“You’d better be prepared to be pale, if you’re going to go to Arkansas

Walking down the street one sunny afternoon, my housemate and I were discussing the children’s antics that day at work, while trying to avoid passing out from still being in our jeans from work in the 100+ degree heat. It was still amazing to me, that summers are survivable without a pool or a beach. As a child, I spent all of my free time at the pool. Like many other lighter-haired children, this also meant that by July, it was time for my mother to invest in the Paul Mitchell shampoo–you know the one I am talking about, white bottle with black lettering, it was a slightly greenish looking clear shampoo, and the smell will forever remind me of swimming in the Forest Lakes Pool in Charlottesville. Now that I am older, I understand that the shampoo was simply a clarifier to try and reduce the green-ish tint of summer: too much time in the sun (making my hair blonder) and too many hours in the pool (making my hair greener).

I suppose I never really thought about it, but not everyone spends their summer as I did. Not everyone goes to the pool in the summer, not everyone goes to the beach, not everyone spends all day in the sun, swimming, playing pool basketball, trying to flip off the boards (most attempts resulting in accidental back flops and leaving me wondering why I ever tried in the first place!) and of course, liberally and often applying sunscreen to their very sensitive Irish skin (and pulling off the lobster look when I didn’t and resorting to using a half a bottle of chilled green aloe vera gel before I could think about moving!) All kidding and jokes aside, nothing like this ever occurred to me until I arrived in Marvell. To me, summer and long days at the pool, or at least hours squeezed in around summer jobs and training, went hand in hand.

Arriving in Marvell, I learned not only was this not the norm, it was essentially an impossibility. Remember when I promised that post about the pools? Well, entirely too many months later, here is it. Better late than never, they say, so thanks for being patient!

Marvell has one pool. It is small, with a diving board, some chairs, and happens to be situated off a gravel-ish road, in the middle of a row of houses, and with nothing but field and a clear view of the “highway” running through the town to the rear. The first week in Marvell, while exploring town after work, I never understood why the pool was deserted. There were at most, 5 kids there at any give time. Now of course I asked some of the interns we were working with why the pool was not more popular, in an area of the country that to me, was painfully hot already (and it was only just past Memorial Day!).  I approached this subject and the possibility of swimming there, while driving a co-worker from Marvell home from work one day, with two other Shepherd interns in the car as well. His answer confused me at first, as he explained, the right side of the car could certainly go and ask about a guest pass of some sort for our time here, but the left side would simply be wasting their time. I suppose my facial expression displayed my utter confusion, because he further clarified, the pool was not black friendly and he has used the metaphor of our current seats in the car to try and explain that.

It seemed to me like something from the Civil Rights era, when, thinking back to history textbook chapters, you could easily imagine a sign saying “Marvell pool-Whites Only.” We’ve all seen these as children in history classes, whether referring to water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants or something else equally ridiculous. Yet, since it is the year 2010, this explanation, for lack of better or more proper wording, blew my mind. How was this possible? It couldn’t possibly be legal, and yet, the more people I spoke too, the more seemed to confirm it. There was even a picture hanging in my work place, from a photo-project children had done the summer before, of a plastic pool from Walmart with a caption saying “The Black Pool.”

My housemates and I spent a lot of time discussing this, particularly the one gentleman who is currently attending Law School, and we all agreed legally, this could not be correct. However, we’d learned early on that in Marvell,  legality isn’t all that can create this impression and divide of races. While the discussion of only whites being allowed, may not have been accurate, “whites are more welcome than others” certainly would have been. The pool is privately owned, run as a sort of country club that sells memberships. The high cost of dues completely dissolved any chance that most families could join the pool, including black families. Between white and black households in Marvell, white households had income levels approximately 2 times, or 49% higher, than black or African American households in 2008. (http://www.city-data.com/income/income-Marvell-Arkansas.html) More interesting than the income differences leading to a nearly pure white membership, was that there were some black families who owned pool memberships, but never used them. These families were hard working (not that others are not) and had chosen to buy a pool membership, but then rarely, if ever, did they dip a toe in the water, let alone cannonball off the diving board.

