Archive for the ‘work’ Category

The peril of comfort

July 1, 2008

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.


Family Fun Day FUBAR

June 2, 2008

The community health organization that I work for recently threw their annual large scale “family fun day” — the selling points are fairly appealing: fun, sun, music, free food, children’s activities, community outreach from a variety of different non-profits and support groups, multilingual HealthPlus and Fresh Air Fund counseling, and, of course, healthy lifestyle choices! Who can’t get down to that??

Well, in fact, Zeus has his qualms with family fun.

We’d all heard rumors of rain (80% chance according to the weather channel) so we spent most of Friday preparing our building for the crowds — no sense in taking the risk of having the thing outside. Besides, our building is pretty spacious and an inside festival would be *way* easier to clean up. But mid-morning the next day the weather looked decent so our plucky Director of Programs ordered all the staff and volunteers to move everything and everyone outside into the sunshine for set up. I protested! But to no avail.

Minutes after set up was complete our little fiesta received the most sudden, intense, devastating, torrential, quasi-biblical downpour that I’ve ever experienced. Add to the mix hundreds of wet, hungry, disgruntled, non-English-speaking people, many of whom also happen to be infants or toddlers, and you have nothing less than full. blown. chaos.

It was like the 3D ride through a scene from the The Thin Red Line. Some people fled inside right away while others cowered shivering under the tents we had set up, under which all the food had to be hastily moved as well. There was no chain of command. There was no procedure. We were IN THE SHIT and we had to leap into action — Desiree began to marshal the tent-cowerers inside the building and coordinate transport of what was left of the food to some kind of impromptu food service point, which we managed to set up in the downstairs hallway.

I happened to be dressed as Shrek at the time, humpback and all, desperately imploring the enraged crowd to form a line for their chow, which was spread so thin that each person received an egg roll and a spinach triangle and a tightlipped smile from the beleaguered Americorps workers who had taken charge of food service. Then the word came down from on high that the food was to be moved to an upstairs classroom — we had to shout, shove, and struggle forward every step to get it up there.

“The people are pushing me…I’m trying to wait in line, but they just keep pushing!” one bedraggled lady cried to me and I, still costumed, looked her right in the eye. “Well,” I said, “then you gotta push em back.”

It went on like that — like a hurricane hit and people were fighting for survival — for what seemed like hours. Eventually the rain stopped and everybody stumbled back outside, grudgingly set up their tents once again, and, as the stiff-lipped Brits might say, “made a go of it.” At the back end of the afternoon the crowd started to thin, I slipped out, slinked away home and remained in a coma for the rest of the weekend.

Screw you, family fun.

Bizarrely humorous

March 11, 2008

So I’d been planning to lead a weekly discussion group for ESL students in the Adult Ed program where I work since, oh….September? Well, the first one finally occurred this afternoon. It went off pretty well; the idea is that it’s a way for students to practice English in an informal, non-class setting.

Today I prepared a bunch of hand-outs and tried to provoke discussion on the admittedly rather mundane topic of emergency preparedness. (If you live in NYC, go here for crucial info!)

Bizarre humor commences: There are several hajab-wearing Muslim ladies in the class, immigrants from various different Arab countries. After I had spent a lot of time talking about hurricanes, other severe weather, avian flu, toxic chemical spills, etc. I asked the class if they could think of any other emergencies or disasters that we should prepare for.

“Terrorism!” giggled the Arab ladies. Then the whole class laughed.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud too. But what’s funny about it? I guess they were able to take the negative stereotype surrounding Arabs and devout Muslims and turn it into a joke? Why is that funny? Very odd.

Signs point to Tyra Banks Show actually being interesting.

March 4, 2008

It’s both unlikely and unnerving, I know.

If you have a spare moment to entertain such a preposterous theorem, check out this video:

Racial prejudice just gushes so easily forth from the panel, it’s kind of sickening.

Yet, they all seem to be reasonable people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I guess that prejudice and this tendency towards stereotype and bias lurk unconsciously within most people, no matter who they are. Those of you who didn’t take Scott Plous’ social psych class at Wesleyan should check out Understanding Prejudice for more info. The Implicit Association Test is particularly cool/disturbing.

I never thought I’d be one to give shout outs as such, but they are due to Sajita, who is one of the cutest and smartest little people I’ve ever met, and to her mother Linda, who is my friend and fabulous co-worker!

