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January 2015
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March 2015

My Neighborhood Needs a Challenge Day

My daughter Rosa has been looking forward to this day at Oakland Mills High School for weeks--thank goodness it wasn't a snow day.  On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, OMHS is hosting "Challenge Day", a day-long program for high school kids and adult mentors which includes games, small group sharing, large group activities and lots of hugging and crying.  The program run by an organization called (not surprisingly) Challenge Day whose mission is to "help people learn to connect" to each other.  

I have to admit I was skeptical that Rosa would get much out of the day.  Rosa has been involved with some very high quality, very thoughtful youth programs over the past several years, most of them sponsored by the Quakers.  She's been in "fishbowls" and given affirmations and established group covenants.  So sometimes, when she participates in leadership training or team building activities, she has a sense having "been there, done that".

Instead, she came home buzzing with excitement.  The day had involved about 100 kids, most of them Freshmen and Sophomores, but some Juniors and Seniors as well.  There were about 25 adults participating as well, teachers and administrators from the school as well as a few parent volunteers.  They started out with a lot of high energy games and mixers, but eventually divided into groups of four or five kids (who were not already friends) and one adult.  The kids were encouraged to share more of their "real self" with the group through some well-defined exercises.  

In the afternoon, the conversation expanded to include some large group work around social stigma, trauma and oppression including the "cross the line" activity that is one of the group's signatures.  "Cross the line if you've ever been teased or made to feel ashamed about the way you look."  "Cross the line if you or anyone in your family has been a victim of a violent crime."  "Cross the line if you or someone in your family has been affected by alcohol abuse."  As kids step across a line and turn to face the kids on the other side, the leaders remind the kids again and again, "No one crossed this line alone.  You are not the only one."  Lots of hugs followed and lots of tears.


And they didn't leave it there.  They got kids to apologize to each other and to thank each other.  They made commitments to build a better school together.  They left with the strong conviction that they have the power to change the world.

I am so glad the high school is hosting this program but I really do wish it was open to every member of this community.

Our family has had a great experience in the Oakland Mills neighborhood.  We ended up here almost completely by chance--we needed to buy a house in Columbia, we looked at three and made an offer on the one we thought we could afford.  We ended up on a great street with great neighbors, walking distance from three excellent schools.  We wish the housing market hadn't crashed shortly after we closed on the house, but besides that, we have no complaints.

But over the past year, I've come to realize that many people who live in Oakland Mills have complaints.  A LOT of complaints.  They feel the neighborhood has declined, that it has become a "ghetto" or a "slum".  They don't like how some residents behave.  They feel like a lot of people are neglecting to maintain their homes.  And they are frustrated that more people aren't involved in efforts to improve the community.

I've thought a lot and talked a lot to friends about how to change the tone of this conversation.  It feels counter-productive--like we are pitting one group of residents against another and creating exactly the kinds of dynamics that lead people to disengage from their neighbors.  I worry that constantly focusing on the problems in a community actually amplifies those problems.

When you get adults to strategize about this, it involves meetings and plans and candidates and occasionally blog posts.  But now I'm wondering--maybe we've gone about this all wrong.  Maybe we need some big gatherings with ice breakers and games and a "cross the line" exercise.  Maybe we need someone to stand up in a group and tell everyone to hug three other people.  Maybe we need to play seated volleyball with a giant beach ball and then introduce ourselves to someone who is different from us.

I'm not actually joking.  This stuff works.  Who's up for the challenge?

Repair Begins With Relationship

Our church's Youth Group has some service projects lined up for the coming months--work in a wildlife refuge and a trip to Philadelphia for another stint with Kingdom Builders--so we spent a fair amount of our meeting time last night talking about why we would bother to do such things.

It's a somewhat impolite question to ask.  Church Youth Groups tend to do service projects the way Girl Scouts sell cookies--its just what we do.  When either the leaders or the kids take some time to reflect on our motivations we usually work our way through two observations:

1.  The world needs my help.  In Howard County, many of our kids grow up unaware that there are people in need of food, safe housing or health care right in our community.  Once kids find out a need, they almost always want to respond.  They have more than they need and someone else doesn't have enough so they want to help.  The kids move from being passive to being active, from being receivers to being givers.  They tend to feel great about this.  Adolescents want to feel empowered, they want to feel respected for what they can do and appreciated for what they can contribute, and community service fills this need.

2.  I need the world's help.  Once kids get involved with service, they often end up with this realization:  I was the one who was served.  They go into an experience motivated by a sense that they are full of gifts to offer and the world is empty and waiting.  They quickly discover (sometimes through difficult experiences) that they can't fix or solve most problems they encounter.  The people they intended to help have gifts of their own and opinions about the role others will play in their lives.  The kids come away from these experiences humbled.  They say things like, "I realize I received a lot more than I was able to give."  They often want to write their college application essays about this realization.

In my experience, most teenagers only get this far in their thinking.  This is not nothing.  Many adults--including many who hold elected office--don't seem to have gotten point #1, say nothing of point #2.  But last night, there were some hints that the kids in the KC Youth Group were ready to take the reflections a step further.  

One of the kids talked about how after a service trip he took to Nicaragua, he began to pay attention to news about that country.  He never thought about Nicaragua before and now he thought about the country frequently.  Someone else talked about making friends with the people you serve and someone else talked about recognizing how similar people are, even when they appear to live in different worlds.  I got excited and couldn't keep myself from jumping in and pointing out that they were circling in on a third reason to engage in service:

3.  The world needs relationship.  The connection is what makes the difference.  The paper bag with a lunch or the weekend spent screwing in drywall is really just a means to an end--and the end is not satiated hunger or a remodeled room, but repaired human community.  We do service projects so that we form relationships with people and places and things from which we have somehow allowed ourselves to become separate.

Throughout my conversation with the kids last night, I was thinking about the story in the Columbia Flier this past week about the meeting the Savage Community Association held back in January with Allan Kittleman and Tom Carbo, Director of Howard County Housing.  The group wanted to lobby Kittleman for support in their campaign against building a new facility to house the Route One Day Center and 35 efficiency apartments for chronically homeless men and women.

The Savage residents were concerned that such a facility will attract individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues to move into the area.  Kittleman disagreed.  The Flier quotes him as saying, "I think some people are concerned that more people are coming to Howard County because of these services. I believe that they were here."  The article continues:

Though it's hard to track homelessness in Howard – or anywhere, for that matter – advocates say the county's homeless population has historically been focused along the Route 1 corridor.

"Whether we like it or not, they are our neighbors," [Melinda] Becker said of the resource center's clients.

Clearly, homelessness isn't the only problem that needs to be solved in this county.  Sure, we need to figure out a way to share resources so that vulnerable people can find the safety and stability they need to take steps towards better health.  But this is hard to do when we don't even recognize that the people in need are not "them"--they're "us".  They consider our community their home.