The peril of comfort

I knew it! You are going through one of those “what does it all mean?” things! 

I have about 6 weeks before work is over and the process of moving out begins — this is a sobering realization.

The original purpose of this blog was to muse about life in *Brooklyn*. But as Brooklyn became the background for my life, I stopped wanting to analyze Brooklyn itself — it lost its significance. I like Brooklyn, but I no longer wonder about Brooklyn. Its distinctive beauty and energy are just another part of life. I’ve become comfortable here.

Comfort! Despite the bouts of drama, despite the undercurrents of Albee-esque malaise, despite the psychotic landlord and the power outages and the relentless critters plaguing me throughout, despite my bizarre work situation, despite the severe lack of money which has shaped my life since day one, indeed despite all the manifestations of ubran insanity, comfort prevails! How does that work? And why does it bother me?

I took my position with Americorps in order to get experience in the field of counseling and community work while I weighed my options for seeking advanced training in those fields.  I wanted to help people deal with their feelings, their needs, and their life goals in some kind of community health setting. And I’ve been quite sucessful! I’ve learned alot about counseling, education, cross-cultural communication and social services in general.

That said, when I took my job I wasn’t totally prepared for how difficult it is to follow through with wayward or disinterested clients, or to put forth the effort to deal with onerous everyday office tasks, or to negotiate the heirarchy that exists even in a non-profit community organization. I wrote about how I was being forced to work independently; organizing my own work load as I saw fit. But when nobody is there to guide you or supervise your development, it’s easy to build a little world for yourself comprised of daily rituals and little more.

So I’m in an awkward situation. I’ve helped alot of people during the course of my Americorps year. But I’ve also found myself buying into, or perhaps creating, a work-a-day reality where I have little real responsibility, room for growth, or opportunity to be creative. This, it seems, is what happens when you settle for comfort.

But is comfort such a terrible thing? Must it always lead to complacency? It is perplexing.

Finally, a word about Americorps and social class. Of the original group of thirteen Americorps volunteers placed in various positions throughout my program, six have left without completing their term. Of those six, all came from working class backgrounds. None were college educated. Two were single parents. Five were people of color.

Of the remaining seven (who have either completed or are slated to complete their terms very soon) four are white (including myself), one is hispanic, two are asian, all are middle or upper-middle class.

It’s not surprising that people with parental resources are the only ones who could complete a year of penury in one of the most expensive cities in the country. But it does perhaps trouble the goals of the Americorps program. Just as Peacecorps was originally created to bring American values to countries that were potentially within the Soviet sphere of influence, Americorps seems to have been created to deliver middle class values to the rural or inner city poor.


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7 Responses to “The peril of comfort”

  1. Jenny Ryan Says:

    Wow, thanks for your insightful comments on the Americorps job- I’d been thinking of signing up, but am wavering as I think I should spend the year coming into my own as a writer/researcher. Both have their drawbacks. Congrats on sticking it through~
    You’re a fantastic writer.

  2. Willow Says:

    While I agree that AC pays so little as to border on cruelty, maybe part of the point of that pathetic stipend is to push middle and upper class children to see the world from a different perspective. When else are you going to have to live on so little … and you weren’t even really living on so little, were you? You say you had parental resources to fall back on. Maybe that’s another part of the point: to think about how hard life must be for people who don’t have those same resources.

    Have you guessed yet that I work with you? Do you feel the undertone of discontent in my comments? I stumbled in here by accident and was quite surprised to find I knew you. Then I was troubled that you had the audacity to complain about your ‘work’ when you hardly ever to any (how many times do I find you hanging out with your girlfriend in the computer room rather than taking care of any kind of actual business?).

    You’re such a nice guy, it’s been hard to watch you laze your way through this year. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for the people who worked closest with you: you’re intelligent, socially-conscious, outgoing, interested in interesting things … and yet you bring almost none of that to your work. Do you think anyone at the Center was fooled into believing you were ‘giving it your all’ this year?

  3. tripinchina Says:

    Dear “Willow”,
    Of course you are right.
    I have been lazy, selfish, and more or less worthless as an Americorps worker.
    This fact is readily apparent to everyone, thanks.

    Still, that’s some vitriolic and self-righteous criticism to pour upon a person!
    And hardly the appropriate forum, one would think?
    If my ennui has really been so hard for you to bear, perhaps it would have been more constructive to approach me in the real world?

    I was audacious enough to complain on my blog about the graduation ceremony without doing anything about it.
    But isn’t your anonymous response, reproaching me after the fact, just as petty?

    Also, yes, I am aware that “seeing how the other half lives” is ostensibly the point of the Americorps program.
    It would seem that the pay prohibits anyone besides middle or upper class kids from participating, so this is obvious.
    I was trying to suggest that employing middle class people to inculcate the shining middle class values of “professionalism”, “achievement”, and “individual self-confidence” upon the poor might not be the best way to address poverty…


  4. Willow Says:

    Mostly guilty as charged over here. I made some small attempts at work. I talked to your supervisors. I tried to ‘illustrate by example.’ as ridiculous as that sounds. I didn’t feel it was my ‘place’ to tell you how to do your job since you don’t work for/with me other than that we both work for the Center. I took an easier road at work just as I’m taking an easier (more cowardly) road by remaining anonymous here.