Linda says, and I have *extensive* reason to believe her, that she was barely able to restrain herself from dropping the f-bomb on the show. That would have put those panelists in their place, n’est pas?

Counseling the absent and hopeless?

March 3, 2008

Being a good career counselor is tricky: You want to be a goal-oriented, action-focused, “active listener”. You want to be savvy and professional, but also sympathetic and understanding. You need to be culturally competent and universally approachable (as clients range from Arabic speaking housewives who want to become nurses to Puerto Rican kids spitting hip hop lingo and trying desperately to stay in GED class) yet you must be conscious of boundaries. (see ‘The peculiar case of Mrs. H’)


Time and time again you see the same behavior: Clients are looking for a way out of the tough situations that have befallen them, they display initial enthusiasm, perhaps they even have an appointment or two of working with you, but then they up and disappear. Then I end up posting on my blog instead of doing other stuff I have to do, because it all consists of busy work. I’m unhappy because WORST CASE SCENARIO I should be getting paid AT LEAST twice as much to do busy work. Meanwhile, clients are unhappy because they are jobless and confused!


UPDATE: OK…I’ve calmed down now

The client whose absence sent me into psychotic spiral (see above) finally showed up, albeit 2 hours late. Resume was prepared, other clients were seen, I am now busy at work and as such most conclude this sad and rambling blog post. Phew.

Before I go, I should take a sober moment to talk about learned helplessness. This is the behaviorist theory that people can lose motivation after life has shat upon them for long enough. Perhaps, once they’ve succumbed to this feeling, showing up on time feels pointless.

I can understand that. It’s still annoying though.

Local Warming

February 25, 2008

If you were there for the TORNADO that touched down in Bay Ridge/Sunset Park last summer, let alone the bizarre February fluctuations of temperature we’ve been going through (from 5 degrees to 65 degrees and back), you know that climate change is a very real, tangible thing here in Brooklyn. It seems that neighborhood organizations and city officials have also noticed this, and have started to do something about it! And as a member of the Sunset Park Community HealthCorps, I guess I’m sort of already implicated in all this.

This Friday I attended a community gathering to learn/raise awareness about what the concrete effects of climate change will be in the foreseeable future. The meeting, hosted by UPROSE, “Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community based organization,” focused on what we can expect in Brooklyn, particularly in Sunset Park. It turns out that since most of the industry and crucial infrastructure in SP is located close to the waterfront, small changes in sea-level rise, the intensity of tropical storms, and the length of heat waves will drastically impact the quality of life here. Presenters from the Office of Emergency Management and the Mayor’s Office PLANYC2030 gave talks in which they expressed keen unwavering awareness of the following facts:

  • Scientists predict an increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes; it is more and more likely that a storm will hit us, even this far North. Hurricane season starts in the summer time, so you should prepare accordingly
  • OEM has calculated that if a hurricane strikes NYC or the environs (apparently Atlantic City is more likely based on meteorological data) this will likely leave about 2.3 million New Yorkers without housing, approximately 650,000 of whom will have to seek public housing. That is an insane number.
  • By 2039, NYC expects to experience over 70 days per year with temperatures over 90 degrees.
  • Today’s impacts come from emissions generated 50 years ago. Even if we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to experience intensifying climate change impacts. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions in NYC are going steadily UP.
  • Nearly 80% of greenhouse emissions can be attributed to heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. Hence, amending the building code to promote green building practices will be a crucial step in cutting down on the carbon.

NYC is generally considered to be on the up and up. For the past 3 decades, NYC has been reviving its industries, infrastructure, parks, etc. and has been concurrently experiencing a decrease in crime, an increase in tourism, population, etc. I’m pretty impressed that the Mayor’s Office is taking this growth as an opportunity to raise awareness not only about mitigation of global warming but about adaptation to the coming changes; in fact, according to them,this represents the first climate change adaptation project in the United States. AND this meeting is the first neighborhood-level community outreach in the adaptation project, hence the first such meeting in the US! How bout that?

Information R/evolution! (+ CHEAP weekend festivities)

February 17, 2008

I spent about half my working hours in the past week sitting in meetings, the goal of which were to streamline data collection and analysis for the Adult Education and Job Training programs. Currently these comprise an ugly, unwieldy mass of forms, binders, ridiculously slow data entry and retrieval using second-rate software, all to produce practically meaningless results. It makes you simultaneously angry, tired, and oh so profoundly uninterested in data collection.

THE PROBLEM: Teachers don’t keep good records, the data-entry system is archaic and under-staffed, documents have to be filed and stored in multiple locations because of limited space…etc.

