Friday, November 21, 2014

RMR Vol. 2: More from El Centro de la Raza

A drawn seating chart to help recall names, a check-in pad, and a free-will donation tin.

This is an ongoing series in self and service evaluation. In these posts I utilize analysis questions, reflection approaches, and rubrics that I have gathered over several years of teaching university level Service-Learning courses and apply them to my own service experiences in Seattle, Washington. I am putting my methods under their own microscope. Rubber, Meet Road.


Nobody has a phone.

Ok, I have a phone. And two other people have phones. We are the youngest in the room and stick out like sore thumbs. They accompany their elderly family members to senior lunch and whip out a phone occasionally; one keeps a single earbud in at all times.

The room is not full of longtime friends, but you'd be forgiven for making that assumption based on the hum of voices echoing around the El Centro basement. The majority only knows each other from lunch here. Among other things this leads me to think about how the absence of technology has affected and continues to affect their relationships in this time. Could a room of millennials sit at tables, wait for food, and for an hour each week get to know each other? I assume it would look more like a prayer circle: heads down silently regarding their (de)vices. What I see at El Centro's senior lunch seems to be an increasingly rare tableau in our day and age.

In the conversation on power and privilege, I find myself more acutely aware of how much of both of these I have acquired or was handed at birth, and more often I'm sensitive to the stale backwash that technology leaves in my system, particularly as I approach others. I rarely sit through a meal without using my phone or without several people at the table placing theirs on the table alongside their food. How symbolic. Sustenance adjacent to sustenance. One ingested to give and replenish energy necessary for life, the other an inorganic drain on energy, ejecting us from conversation and presence into the cloud where it's too thick to see faces.

My phone has trained me to multitask. Late last year I discussed with a friend (@whenwherehowe) his New Year's resolution to stem the tendency to follow twitter while reading a book, watch a show while looking up all the actors in IMDB, and other habits of our time. I think this was a discerning approach to deal practically with technological fatigue. It highlights a reality that I hadn't yet appreciated, which is that I am always, forever multitasking when I have the opportunity to receive a text or call while talking or dining or biking with others. I am available to be pulled away from reality into parallel, floating interfaces that are necessarily more pale in comparison to the colors of presence.

I'm trying to remember my early years of college before smart phones came around. I held out for many years, but in September 2012, I ditched my flip phone for the iBrain. It's not true that something died then, but I think it's fair to say something decelerated growth in subsequent months and years. This thanksgiving, we've been pondering placing a phone basket by the front door for our guests and selves. I wonder how that will feel.

To steer this back to the seniors and El Centro, there is truth in what I see around those tables. There is presence, and it must have something to do with both the generational gap and the shrinking gap between life and death for many of them. Who has time for twitter when dementia is setting in and your grandkids have to remind you of their names at check-in? At El Centro, I put my phone away for shame. They don't have time for such nonsense.

The buzzing room holds up a fine microscope to my (de)vice. It's time I looked into it.

This entry grew out of the analysis question, "How are differences of power and privilege visible in your service?" From there, I thought of the power of technology and the inversion of that power dynamic as seen in the folks without it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

RMR Vol. 1: Day 1 at El Centro de la Raza

These are the same words as in the previous post, but I'm copying them again for cohesiveness in my Rubber, Meet Road series of posts.

I found El Centro months before moving here. It was ubiquitous in many a job search given my criteria and clearly a prominent--if not preeminent--center for the Latino community in King County. I got into a volunteer orientation about two weeks after arriving, and since that first meeting became more than convinced that I was going to spend much time there.
The subtitle of the organization is "The Center for People of All Races", which can seem a bit incongruent with the name itself. Nonetheless, I have found this to be true in my one day, four hour shift volunteering with the seniors and homeless meals program. Here are some of the moments that I remember:

A woman of Asian heritage sitting with her friends brought me a piece of bread while I was signing in those arriving for lunch. Her name was Li Bueno. Lunch had not been served yet, so this bread must have been from home. I thanked her.

Lotería is a like a Latin bingo. It's simple and social. The main difference has to do with the "numbers". In lotería, the cards have household objects, fruits, caricatures, musical instruments, or the moon on them. I lead a couple of the rounds. As leader you call out the card that is drawn in Spanish and English. Everybody helps each other hear and find the right spot that was called. There is a bit of banter in between the leader and players, too. So when I called "El Catrín" ("The Gentleman", as Raquel translated it in an earlier round), several of the women called back at me. "Eres tú, Aaron!" ("That's you, Aaron!"). "Nooooo, I don't smoke!" The next card was "La Dama". "This one's me!" They all laughed.

There is more than one concerning card in lotería for the nature of the caricature. Here's the most difficult one.

While El Centro program director Raquel was leading the first round, I was paying close attention to the translations and was already anticipating how she might articulate this particular image. I was thinking to myself whether I would want to play this game at all because of the weight of some of the racial tone-deafness contained in some of these images. Raquel translated it as "The Dancer", which...ok that's a pretty flat way to skirt racism. Is that a dancer? Ok. Yeah, I guess it could be that. It's just not called "The Dancer" or anything close in Spanish.

Lunch is held in a room full of seven circular tables with eight chairs each. After serving everybody, I was given a plate to sit down with. I can't say what the conversations were like in the rest of the groups or what they're like on any other day at El Centro, but this table I sat at was eye-opening. You might not think a Latino man and a black woman have much to talk about, but get on the subject of poverty, equal treatment, and social justice and they're knee deep in commonality--at least that's what I observed at the table. They spoke of their experiences in hospitals, state offices, and other service-oriented environments. The rest of the table gave consenting head nods if not words. She even addressed me as a person who probably doesn't suffer much of what they are discussing. She wasn't wrong, and I actually appreciated her pointing it out. If we are willing to use the words "under-privileged" to describe sectors of the society, why do we balk at calling ourselves "privileged"? What's clear is that class struggle, race, and equality are not #ferguson conversations. They are everywhere. These things were cut short by a hard right turn to Kennedy assassination theories. Made me think about being in my 60s and discussing 9/11 around a table where a kid who's only read about it in history books is rolling his eyes at how damn old we all are.

Here is a statement of intent:

I will blog about these times. There is richness in them. For years, I've been teaching Service-Learning courses in which I instructed students in how to analyze and decode their volunteer experiences to extract meaning from them. I need to do this myself as well if I am planning on not just helping but serving. To serve is to receive as much as you give. Helping happens when one person has power and another does not; service happens within a relationship of equals, where no power or privilege dynamic is in play. It's time I take these ideas and apply them to my own volunteering to see what I can unearth. Rubber, Meet Road.