To me, this made me realize that is was never about income, but that there was a stigma, an un-stated agreement, that this was a white establishment and, even those who tried to challenge this, or make a point, could not do so successfully. Perhaps because they were afraid of what other members might say or do, or afraid their friends and neighbors may think they were turning against the rest of the black community. Either way, the more I think about this, and about Marvell, (as I have done a lot of in the past few months, hoping to better digest everything I experienced to say what I really want to say) I realize how little progress is apparent in Marvell. Yes, I know progress has been made since the Civil Rights Era, and no, I am not trying to disparage Marvell, or the attempts to better the race relations that I know have and continue to occur. I just realize, that compared to the places I am from, and every place I have ever lived and visited (a lot considering my dad is military), Marvell is decades behind.   It is a town that will need a lot of workto try to catch up to modern day race relations and keep their head above the water because I don’t believe the current attempts to doggy paddle will work for much longer.

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You’d better love the Blues if you’re going to go to Arkansas…

(6/6/2010)

We had a great day in Clarksdale, Mississippi yesterday.  We started the day at the Delta Blues Museum and they let us in for only a dollar when we explained we were unpaid interns volunteering in the area.  (Due to our $11/day budget, the $5 entrance fee was not feasible!) It was very kind of them and the museum really gave me more insight to the music that has helped shape the culture and communities in the Delta region.  We also went to the Clarksdale Jubilee festival and spent a few hours bonding with each other and acting like kids at the carnival.  I love any ride that spins, and the faster the better!  I must admit though, on one ride, I truly felt my life flash before my eyes–it was utterly terrifying!

The best part of the day by far was Morgan Freeman’s Blues Club, called Ground Zero Blues Club.  We ate dinner there (thankfully, it was all very affordable!) and stayed to listen for a few hours to the live blues band.  They were fabulous and we danced and wrote with sharpies all over the walls and tables and anything else available. (this was allowed and encouraged, just so you know!)  “Shepherd Alliance” and  “Real World Arkansas: Shepherd Edition” are now scrawled in various places around the club!  (Along with of course, some Class of 2013 W&L love and some ADPi pride!)

The downer of the night came a few minutes after we got home when someone tried to get a view into my and Lauren’s bedroom in the girls house.   I hope the man’s name was George because he certainly was curious, he even wheeled a trash can about 150 feet to stand on and peek in the windows.  Me and Lauren laying in our beds watching tv would provide anyone a thrill so it’s certainly understandable!  The man was in the process of pulling back the screen in an attempt to perhaps open the window itself when one of my housemates, Ari, was coming back from showering next door! (Thanks to the lack of hot water in our house!) The man got spooked when he saw her and ran away and she immediately put her Spelman whistle to use and the boys came to make sure we were safe.  They were great and played protective, big brother making sure we were okay.  After we talked to the police, we moved our mattresses back over to the duplex and the 7 of us began another slumber party!

Today, we got up and went to Fountain Head Baptist church just around the corner from us.  The music was wonderful and it was so different from the rigidity in schedule at my own Catholic church.  I was so glad to have the opportunity to attend and the congregation was more than welcoming.  They asked us to please come again and we are all looking forward to attending other churches in the area as well!

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You’d better be open minded if you’re going to go to Arkansas

6/5/2010

NOTE: The following section discusses race, which can be a very sensitive subject.  I tried to write as candidly and honestly as possible to best portray my thoughts and reactions to the situations I was in. I feel that without the brutal honesty, there is no point in writing anything at all, as what is to be gained? I ask you to please read carefully and acknowledge the effort I put into trying to say what I wanted to say as clearly as possible. I also ask you not to get caught up in skepticism, as all of what I have written is based on either my personal observations or what I was told by members of the community. If you suspend your disbelief, I think you will find you have similar reactions of surprise, no matter your awareness, education level or travels of this country.  I know I was caught off guard.  I hope you enjoy!

Before leaving for Arkansas, the nine of us were informed of the racial dynamic of the town we would be living in.  Given the location in the Delta, for many, race is still a very delicate issue.  While this can be true in any region of the country, it is particularly true in the Delta where slavery, oppression and so many civil rights events occurred.  We were told to be prepared for curious looks when the nine of us, a bi-racial group, were out in the town.  While I took heed to the warnings, what I have been met with I never could have foreseen.

I like to think of myself as a very aware individual; I know that racism is still alive and thriving in our country.  I also know, for many people, that race and racial dynamics are very sensitive issues.  The more time I spend in Marvell, however,  the more I start to believe what one local told us when we first arrived about racial dynamics: “You will feel like you are 30 years ago.”