THE PROPOSED SOLUTION: Pretty much everyone at these meetings kept talking about how we need to get more data entry people on staff, organize workshops and seminars to educate teachers and students about the importance of accurate data, call the makers of our shitty database software for support…etc.

THE ACTUAL SOLUTION: If teachers and counselors had a digital, web-based system that they could access themselves, then they could collect and enter meaningful data, monitor students’ progress, and we could give funders an accurate idea of what kind of service we’re actually providing. The essential problem is that we’re stuck in this mire of having to have hard copies of everything, which inevitably limits the way we can organize and interpret information.

This video gives you an idea what I mean (thanks to Jenny):

If you happened to have read Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, you’re familiar with this idea that media “shape and re-shape the ways in which individuals, societies, and cultures perceive and understand the world.” Of course McLuhan did his PhD work at Cambridge in the 1930’s under formalist giants I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis who famously promoted the idea that the words of a poem, the language itself should be the subject of study because text actually shaped context. Funnily enough, this idea can be applied to the way that the actual textual quality of the data we collect in the Adult Ed program influences the way that the program is (dis)organized.

ANYWAY, a terrific President’s Day weekend so far; chilling with co-worker types, talking copious nonsense, reuniting with long lost friends. Given that this is NYC, all this fun was had for unbelievably cheap. Consider some stats:

$5 for 30 hand-made dumplings (thanks to Family Dumpling), 120 dumplings purchased, 5 people = a marvelously gluttonous Friday night. Gloriously simple “dump cake” for dessert.

$2.99 for a bottle of quaffable wine (thanks to Trader Joe’s Wine Shop), 8 or so bottles purveyed (thanks to David), 7 people = an uproarious Saturday evening. I also migrated to a refreshingly affordable East Village watering hole for more fun and “I haven’t seen you since graduation!”s

The peculiar case of Mrs. H

January 31, 2008

I’m supposed to be providing clients with job readiness counseling; setting goals, working on resumes, getting motivated, performing mock interviews, helping with the seemingly impossible job search…etc. It’s challenging! And only occasionally gives way to malaise.

But when there are no clients? The challenge loses some its edge, shall we say. And when things get edge-less, I have time to write on the blog…Bleh. Oh, there are other, more work-related tasks that I could be getting myself to do. But most of them are pretty mundane.

I did have one client yesterday, ethical questions of whether to blog about clients aside. Mrs. H is a delusional old Chinese lady who seems to have taken a fancy to me. She drops in to see me at the Family Support Center with some regularity, but not really to avail herself of career counseling services. Rather, she’s just got no one else to talk to. In China she was an accupuncturist, apparently, but now she’s retired and living alone in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Her husband passed away some time ago…making her rounds at the FSC is just another way to keep busy.

She bears a small gift like fruit, candy, or a jar of some unidentifiable spice. Instant oatmeal, coconut powder, candied lotus root…you get the idea. At first I refuse to accept it and plead with her not to bring any more gifts. But I always give in eventually, which is her signal to start talking. I know that this gift-giving is a traditional measure of politeness and respect, which is commonplace for elderly Chinese folk. I also know that her Mandarin pronunciation is quite clear and standard, which is exceedingly rare for elderly Chinese folk. So I know that part of her is not only genteel, but also uncommonly intelligent.

And yet when she starts talking, she rambles incoherently in a kind of obsessive, paranoid stream of consciousness about all the ways in which she is put upon by the world. Her son doesn’t talk to her, the landlord is evil, the pollution clogs her lungs, etc. Sometimes she has a problem or task for me, as in the last few sessions which were devoted to ordering one of those really expensive ionic air filters. This was done to combat the urban dirt and dust, the ubiquitous dust which seeps into her room and frightens her.

Of course boundaries are an issue. When someone wants to monopolize your time with chatter, you can’t really just submit. When they want to take you out to lunch or set you up with eligibile Chinese girls, you must remind them of the invisible line. Always a weird feeling.

I want to refer this individual to therapy, but she’s unwilling to start. Besides, I’m not sure how much Western therapy would really help an elderly Chinese person. Her best bet for mental health would probably be to find ways to get out of the house and become more involved in the Chinese community, though this is easier said than done. She *is* working with some of my colleagues at Family Support to try to get a better housing situation; actually, she’s made incredible progress in that direction and has been shortlisted for Section 8 housing which is well nigh impossible to get. Maybe she’s got connections that I don’t know about?

