community? Who is the proverbial “giant” in this story? Don’t get mad. It’s a fair question.

Don’t Call It A Comeback

dontcallitacomeback

LL Cool J coined the immortal “Don’t Call It A Comeback” in “Mama said knock you out” because LL is hard as H-E- double hockey sticks.

Alright, let’s get back in the saddle here. Hillombo has sat idle while I have taken to posting more stuff on fb, writing a blog on my fraternity’s Black culture focused Saturday Academy “The Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy” and then recently have discovered instagram (@jdlaing). Not to mention that I have generally been a little distracted. All of these efforts either took real-time of their own or are just  easier.  So, I am going to try shorter posts that are less daunting to approach and/or figure out how to combine all of this into one place. For now though, with so much going on in the H-I-double, Hillombo is back, baby, it’s back!

Thinking of a Hill Art Plan

A couple of weeks ago, the Hill District Consensus Group (for whom my wife works, I am a supporter and the organization I work for, The Heinz Endowments, is a funder) held its second art plan meeting at the Hill House Association. The focus of this meeting was, in accordance with The Greater Hill District Master Plan, to take another step in the development of a plan for arts and culture in the Hill District. The meeting was facilitated by HDCG staffer, Brian Brown, and was attended by a range of interested parties including Errol Reynolds (Moe) and Charlotte Ka and who are working to build a cultural center to host artist residencies, performances, classes and more on Centre and Soho, Karen Abrams, Hill District resident and URA staffer, Thomas Chatman, Hill District resident and Executive Director of Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, IAsia Thomas, teaching artist & poet, Ayisha Morgan Lee, Executive Director of Hill Dance Academy Theater, which holds its classes in the old St. Benedict the Moor School on Bedford Ave, an organization also funded by The Heinz Endowments, and Marimba Milliones, Executive Director of the Hill District Community Development Corporation, who came in during the latter part of the meeting and as I was leaving. Additionally, there were a range of youth staff from the HDCG, staff of Public Allies and Luqmon Salaam who was there in his capacity as a member of S Consulting.

There were a few guiding questions that we worked on in the meeting and the agenda can be seen here HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Agenda & Action Plan_Feb 11 2014. The section of the conversation that was most memorable in my mind was the discussion with Karen Abrams  and Moe around the idea that arts plan should have a balance of work that is designed to help the community remember the best of its past thought and behavior (cultural legacy) as well as facilitate  creative production from professional artists, organizations, and non professional adults and youth (art). Celebrating past creative production and facilitating current production, particularly by African Americans, could play an important role in maintaining the neighborhood’s African American identity, attracting Black artists and attracting former residents to return and new African American residents to want to make the Hill their home while making this neighborhood a much more interesting and child friendly place. My suspicion is keeping the Hill predominantly African American will also keep it more affordable since everything is monetized or given a dollar value  in capitalism and Black life is deemed less valuable in our culture. Think of the “There goes the neighborhood” phrase. I can hear my friend and colleague, Karen Abrams, sucking her teeth and pointing to Harlem, so that could be a misplaced hope. What I am most interested in as a different conversation and set of actions when it comes to artists and “redevelopment” in predominantly African American neighborhoods. So often when Pittsburgh talks “artists” and cultural/economic/neighborhood development what is imagined is the facilitating and relocating of  artists who often do not have a history of being in dialogue or being inspired by the neighborhood, its culture and history and this only continues when they arrive. Most often these are white artists and this only compounds the feeling that a neighborhood is being “taken”. More to say on this matter, but I want to get this up and posted because it’s been a moment since I have posted.

Next steps will be to involve more residents both artists and non-artists and Bonnie and Brian had the good idea to begin to take the questions listed on the agenda to a variety of community settings, rather than wait for folks to come to meetings, so I am excited about that strategy just for the kinds of conversations and visibility it can give to conversations of culture in the Hill.  I believe the next meeting will be in the next couple of weeks and residents (the current priority) should contact Brian Brown at brown@hdcg.org to get more information. To see the good ideas already generated about what kinds of arts activity is desired for the neighborhood, please click on HDCG Arts Plan Working Group Notes_Meeting 2_Feb 19 2014 revised1.  Work on this plan will be ongoing and so I hope to have further updates as it progress. Onward and upward…