Following the death of Freddie Gray, the need for more and more meaningful work as an antidote to injustice in Baltimore has become a rallying cry. Caroline Center reflects on one aspect of the issue in The Breakroom.
The Julie Gold song “From a Distance” has long been a favorite of mine. And, as two strikingly different events converge this year – the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and a rare meet-up in our own Milky Way galaxy of two unique, yet equally impressive entities, a spectacular gas cloud and an immense black hole with the mass of four million suns, Gold’s lyrics give us pause for thought...
Many of the women who attend Caroline Center enter this world with the deck squarely stacked against them. Many, but not all. Take, for example, Caroline Center graduate, Quy’an (pronounced Kwan-yun) or “Q” as she is called by just about everybody. Q grew up on Long Island, New York in a relatively stable family environment. Though her parents divorced when Q was 12 years old, to this day they remain “best friends” and – more importantly – strong and positive influences in Q’s life. She describes her mother as a “hard worker” and recalls (with a smile) how her father constantly nagged her about schoolwork and admonished her to “keep her head in the books.” Their good example and advice paid off.
“My potential will carry me to a great place.”
Because so many of the women who attend Caroline Center come from similar backgrounds and have similar life experiences, the tendency to lump them all together under one label might be considered understandable. Understandable perhaps…but wrong.
Because the women of Caroline Center have experienced more of life’s ups and downs in their short lives than many people 2 and 3 times their age, you forget just how young these women really are. Most of them are under 40. The majority are in their twenties and early 30’s. Some are barely out of their teens. Yet, when you listen to their sagas, it’s as if they’ve each lived a hundred life times. It’s impossible not to be moved by their stories of struggle and survival. Not to be won over by their courage and determination or overcome with love and admiration. And then there are those like Charlene who, upon hearing her story, you just want to wrap your arms around in a tight and protective maternal embrace.
We all want the same thing. To live – and raise our children – in a safe and nurturing environment. But let’s face it. It’s a perilous world. Danger lurks everywhere and sadly, you don’t have to venture beyond the menacing streets of our own troubled city to encounter it. In the last two months of this year alone (and this month is not over), there were more than 60 shootings and 40 homicides in Baltimore City. A public safety concern, by any definition.
On more than one occasion I have been told that if you really want to witness generosity, you only have to observe the poor. Conveyed to me by those who live and work among the poor, I have always accepted this idea at face value and as a lesson in humility. Then I started to think about all the incredibly generous people I know and all the beautiful acts of kindness I have witnessed in my own middle class life.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young, twenty-something office worker with a prep school background and a college degree – who got her job through a friend of her father’s – went home crying to her mother after her boss gave her a bad review. His criticisms? The young woman was always late for work, didn’t get her assignments done on time, and generally had a lousy attitude. The mother called the boss to complain, explaining that he wasn’t being fair, underestimated her daughter, and could hurt her budding career with his bad review. This, of course, is wrong on so many levels as to be laughable. What’s even more horrifying is…it’s a true story.
29-year-old Shawntae is unassuming. She sits off to the side in the crowded Caroline Center classroom. Quietly. By herself. The rest of the women are chatty and jokey, a thinly veiled attempt to hide their nervous excitement and hopeful expectation. Today is the day they find out if they passed the Pharmacy Technician final exam. Passing will mean the difference between continuing on to a working internship at a local pharmacy before graduation or flunking out of the program. So yes, most of them are slightly nervous. Except for Shawntae who sits there quietly. By herself...
Most of the women who pass through Caroline Center share commonalities of experience: a legacy of poverty, indifferent or absent parents, stolen childhoods, teen pregnancy, single motherhood, paltry or aborted educations, limited options. This pile up of delinquencies litters their personal landscape, all but obliterating their view of a bright and promising future. It’s out there, just over the horizon, but to reach it, they first have to navigate a rocky and rutty road, pockmarked by unforeseen consequences and foregone conclusions. Bystanders (like you and me) look at the road ahead of these women and grow weary at the very thought.