by Latoya Peterson
“Can anyone help? Anyone?”
Last Thursday, standing underneath the hot noon day sun, I yelled out to the large crowd waiting in line for the monthly food aid provided by the mayor’s office. The crowd stretched for blocks, and my team and I set out with bottled water, candy, and bags full of surveys. We had hoped to harness the 200+ person food line for the Public Media Corps survey of the digital environment in DC. The crowd was composed of people who are generally overlooked when talking about online innovation – many of the people there were low-income, most speak Spanish as a primary language, and many did not have internet access at home.
Everyone was willing to help with the survey, particularly honing in on key words like “free,” “courses,” “training,” “jobs,” and “media.” But we soon realized we had a much bigger hurdle to jump – between the four of us, there was only one fluent Spanish speaker (as well as one “fluent in Spanglish”), and our survey was not designed for people with low literacy rates. In English, administering the survey was difficult enough – as one of the fellows surveying Ward 8 noted, what took fully literate people about 5 minutes to blow through took about 20 for those with lower rates of reading comprehension. In Spanish, with the difficulties translating technical terms and low levels of Spanish fluency among the team, that task was damn near impossible.
A sweet-faced tween girl volunteered to help translate, freeing up the other fellows to try to piece together the survey. I asked the girl the questions, she shouted back to her parents, and other people on the line chimed in when they could to help translate. In the end, we had about fifteen people all collaborating with bits of English and snatches of Spanish to get the questions answered. But it still wasn’t enough to capture as many people as were moving through the food line. Ultimately, we left frustrated – out of more than 200 people, we only got 30 surveys answered between us. Those surveys were illuminating, and spoke to the needs of having a variety of community access points and more Spanish language programming, but it also spoke to a gnawing fear that had been growing in all of us tasked with working in ward one – can we really capture the essence of the community in Columbia Heights – Shaw – Mount Pleasant – U Street – Adams Morgan from our tiny, language-limited viewpoints?
We have a reason to be concerned. The Washington DC council’s official website states:
Ward One is diversity – From the majestic Victorians of upper Columbia Heights, to Adams Morgan’s renowned entertainment district, to Howard University, historic U Street and LeDroit Park, the ward is home to some extraordinary places—and some extraordinary people. The neighborhoods of Ward One have a familiar ring to many people – LeDroit Park, U Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Shaw, Park View, and Pleasant Plains.
Ward One is the smallest, most densely populated ward in the District of Columbia. It’s also the only ward where you’ll find no population group with a majority. Thousands of African Americans, whites, Latinos, Vietnamese, Ethiopians and others make their home here. In just one of our ZIP codes, 20009, 136 countries are represented. The Brookings Institution says that’s the most diverse ZIP code in the entire region. And more than 40% of the public school students in Ward One do not speak English as their primary language. Indeed, according to an Urban Institute study in 2003, DC’s most diverse neighborhoods are within Ward One.
This diversity brings a lot of amazing things to the neighborhood, but poses a particular challenge to inclusion – namely, how can we meet the needs of so many different people, particularly when the needs are so great?
That question weighed heavily on my mind into the weekend, which was enough to push out all the noise about the coming events. Thinking about Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally invading Washington, DC made me feel a bit ill. Luckily, it was easily avoided, especially since I live near the ever-so-dangerous yellow/green line. In the interest of my own sanity, I chose to stay close to home.
Friday night, after another day of survey gathering and site visits, I headed over to the 9:30 club for DJ Dredd’s dance party to celebrate Michael Jackson’s birthday. As we swayed with the crowd rocking along to Michael’s (and Janet’s!) greatest hits, an observation kept pushing to the forefront of my mind, one I had wanted to write about last year when he passed. While much was written about the racial politics of Michael Jackson, particularly in reference to his skin color/plastic surgeries, there was little discussion of the most striking part of Michael’s racial politics: the worlds he created in his music videos. Most folks are familiar with two of his most political hits, “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”
But what always stood out to me was the populations of Michael’s created worlds – which were overwhelmingly multicultural, featuring a lot of different types of people all rolling with the King of Pop. Continue reading