I am winding up my undergraduate career at University of Wisconsin-Madison this month. I feel prepared to enter the working world with a degree in journalism and a certificate in African studies. For the time being I will stay in Madison and work at a local restaurant while doing my own work on the side, definitely continuing my pursuit of reporting and Yoruba speaking. I took a hiatus from blogging this past semester to focus on school but with graduation near, I am jumping back on the blogging horse with some pretty exciting new content. I encourage you to read my blog, North of Lagos. Thanks for reading! Happy December
I just got back from touring The Road Home’s center in Madison and feel like a more enriched, connected member of this city. The Road Home is a organization that works with homeless families to find them affordable housing and improve their situation. They operate on the ideals of empowering people to live on their own by creating a welcoming, accepting atmosphere where there is no “us and them” distinction.
I was one of three people taking the hour-long tour of the center on E. Olin Avenue. Rachel Krinsky, the executive director and Shannon Hayes, the volunteer services coordinator, led the tour through the labyrinth of rooms and hallways that connect staff offices to a day room–where families can relax and watch tv–a play room for children and a kitchen with laundry machines attached. For such a modest office center, The Road Home has a lot to show for the impact its services have made on homeless families in Madison and its surrounding areas.
One way The Road Home is helping families in this situation is by providing transportation for homeless kids to and from school. My individual narrative piece is taking the direction of homelessness and education and how the Madison Metropolitan School District deals with homeless students in school, so services The Road Home provides are pertinent for me.
According to Hayes, 528 MMSD students are currently homeless and the average age of a homeless person The Road Home serves is nine years old. One of the most shocking things I learned is that most of the homeless children in Madison schools are completely anonymous, meaning their teachers and peers don’t know they are homeless. Only a social worker knows and keeps that information confidential. Homeless students and non-homeless students receive the same treatment for the most part. The visible difference is homeless students are dropped off at school together in the van that The Road Home operates daily to take kids to school.
This reporting project has helped me move beyond the UW-Madison bubble and see Madison not just as a 4-year playground, but as a real city with real problems.
Recently, I spent time in Peace Park interviewing people for the Poverty team’s issue story. I first talked to the guy shaking a cup with a handful of coins standing at the light post. When I asked his name, he said, “people call me Backpack Jeff.” Backpack Jeff is a middle-aged black man who, like the name implies wears a big backpack, and dark sunglasses. After about 10 minutes chatting with Jeff about he got to Madison and ended up on the streets, Jeff’s friend who calls himself Richie Rich joined the conversation.
I experienced a few difficult situations while talking with these two drunken homeless men, (I asked them if they were drunk and they both said yes) which raised ethical questions for me as a reporter.
While we are on the topic of finding places on the street to sleep, Rich asks me if he can come over to sleep at my apartment. In my head, my answer is clear, but how do I say no without seeming insensitive? He is persistent. I say no and make up a lame reason to cover up the truth. I do care about helping Rich but honestly I am not willing to host a homeless man in my apartment. Can I talk the talk and not walk the walk? I feel very confused on how I should conduct myself in this situation when Rich and Jeff are trying to persuade me to help them. Can I interview Jeff and Rich about struggling everyday from being homeless and just walk away with my audio clips? How do I maintain my composure as a journalist when they are begging me to buy them food and let them come clean up at my house? Matt Lojkovic and I ended up buying Jeff and Rich two foot-long Subway sandwiches because they said they were hungry. I felt like I could not just walk away after talking with them for 30 minutes and say, “Thanks, See you around!” I left Peace Park that day with good audio clips, a greater awareness about homeless life and a lot of questions about reporting on sensitive topics like homelessness and poverty.
Sixty-four percent of the students at Hawthorne are eligible for the subsidized lunch program, which means 64 percent of students there come from families that live at or below the poverty line. The distribution of Asian, Black, Hispanic and White children is about equal this year. In the classroom there is no divide, all of the children play together regardless of race. While poverty is a problem here, teachers work hard to make all students feel equal. They teach a curriculum that includes lessons on history and culture from all of the races represented in their classrooms. Students here are learning invaluable lessons about tolerance and growing up in a multicultural world that were almost completely void from my elementary school experience in a predominantly white school. The diversity of races at Hawthorne teaches the students lessons that no book or art project can convey.
If more elementary schools in the United States looked like Hawthorne, I think the world would be a more peaceful, tolerant place. Kids would grow up with peers with all different skin tones. They would be able to break down racial stereotypes and barriers before mainstream media could influence their minds. Parents should send their kids to elementary schools with kids who are all different. As much as parents think other kids who look different will intimidate their kids, the kids can handle it and will be better for it in the future.
I speak Yoruba, a Nigerian language spoken by the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria. Often when I meet a black person, a question comes to my head: is this person Nigerian or maybe even, Yoruba? I’m not obsessed with trying to meet every black person who walks by me. Nationality is just a factor that is more consciously on my mind now. I had a really interesting experience with this when I was at O’Hare airport en route to my spring break destination this week.
In my security line I noticed a black man who looked old enough to be my dad and a younger boy who looked like his teenage son. That curiously instantly went off, hm, I wonder if they might be Nigerian? I watched the TSA agent in my line robotically check in the IDs and boarding passes of two middle aged white men in less than 15 seconds before it was this father and son’s turn. Sure enough, the father handed the TSA agent two green booklet–Nigerian passports. I immediately became interested in these two people. I had ample time to observe them because the TSA agent took much longer to check their passports: almost a minute.
I understand airport security is tighter for Nigerians because of the incident with the “Christmas Day bomber,” as the media refers to the Nigerian man who carried a bomb in his underwear onto a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas. It was a big story. Newsrooms, especially broadcast news programs covered it into the ground. I’m not one to say whether it was right or wrong to cover the story as extensively as news media did, or whether its right or wrong that Nigerians now endure a longer, more invasive security check at airports all across the country. Just because one Nigerian man out of millions tried to blow up a plane, doesn’t mean all Nigerians are terrorists. The exact same reasoning applies to Iranians, Afghanis and Iraqis. What is the most ethical method of airport security that achieves maximum protection from people carrying bombs or other explosives? I’m unsure.
The thing I am sure about is how uncomfortable I felt when I saw the Nigerians in the little see-through partition in the middle of the retrieval area being frisked from head to toe. I sat there tying my shoes as the man looked out stoically. His stare was solid yet peaceful. There was no anger in his stare. I kept glancing back at them as I gathered my things, watching the teenage boy just stand there, waiting his turn while the agent finished patting down the dad. Part of me felt sad for them and the status quo of security in this county. They didn’t do anything wrong expect be Nigerian. Part of me felt personally attacked by what they had to go through because I have developed a sense of Nigerian national pride since studying Yoruba for three years and developing strong relationships with my TAs, all of which are from Nigeria. If anything ele, feeling myself becoming more and more sensitive to Nigerian issues is a sign I am ready to spend the next year of my life there, and to me, that’s a good thing.