When schools began desegregation in Marvell many decades ago, a new private school opened up and many white students who could afford the tuition transferred schools.  This division is still somewhat apparent in the schools and very apparent in the town.

More drastic, visible and shocking is the layout of the town.  While there are some disagreements about whether the physical divide of the town is racial or economic, it is clear race holds the winning card.  On one side of the four lane highway lies the “rich white” side of town.  While there are some exceptions to this, I was told that most of the people who live on this side of the highway truly are better off economically than those on the other.  The overwhelming majority are also white; many children who attend Marvell Academy, the private school, live on this side of the highway.

When crossing the four lane highway, you come upon the houses where the lower-income whites live.  Thus, the claim that the divide in housing is economic.  While this may be accurate, one more street crossing, at Midway and E Main, brings you to the black side of town.  When it comes to the streets at E Main and beyond, there is no doubt that the divide is racial.

Perhaps now you are beginning to understand why the nine Marvell interns, self-dubbed the “Marvell Nine” (I might add with no disrespect to the Little Rock nine, simply that our numbers coincided and we were in the same state!) have been making somewhat of an impression around town.  I have begun to ask questions of those around me, mainly the local interns who were my age and worked at the center, as well as some of the older adults at the center.  I have discovered that the street two of our houses were located on, is the main street of the black side of town.  As one intern described to me, if you “get your car detailed, get new rims, get a new boo, have a baby, get a puppy, or get a haircut”, this is the street on which you could best show it off and be seen.

For us, living on this street, also means it is the place to see.  We have taken advantage of the attention drawn to the nine of us to soak up as much about Marvell as we can.  (Being an additional nine people in a town of a mere 1,395, we are glad we have thus far  avoided the census as we joke that we as a group constitute population inflation!)  We talk to neighbors and passersby, boys headed to play basketball at the court a block down, and girls headed down to watch.  Most people are curious about why we have chosen to come to Marvell, of all places, when they realize we were all from different states.  All, however, ask what has brought the nine of us together.  While we don’t know much, we know that the nine of us living together and on this street is not the norm.

At this point, however, I must stop and explain my reactions.  To put it mildly, Marvell has shocked me.  I like to think I am, at least beginning to be, well educated.  I was not raised with blinders on and have gone to military and public schools with children of all races and of income levels.  I do not think of poverty as a “third world” problem, or of racial issues as being issues only those before us in history faced.  I am  aware that in many places, there are still deep-rooted racial issues.  Despite all of this, Marvell, Arkansas has taken me by surprise.  Black and white go to different churches, live in different areas, have different community centers, do not attend the same pools (a whole nother issue to be discussed in a later post–stick around!) yet have one commonality. They, for the most part, keep to their own race.

Of course, as with any situation, there are exceptions, and I do not mean to make Marvell out to be a town full of raging racists.  I don’t feel uncomfortable on any one side of town or another; I don’t feel threatened nor unwelcome. I do, however,  feel the curiosity in the eyes of those who look upon the Marvell Nine as a group.  The more time I spend in Marvell and the more questions I ask, the more I realize that the racial divide in this town is habitual.  Many interns my age tell me they can not remember a time when things weren’t how they are.  Nor for that matter could any of their elders.  Marvell has become a community that has accepted the racial divide in their town as the way it is.  From the outsider’s perspective, it is not malicious, simply an acknowledgement that things are the way they are.  The two racial communities live separate lives while co-inhabiting the same, very small, town.

I am often asked by people I meet while walking to the post office or unloading groceries from the car, if black and white “mix” in Virginia.  In attempts to keep conversation light and not disparage Marvell, I always reply “a bit more than here” with a laugh.  Most of the time the people with whom I am talking laugh and say this is consistent with their assumptions.  Some, however, get questioning and far-off looks in their eyes, perhaps wondering  if they could ever imagine Marvell that way.  Only time will tell.

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You’d better be ready to work 9-5 if you’re going to go to Arkansas!

6/1/10

I was very nervous on the drive to work this morning with Lauren and Alyshia and did not know what to expect.  The morning had been a whirlwind of activity with everyone getting ready, getting dressed, packing lunches and piling into cars.  Thankfully no one overslept and we all said our goodbyes and drove off! I felt like the 6 of us in the house were a family and felt very grown up telling everyone to have a good day at work!

