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Community Meeting

25 July 2011

19 July

There’s been an unconscious smile lingering around my mouth all night. It fades as I remember the things I need to deal with–a draft of my Fulbright proposal, faculty endorsements for said Fulbright, application to UEI internship, speeding ticket payment–but I think it’s there because I got to be a person tonight. I stayed after work to conduct surveys at a public meeting held at the Club, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Department. The meeting was supposedly about solid waste disposal, but I think most people showed up for the free barbecue and door prizes. Community engagement seems to look a lot like material enticement.

So I talked with a few people about taking the survey–and they were frustrating conversations, though I laughed and smiled. I asked a young man how old he was, to find out if he was eligible to take the survey, and he wouldn’t answer that directly. I began explaining the survey, and he asked if it was the same thing they were doing at the clinic (we had a table set up there the past four days). I say yes, then ask if he’d taken the survey at the clinic, and he says no. I continue explaining, and he interrupts me to criticize the process, saying it was boring, “a real dumb idea”. I try to ask follow-up questions: he says, “everyone knows what’s wrong, and it’s not those things [the health and education resources I mentioned in explaining the survey]. You should ask about water, and other things–it’s not going to change.” After a few minutes of this, he says, “well I saw those people by the store–is this the same thing?” Turns out he already took the survey at our table outside the grocery store. I gasp and throw up my hands in laughing exasperation–why didn’t he say so? I had been sitting with him at that table for five minutes, gesturing at the physical survey itself, which he should have recognized if he had already taken one and seen our table the the clinic. Granted, I never asked him directly if he had taken the survey at the store, but just like fifth-grade science students don’t think they need to tell someone how to apply peanut butter to one side of a slice of bread, I didn’t think I needed to ask every possible question of a seemingly lucid man about my age.

A few minutes after I laugh and scoff this guy away, he ends up right behind me in line to get food. “Hey white girl,” he says, “with the questions–you can ask me questions now”. I tried to explain why we were collecting surveys in addition to recording the facts that “everyone knows”. He started to rant, saying we  should “ask people real questions”. I ask what a real question would be. He says, gesturing before and behind us in line, “ask her how she pays her bills. Ask him how he feeds his children. Ask how many people around here is going without food, how many children are failing school, how many people ain’t got shelter.”

The young man’s comments were interesting, and it was good to be reminded of all the different kinds of knowledge that exist. The federal government likes numbers, wants a “segmentation analysis” of our community, which sounds to me like a strategy for marketing new electronics, but there’s also the things that people just know about their community, a sense they have about how people move and live and interact. I understand the importance of both types of knowledge, and hope both are represented in our grant application. But what frustrated me wasn’t the content of this stranger’s conversation; it was the pacing. He wouldn’t pause to let me ask questions, didn’t present information in a concise and logical fashion. I tried to tease logical threads out of his string of comments, but he wouldn’t respond to my questions directly.

I know, not everyone speaks the way my Chicago boys do.

Our house in town.


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