Yesterday morning, I went running with my friend Derek to the Washington Monument. Even though I was a little slow for him, it was fun to talk and get to know him more. Derek attends Houghton College in New York, but he spent last semester studying abroad in Spain; he is also a member of my service learning group at Fishing School – probably the member that the kids love the most. That was certainly evident when we headed back to the elementary school yesterday afternoon for our second day of service learning. Luckily, it was a much better experience overall, aided by the fact that we knew what to expect this time. It’s amazing how much it helps to have the right perspective!
That’s key, I think, to understanding this city: Perspective. When we arrived, the program directors told us that Washington D.C. is really two cities in one – federal Washington, and the District of Columbia that exists beyond the center of power that is the Capitol. This intrigued me: How can it be possible that that one of the most powerful cities in the world is so split along so many different lines (and not just political ones)?
Living on Capitol Hill, I run to the Capitol Building each morning, spoiled by its majesty in the morning sun; this building is where the policy work of the nation happens (in theory). Then, I see the monuments, and I am struck by how much history of American power they represent. Biking around the National Mall last night (more about that later!), I was amazed by the sheer grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s brilliant, really. It made me think about a) how privileged I am to live at this point in time, when it is possible to look back and reflect (at stone monuments erected to honors our great leaders, no less) on America’s rise to power, and b) to be here in this city, where there is more history than I can possibly absorb in a semester.
Of course, Washington is more than monuments, and I have seen that side, too. Our apartments – located 8 blocks from the Capitol – are firmly planted in a middle class neighborhood. But walk a few blocks east and things change. There are many poorer households, ones not as meticulously maintained as those you’d see if you headed toward the capitol. D.C. is caught in a cycle of gentrification, which is a big word to describe the way wealthier people take over certain neighborhoods, acquiring property, and raise the standard of living…which simultaneously decreases accessibility to the poor. The process of gentrification takes place at many different levels, but it is evident in economic developments in the more suburban neighborhoods of D.C. It makes sense – people want to live in areas with more services available, better schools and less crime – but those things can raise the cost of living so much that they push others out of the area.
Knowing that makes me evaluate my experience at The Fishing School a little differently. How many of these children have parents that are struggling financially? What kind of sacrifices do these families make when it comes to living in this area, so close to the Capitol? More than anything, though, I wonder if that even makes a difference in these kids’ everyday lives.
Terry told us on our first night here that the unofficial motto of WJC has, over time, become, “Everyone in this town has more stories than you do.” When I board the bus and hear the conversations around me, I know that’s true. Often, I am the only white person on the bus, and I just want to listen to the voices that surround me; I want to hear their stories. How did you get here? Tell me about your life. How can we have come from such radically different pasts and yet still be riding this same bus?
As I get to know this city (excuse me, these cities – plural!) better throughout the semester, I want to be aware of multiple forces at work. What activities/services do I participate in that force others out? What are the stories here that I am not hearing as well as I should? That’s an interesting perspective. And, like I said, perspectives are key.