When the three of us got to the center, we found out it was not only the 3 of us reporting that day, but also about 12 other college age students as well.  We were not sure who they were or what their role was but we soon found out.  An icebreaker allowed us to meet everyone when each person was introduced to the group by the person who they had been paired with.  Many introductions were quite humorous and broke the  ice in the room. Hence the term “icebreaker,” I suppose. (They really work even though everyone always dreads them when they see them on the agenda—I know I do!)   The other interns are all kids who are in college or have graduated and will be teaching the children in the Freedom School.

After introductions,  we did CPR and First Aid training and did some paperwork for the state of Arkansas.  In accordance with a state regulation, we also had to drive to Helena to get TB skin tests and one of the Marvell interns, offered to go with us to show us where to go even though he did not need a test himself.  He took us under his wing and when we got back to Marvell and after work showed us where the library, post office, basketball court and police office were.  Perhaps most importantly, he showed us where the only restaurant in town is.  Should come in handy for an evening after a loooong day at work when nobody feels like cooking!

We really enjoyed being able to ask him questions about the life of kids in Marvell, about the center and Freedom School, and about the neighborhood.  He even came by later on his way to the basketball court to meet the other interns who are working in Helena.  Outside of work, it does not seem much has gotten done today:  we still need to move into the other house when it is ready, get internet, get a trash can and get a mailing address.  Hopefully we will get all this worked out by the end of the week! I do think that today, especially our time with fellow intern at the center, helped us to get a snap shot into the community of Marvell.  I am excited to work at the center because in a town where there is, and I quote him, “nothing at all to do,” programs like Freedom School keep kids out of trouble with gangs and drugs or off the couch!  Both major positives!  I think tomorrow will bring more training and preparation for the kids when they come in mid June.

As we drove home tonight, the three of us wondered what everyone else’s first day had been like.  We all settled in, cooking dinner and chatting about what everything was like, the job, the people, the coworkers, even the commute.  All in all, I think everyone learned a lot today, and everyone seems content! Day one was a success!

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You’d better love your country if you’re going to go to Arkansas!

(5/31/2010)

This morning we headed to the Marvell fair grounds to meet the director of the community center and attend the Memorial Day events.  We were the only people there, besides the National Guard color guard members who were younger than 40.  The event was a celebration of the local veterans in the town and all of them attended with their wives and some with their grown children.  The ceremony was very special and unlike event I had ever been to, outside of the military events I have attended because of my father.  Being a military child, patriotism and support for troops and veterans has always been of great importance to me.  I always do anything and everything I can to try and give our soldiers the appreciation they so rightly deserve.  I was blown away by the military support in a community this small.  It was much more than anything that Charlottesville, a city many many times its size, has ever had on Memorial Day.  The mayor of the town spoke, as well as the county judge, chief of police and a 1-star general, who is the head of the Air National Guard in Arkansas.

The entire audience was moved when the oldest attending vets, ages 94 & 95 were honored and asked to come to the front and accept flags.  These gentleman were given a standing ovation and a few tears of pride from those around them.  There were many standing ovations throughout the ceremony for the veterans as well as a moment of silence and prayers for those active duty members serving today.  My favorite part was when the song of each of the branches of the military played and for each song,  Vets of that branch stood while the audience applauded.  Being a girl who knew all the words to “The Army Song” at age 6, I always love when I hear it and I clapped for the soldiers and sang to myself!

After the ceremony there was a cook out and some younger people from the town, including a girl scout troop came to help and eat.  We got to meet a few people as the director of the center paraded us around introducing us.  We met the mayor, county judge, chief of police, founder of the community center and several others.  I think this was a great way for us to be introduced to the town.  I wish that there would have been some more people our age around so we could meet them, but I am hoping that will happen when we report to work tomorrow! I cannot believe that all the waiting since I found out I was accepted for an internship in February is over! I cannot wait to see what work brings!

