That was the corny phrase on the t-shirts they were giving to volunteers this morning at Alain Locke Elementary in West Philly. I joined up with a handful of co-workers to spend MLK Day re-painting classrooms. (Some volunteers painted hallway and stairwell murals.)
Apparently the number of volunteers exceeded expectations by over 100. I'd heard on WHYY earlier in the day that volunteer turnout around the city was supposed to be higher than ever before. That's a great thing—unless you are a volunteer standing in a mass of people and you have no idea what to do or where to go. I got there shortly before 9 A.M. A group of youngsters did a chant and applauded each volunteer as they walked in, but provided no direction.
After we milled around a while and I found a couple people I knew—including my boss's boss's boss—we filled out some forms and picked up t-shirts (I declined on the shirt—I already have about 50 t-shirts that I don't wear), and made our way to the gymnasium. There we found the City Year volunteer holding up a sign with the number 6, the group to which we'd been assigned. After a while he took us upstairs, where we introduced ourselves with a mnemonic game that, surprisingly, actually seemed to work. We were shown our assigned classroom, which had already had tarps put down and trim masked. We were handed paintbrushes and rollers, but we didn't have any paint. This was soon rectified, and at around 10:00 A.M. we started painting. With 12 people, it didn't take long. We finished by 11:30. Lunch wasn't scheduled until noon, so our volunteer leader killed some time by telling us a little about City Year and leading us through some City Year routines. They were very corny and sort of juvenile, and he was suddenly apologetic, as if it was only in the face of these outsiders that he saw how ridiculous it all must seem. To their credit, all of the volunteers in the group were good sports and played along.
That only killed 10 minutes, so he then led us through some other games to help us get to know each other better. One of which included the question, "what's your favorite color?" and I almost had a Holy Grail moment when I didn't quite know how to respond. I mean, my pat answer is "International Klein Blue," but that seemed inappropriate given the venue.
That only killed another 10 minutes, so he finally admitted that we'd finished everything they had planned for us for the day, so we were free to wait for lunch or we could go. After 3 hours—90 minutes spent working—we'd fulfilled the promise of MLK Day.
I decided to wander around, since I hadn't seen much of West Philly outside of University City. I walked east on Haverford to Lancaster, and walked down Lancaster a bit when I saw a stencil art poster for LAVA: the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous space. I've been curious about LAVA for a while now, so I turned around and walked west to find it.
Some of the buildings on Lancaster Ave are really interesting, but Lancaster between 39th and 41st is beat. There were a lot of people out on the street, but a fair number of them didn't look like they were up to much good. I heard a middle-aged man telling a friend about how he'd "go for the knees, that's the way to stop 'em." I heard an 11-year-old girl cuss out her 10-year-old brother: "Why you always fucking getting shit on you fucking jacket? It's because you always fucking sliding around on shit. Why you gotta fucking do that?" Etc. Lots of broken windows around—on the nicer blocks they boarded them up—lots of cop cars and people arguing.
I finally found LAVA, which was a hole-in-the-wall and looked like a dump. I don't know what I expected, but I guess I expected it to be a vibrant community focal point. Instead, some anarchist punk (I'm projecting) with a black lab puppy came out while I was staring at the door. (Other than a man who looked like your stereotypical crazy Vietnam vet, the anarchist punk was the only white person I saw until I got to around 36th.) He looked at me with obvious disgust and walked on.
Around 37th or 36th or so, there was suddenly a row of art galleries, and then I abruptly found myself around Drexel. I wandered down Powelton past a row of impressive fraternity and sorority houses. And then I wandered back home through Center City, which struck me as far more upscale than it usually does. There was no transition between poor & black and rich & white. It was as if I'd stepped from one world to another.
The school children may or may not appreciate the freshly painted walls and the new murals in their school tomorrow, but I appreciated the walk. MLK's dream is still alive, but we're not there yet.
(Of course, I'm a lot better at posting to LiveJournal about it than actually doing anything to affect change.)