August 22, 2008

A Different View of DC

by Elizabeth Borges, Advocacy Assistant.

So, what did you do this summer?

In the coming weeks, as I transition from internship to school, I am sure that I will hear this question quite frequently. Though it is a perfectly reasonable query, I feel uncertain about my response. Certainly, I am eager to share my Bread for the City experience with others. I have worked here for the past ten weeks as the Advocacy and Community Lawyering Program Assistant (quite a mouthful!) and have accumulated many stories and experiences. But it will be hard to distill my internship into the neat summary that others expect when I have had so many varied and meaningful experiences.

I have learned to differentiate between Hope VII, New Communities, and Section 8 affordable housing developments by speaking to occupants of each one. I have heard the ways that Anacostia has changed over the years by interviewing a long-term resident. I have read about the educational inequalities that plague the DC Public School system. I have observed City Council hearings and examined their role in the DC government. I have helped register over 100 people to vote at BFC’s SE and NW centers. It has been a busy summer, to be sure.

Still, despite all the academic knowledge and real-world insight that I have gained over the past ten weeks, I do not feel satisfied with my current level of education. Instead, I am left with the realization that I still have so much more to learn about DC. Perhaps this is because I started knowing so little.

At the beginning of this internship, I knew that my knowledge of DC was limited at best, ignorant at worst. Although I have lived in the city for the past ten years, my experience has been confined to the environs of Upper Northwest: Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Tenleytown, and Friendship Heights. I never had reason to venture out to other parts of the district and so, for the most part, I didn’t, leaving me with a skewed notion of the city.

Luckily, my experiences this summer have given me a new perspective, but (unluckily), I saw a city whose resources are as imbalanced as my vision once was. The decrepit elementary schools I saw on my bus rides in SE paled in comparison to the sunny, bright Oyster Bilingual School, the elementary school I attended in Woodley Park. How can students become excited about education, I wondered, when the environment in which they learn is so depressing? The inequalities in public resources extend to adult education programs (as I noted a few weeks back), which means that DC fails its resident both when they are children and when they are adults.

The inequities and faults are not confined to education. There are a only a few grocery stores east of the Anacostia River (and until last year there were no major grocery stores in Ward 8) compared to the myriad of Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods stores across the way. But even if there were more grocery stores, not all families would have enough money to spend there. DC’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are woefully inadequate, only covering about 19% of the federal poverty line for many families, as reported by the DC Women’s Agenda.

Further, efforts to correct these imbalances have fallen flat. Just look at DC’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which failed to pay students on time and came in grossly over-budget. At every turn, it seems, DC is fumbling its opportunity to implement effective social change.

The sad truth, though, is that many people have come to expect these failings. Whenever I mention a particularly egregious case of mismanagement to a friend of mine, he or she will acknowledge the problem but inevitably retort, “This is DC – what do you expect?” But this perspective creates a troubling – and false – dichotomy between the DC and the idea of a successful government, suggesting that the two are irreconcilable with one another. This point of view, in essence, takes the easy way out. How can things change if we resign ourselves to the current, regrettable state of affairs?

My experience this summer has taught me that this perspective is simply wrong. The non-profit organizations that I have worked with (through Fair Budget and COHHO) have specific, concrete plans of action. COHHO supports an increase in the funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program, a local program that provides families with rent support while they are on the interminable housing waiting list. Regarding food, the DC Food Finder, developed by the Healthy Affordable Food for All Coalition (to which BFC belongs), provides an online map of all food resources in DC to help DC families obtain food now. Additionally, a myriad of charter schools are developing their own curricula to prepare students where traditional public schools have failed. These examples, along with many others, show that education, food insecurity, affordable housing, and poverty are all issues that deserve – and possess – a solution. We can no longer afford to write off DC – not for us, and not for so many of the District’s neediest residents.

The wonderful staff and volunteers at Bread for the City already know this, as demonstrated by their tireless and noble efforts. Thankfully, after my summer experiences, so do I.

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