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You’d better be ready to get close if you’re going to go to Arkansas

5/30/2010

The Shepherd Buick treated us well on the journey down though and we arrived in Arkansas after 10 hours with no issues.  While looking for the street we were supposed to turn off the highway on, we happened to completely miss Marvell!.  We drove clear through the town without ever seeing a “Midway Street,”  then, suddenly, we were passing nothing but rice and corn fields again.  After a casual U-Turn in the middle of the two-lane highway (oops!) we were heading back the way we came.  We met the other Shepherd interns along with the director of the center and they showed us to our living arrangements for the next 8 weeks.  The housing was intended to provide affordable and safe housing to low-income families in the town.  The first apartment we looked at was very dark due to the wood panelling covering most of the walls. The place was in no way modern and not exactly what I would refer to as “clean” either.   There was a small living room area, a kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms.  There was only one bed, but  we already knew some of us would be sleeping on air mattresses.  I must say, however,  I was shocked that there was nothing else in the apartments.  There were a few folding metal chairs and a small table, but no dressers, no bookshelves, and no sofas of any kind.  I was not expecting fully furnished places, but was not expecting to not have a single dresser either.  I am not looking forward to living out of suitcases for 2 solid months, as I must admit I am a bit OCD when it comes to organization and cleanliness and I like everything in its place.  The upside is, it now appears that everything will be in its place and I won’t have to worry about it messes because there are only two places anything could be: the blue rolling suitcase, or the maroon duffle bag!  At least I can’t lose anything between the two!

Upon further investigation by the boys who lived in the first apartment we were all in, we later were informed there was also no shower head.  It is a little difficult to get clean without one!  However, we all knew already that Patrick and his handiness could solve that problem!

Next, we all went around the block to the duplex where a few more of us would live.  We received the news that a pipe had burst in the house for 5 two doors over and flooded the house.  We did not have to determine who would live in the duplex and who in the house as we were having one big sleepover! So leaving the two boys behind at the apartment around the block, the seven of us began moving our things into the 2 bedroom duplex.  Thankfully there was a spacious front room and the bedrooms were also large.  However, with 7 people and 8 weeks worth of things, it was still, unavoidably, a bit crowded.  This duplex was much nicer than the unit we had previously seen.  It had a front yard and side yard and its own driveway.  It also had central air (I think a rarity in this area) as opposed to window units and the entire apartment was very light and airy.  We happily unloaded all of our things, placing suitcases everywhere, blowing up air mattresses (at times failing to blow up air mattresses) and, often, trying not to trip over each other and all the luggage as we scurried like house mice in and out.  We then packed back into cars, and honestly the last thing I wanted was to drive any more.  Yet, needing groceries and many household items, to Walmart we went!  As we got back home that night, pleasantly exhausted, we contemplated what to do with ourselves.  Most of the obvious options were not feasible.  With no tv and no internet, 7 children of this high-tech generation were forced to simply interact with each other.  We played rounds of cards with the seven of us on the living room floor and even broke out those brand new utensils from Walmart for an intense Spoons game.  We realized as we were playing that we were getting to know each other better and had internet or tv been options, we would not have been forced to converse as much as we were.

We are headed to a community event for Memorial Day tomorrow so it will be a great opportunity to learn some more about the town and see the dynamics of the community before we all head to work on Tuesday.  Then, looking forward to the celebration in the morning, we all starting climbing into our beds (or for some, crawling onto air mattresses) and slept the night away!

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You’d better pack lightly if you’re going to go to Arkansas

5/28/2010

I don’t know if you have ever tried to pack everything you need to live for 8 weeks, including sheets, blankets, toiletries, and towels, into two suitcases. Before last night, I know I hadn’t! It is a quite difficult.  I learned this last night as I tried to simultaneously unpack from my trip to Chicago, get things I brought home from college somewhat organized and pack for Marvell, Arkansas.  I am headed to Arkansas for 8 weeks to work for a community development center and be a co-project director for their CDF Freedom School.   Freedom school is an after-school and summer literacy program to help African American children fall in love with reading, have positive attitudes towards learning and learn more about their culture and heritage.  My internship is through the Shepherd Program for Poverty & Human Capability at Washington and Lee.  I am very excited about my placement;  I know it will simultaneously compliment my love for kids, my Econ major and my minor in poverty and human capability.   I will be in a very poor area in the Delta and I have heard that the poverty immersion aspect of the internship, is one of the most meaningful parts of the internship.  I am really excited about going, but since I have known my placement since late February, I am ready to finally be there and get started! I am nervous about being 14 hours from home as I am very close to my parents, but I know it will be a great experience for me.  As of now, I am off to the carpool to head to the opening conference at Berea College in Kentucky!

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