It’s not as if Mrs. H and her problems make me throw up my hands in despair…it’s more like her case makes me realize that everybody has problems, not all of which are easily identifiable or curable in the analytical doctor/patient or counselor/client way. Just sitting and listening to her ramble, and occasionally performing random tasks, might be the most helpful role I can play.

City Year, capitalist ideology, and MLK

January 23, 2008

city year

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Martin Luther King Day, while civilized New Yorkers were sleeping in and avoiding the unbelievable cold, I had to get up early and trek out to Long Island City, Queens to volunteer my services as a, uh, volunteer. Of course the fact that I was forced to do this in no way reduces the “volunteer” aspect of my volunteer work.

In honor of Dr. King, a gaggle of City Year volunteers threw a big service day bash around the nation, our local (!) iteration of which took place at a high school in Long Island City. The ceremony began with an invigorating round of boot-camp-style calisthenics on command. Along with ROTC kids, the uniformed City Year volunteers talked the audience through their synchronized call-and-response PT regimen. Then there was the formal inauguration of City Year Young Heroes, sponsored by Bank of America among others, in which a group of middle schoolers pledged to emulate, “the values of courage, compassion, cooperation, and commitment” by pledging their Saturdays to various community service projects over the next 5 months.

city year

Fabulously rich NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg put in an appearance, and encouraged the youths in the spirit of Dr. King, reminding them that “everyone can be a hero!”

Several ideas started to kick around in my head:

  • The rigid discipline and Boy Scout-like enthusiasm of the City Year types is kind of freaky.
  • The lack of talk about the history of struggle or social justice movements is kind of conspicuous, especially if you’re supposed to be honoring Martin Luther King
  • The similarity of City Year’s enthusiastic idealism to nationalist rhetoric is striking

Althusser, a 20th century French philosopher who liked to read Marx, describes the way that every Subject is recognized and needs recognition. The Subject then recognizes and calls out to another, interpellating him as a Subject. Thus, every Subject is always already embroiled with others. He borrowed this idea from his friend Jacques Lacan and used it to complete his notion of ideology. Ideology is the discourse through which individuals become subject to the state. It is the basis for how the State gets people to conform, thus reproducing the conditions of production which are crucial to the State’s existence. (Since Althusser was writing, “State” power became largely de-centralized and currrently seems to reside not in the halls of government, but in the hands of elite transnational corporations) In the case of City Year, the notion of individual capacity for change co-opts people into a group while at the same time subverting the fact that only community-based concerted social (read: economic) action will produce change.

This was a fact of which Dr. King himself was very aware: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”*

I’m of the opinion that City Year types parading around in their red jackets with their T-Mobile phones and Bank of America middle schoolers won’t promote awareness, education, or change in the long run. No matter how many jumping jacks they do. Still, I’m willing to put up with their philanthropy…I mean, it’s for a good cause!

But using King as your poster boy is crossing the line.

Open your eyes!


RIP Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plain language and social services

January 16, 2008

As I continue with outreach and client counseling, I’m getting a more and more vivid image of what it would be like to be a person stuck in poverty, trying to get along in Brooklyn. Let me tell you: it is pretty hopeless shit, especially if you’re a non-English speaker or under-educated adult.

I don’t want to get all complain-y, so let’s assume that it’s OK that the class system is unfair because it makes global capitalism work. And the racism and hatred that immigrant folk experience, let’s just call that par for the course. It is, let’s say, pretty cool that the government provides some services for working class folk, you know, in case they’re ever down on their luck.

Here’s the complaint: If you’re reading at a 4th grade level, there is NO possible way you can navigate the system of public benefits that is (barely) in place to help people like you.

I have this client who has a learning disability. Yesterday I accompanied him to an orientation for VESID (Vocational Education Services for Individuals with Disabilities) a program run by New York State. Its goal is to help adults with disabilities find a job and keep it. The first step to receiving services from them is to sit through an hour long orientation in a cavernous room with soul sucking florescent lights and 30 other desperate people. You watch a corny video. Then a nondescript man with a monotone voice drones on about all the procedural ins and outs for 45 minutes. I went to an elite college and majored in English and I barely got the gist of it.

How is this supposed to work?

Al Gore addressed this problem during his Vice Presidential term when he served as the chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)

For a famous exploration of the political uses of language in modern society, check out George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (It’s not as good as my favorite of his essays, “In Defense of English Cooking”)