It Is What It Is

I guess this is my place to work out ruminations that have been knocking around in my brain, bothering me because I know there is something there that I need to understand better, something not quite in focus, something I need to dig deeper into, need to be more self-critical and self-aware about in order to arrive at some sort of clarity, epiphany, breakthrough. Currently, that grain of sand stuck in my craw is an interaction I had with a brilliant and vibrant young woman a few days ago. I had been talking with someone on the street, and she saw my colleague as she drove by and swung into the parking lot and walked up, bouncing and smiling as her partner struggled to keep up. She was bursting with excitement about an event she was pulling together, and what great opportunities it was going to present for the young people she works with in our community. I was just standing there observing their conversation, loving her energy and positivity, and when my colleague turned the discussion to me and to NoLi CDC, and said how excited and proud he was of the work we were doing on York Street, all of that energy and positivity drained out of her immediately, like a switch had been flipped, and she looked at me with blank eyes, then looked down, shrugged, and said,

It is what it is.

And that was it. She was ready to move on. But, being the needling twit that I am, when there was a break in the flow of conversation that followed, I brought it back to York Street, and asked her why she was so defeatist about our work. And she told me that it was because we represented a train of gentrification and displacement and change that was not going to be stopped, not going to be averted, and that, basically, we were destined to ruin the neighborhood as she knew it and there was no way around it. It was preordained, as it were, by some capitalistic deity, and, in her eyes, we were the crusaders.

Now, does it matter that she is black? Yes. Does it matter that I'm white. Absolutely. And I can't change that. But what I struggle to understand is what part of what we are doing makes our work feel unapproachable to some groups, and very inviting and comfortable to others? Do I design in a "white" way? Is our organization and mission somehow subliminally connecting only with certain races or education levels? Is it branding, or our logo, or how we speak? Is the structure of home-ownership one that drives certain communities, ethnicities, and socio-economic strata away, to perceive us as the enemy or not working for them or their best interests? I know this is all complex, to be sure, but when I broke it down to her, broke down our goals to create options, affordability, flexibility, and a many sizes fits all approach, she seemed to get it, to be able to hear in my words. We are trying to make things as inexpensive as absolutely possible, and at the same time create something great, something inspired, to demonstrate that beauty can be the right and the property of anyone, not just those in positions of power or privilege or with the money we think beauty requires.

When I get reactions like that, it always reinforces one central feeling in me - that I need to try harder. That what I've been doing is not enough. Because if this vibrant young woman sees us as an enemy instead of an ally, and if a baby-boomer black woman living on York Street, whom I met last week, thinks that "those houses" are for the young white people and not for her, I need to know how to break that down and present it differently so she knows that they are every bit as much for her as for anyone else.

Because they are - for everyone.

I asked this woman how much she paid in rent, and she said $650/month, not including utilities. I told her she could own one of those houses for $550/month - the numbers don't lie. And if she were to tell me that's what she wanted, I'd do everything in my power to give her the chance to make that happen. 

But it's about trust, and, with all of the racial tension surrounding these elections, police shootings, and polarized immigration discussion, trust is a tough place to get to these days. So I understand. Believe me, I understand. But that's not going to stop us from trying, trying to make everyone, regardless of skin color, age, income or education level, know that what we are doing is an option for them, and we are trying to do right by this community in the face of change, and that the only thing left to decide is if it is right for them.

I hope we can get there.

It is what it is - I hope that instead of this being an admission of defeat or statement of resignation to inevitable negative change, I am working to flip that phrase into an assertion of pride, of individual and collective agency, of active participation, that it is what it is not because it simply followed the formulaic path to the inevitable destruction of place in the name of making a dollar, but because we listened, we connected, we helped, and didn't cut corners or allow ourselves to be complicit in the age-old cycle of privilege and extraction, but rather we were there to help others be heard, be seen, to control their own destiny. And ultimately, I think if we do all of this, we will make something that everyone has the chance and feels empowered to take ownership in.

It is what it is, because of what we made it.

[KMN]