    I still think your take on AC is off the mark. I actually think the agenda of AC is to teach *you* something (‘you’ meaning any middle or upper class AC member, not just you, obviously), not for you to teach ‘the poor’ something. (Yes, I take issue with you lumping all of our participants into the category of ‘poor.’) I don’t think people who work several jobs, own businesses, raise families, navigate a system that is definitely not meant to be friendly to them need to learn many lessons from well-meaning, privileged kids who’ve barely left school and home. Maybe I’ll surprise myself and decloak before you leave and we can have this convo in the real world.

  5. tripinchina Says:

    Yeah, I agree that using the term “poor” to describe our participants can be inaccurate and even detrimental, and middle class kids who are still wet behind the ears certainly don’t have much to “teach” them.

    But the fact remains that Americorps thrusts middle and upper class kids into community work with people who mostly hail from the working class. Why? Even if the goal is for “us” to better ourselves rather than overtly to “teach” others, the class issues involved in this arrangement are very real and should be thought about carefully.

    For example, part of my job is to counsel people and help them create resumes so as to make them more “job ready” in the terms of professional life. The point is *not* to find these people jobs, but rather to empower them to set goals and follow through with them — essentially, to set them on a career track. The only thing that qualifies me to do this job is my membership in Americorps, hence my middle class status, hence some kind of specialized knowledge about the English language and the world of professional work that I’m being paid to dish out to people. Isn’t that a little bizarre?

    I do appreciate your point about Americorps as teaching upper and middle class kids a life lesson — but I also think that this idea of “experiencing poverty” and nevertheless “getting things done” has a kind of a weird, condescending undertone to it. It is a program of the US federal government, so I believe it pays to be skeptical.

    Of course skepticism is no excuse for laziness and, as you so eloquently pointed out, I’m much better at complaining than actually doing things.

  6. Willow Says:

    Ok, I know I should stop commenting, but we’re having a richer conversation now than we’ve had all year, so I’m compelled to continue.

    Your point about issues of class is a good one, and I wonder if the original designers of AmeriCorps gave it even a moment’s thought. I’ll bet they didn’t much. There must have been *some* kind of thought about it, but probably not a thorough consideration. What would you say to the feds about the concept of AC?

    And, although the set up is flawed, aren’t there some things that come from it that are interesting and even good? I’m thinking of the AC members who work as doulas and in the MAP program. And even placements like yours or Ann’s where a good part of the position involves getting to talk to community members. I found your writing about ‘Mrs. H’ really great, for example. Don’t those kinds of interactions come chiefly from the reality that you *are* from such different backgrounds and both of you learning how to navigate the relationship?

    One of the obnoxious things I see in the basic idea of AmeriCorps is the belief that it’s ok to pay so little, that “someone” will help members get by. Maybe the tiny stipend works well enough in some parts of the country (but I don’t believe that, either), but it’s really ridiculous to think it would work in a city like New York. I don’t know how many room mates you have, but I know most members have had to have at least three or four room mates to scrape together enough for rent, and that’s crazy. I’m not sure I see it as condescension, however. It feels more like total lack of consideration: not thinking about how the arrangement will play out and not thinking too hard about the actual people who are going to be expected to fill those positions. And that lack of consideration continues at the local level, too. The Center makes an effort to recruit community members but then we all act surprised when those members have a harder time sticking it out because of the money. As if not acknowledging the problem means the problem doesn’t exist. As if.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer. My first comments were pretty angry, and you certainly didn’t need to even approve them, let alone respond to them as quietly and thoughtfully as you have. I respect that.

  7. tripinchina Says:

    Thanks for your openness and willingness to discuss. Really! I’ll admit that I came close to deleting what you wrote initially…but then we wouldn’t have had this chance to communicate.

    As far as Americorps in general, I think we agree that the pay is obnoxious and the resulting class situation is problematic — but where you see total lack of consideration on the part of government planners, I see the bizarre reasoning of bourgeois ideology.

    So what would I say to the feds who made AC? I’d say if you are actually interested in promoting class awareness for middle class kids (and/or fighting poverty) then start taxing your corporate masters and use the money to fix the ailing public school system. If you are actually interested in promoting community values and making the urban landscape more livable, then establish a living wage and end the war on drugs and the so-called prison industrial complex. If you really want to promote patriotism, end your imperial oil wars (the original VISTA was a Johnson program while Americorps was Bush Sr.’s baby, according to legend) and use the money to promote scientific research and green energy. If you really want to promote public health and nutrition, then end insane agribusiness subsidies and extricate yourselves from the pockets of the pharmaceutical lobby.

    Of course none of this is on the agenda because it would dis-empower the powerful. But sending kids into working class communities is harmless and looks good from a PR standpoint…this is only the latest in a long history of misdirected government plans.

    Still, I really don’t think the program is bad for what it is. This may come as a surprise to you, but my own Americorps experience has been positive — that talk about considering myself “more or less worthless” did have a little sarcasm mixed in :-/ Sure there have been bad things about it, including the fact that I’ve been distracted, disogranized and bored much of the time, but the work, especially working directly with participants, has been rewarding overall.

    Also, just to clarify, in the above post I wasn’t complaining about the amount of work (which would obviously be absurd) but rather that I’d become complacent about the job. I *know* I could have done more, but I just got settled in. It’s sad. But the Center is a really nice place to work after all.

    Incidentally, everyone is so chatty that there are very few people (on our floor anyway) with whom I haven’t had the pleasure of having at least one fairly long discussion. SO if you take that small set of people, cross list it with people who don’t work directly with me, people who have admitted to blogging/reading blogs, people who have repeatedly nagged me semi-jokingly, and people who have (ahem) said something off hand about liking Top Chef…then it’s not hard to figure out your secret identity.

    So I’d encourage you to “decloak” at your leisure!

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