There’s a conversation I have all the time with the community of folks engaged in the city; we discuss the challenges of working/living here, the potential harm we can do here, and how to avoid harm that happens despite our “good intentions.” It’s one of the reasons I work with Keith Benson to do professional development trainings in organizations across the city based on Ivan Illich’s speech To Hell with Good Intentions. I often take that lens to my work — asking when my voice (here on this blog and elsewhere) has unintended consequences, or if I’m able to hear critiques of my work from community members.
Those conversations grew into an academic article titled New to the Neighborhood: Race, Civic Engagement, and Challenges to Educators that I co-authored with former colleague and current neighbor Gayle Christiansen. In it, we document our challenges working here in the city; particularly how we often found ourselves facing conflicting responsibilities to community, school and self. Much of that happened in the context of a wider structurally racist community that meant even when trying to contribute to our new community backfired — failures often directly related to our identity as new, white educators in a community of color.
The article has case studies from our own experiences — behind the scenes looks at my struggles with my civic engagement classes, and Gayle’s after-school programs in North Philly. It has pertinent examples throughout the city of how newcomers can undermine local business (a sister to the concerns of gentrification) just because of a lack of community ties that help us support local businesses. Here’s an excerpt that looks at how design intersects with lack of social connections to undermine small businesses:
Take, for example, the case of Little Slice of New York in downtown Camden. Its owner, Pete Toso, chose a Camden location in part because of the promise of development downtown. But when that development happened, the two projects nearest his restaurant included direct competitors. The Victor Luxury Lofts included Market Street Pizzeria as a tenant, only blocks from Toso’s pizza shop. The L3 office buildings across the street included an internal cafeteria. With employees leaving at 5pm, and an internal cafeteria for lunch, Toso says little business trickles to Little Slice.
For educators new to the neighborhood, this is the risk. Cultural distance can be a barrier that keeps new residents from assimilating in a way that supports pre-existing local businesses. At the same time, as new residents with more income increase, it puts additional rental pressure on old establishments without sharing the benefits of new customers.
The article is a first attempt at trying to lay out these challenges (ethical, political, and economic) and trying to give our hard-won (through mistakes) ideas to those doing civic engagement work. I’ll close with our final words, but hope you’ll take the opportunity to read the whole thing, and see a bit of how we reflect on our work:
[W]e believe that investing locally as an educator is a worthwhile pursuit. With the decision to live and teach in the same urban community comes the challenges of being a good neighbor— despite historical oppression and power balances that manifest in surprising and unpredictable ways. Our challenges in living here, and our biggest failures in doing so, extend from the challenges of being a good neighbor. It is that experience which led us to suggest responding to miscommunications, unintended consequences, and power imbalances by relationship-building, rather than setting up a moral code to guide action. Becoming part of a community is a process. We believe that process can be beautiful, despite the mistakes we make. We believe so because we have lived through these mistakes and leaned on our relationships to remedy them. We hope our reflections help academics to capture that experience and relate it to existing conversations about educators and civic engagement. But more importantly, we hope that it pro- vides actionable support for those who, like us, want to engage with their community but do not always know how.