I am with ten students in my Child and Youth Care class. It’s a weeknight in early fall, about 10:30 pm. We are walking with Carlos, a youth worker, through a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s South Side. Earlier Carlos told us about the youth center where he works and took us on a tour of the building. Now he’s taking us on a tour of the neighborhood, and showing us how important it is to reach out to and be part of the community.
It’s a poor, rough neighborhood with gangs and families trying to make it a safe place. Carlos walks ahead with “machismo.” Two policemen in a squad car pull to the curb.
“Hey, Carlos, come here,” says the cop on the passenger side.
Carlos walks over and speaks with them a few minutes. Carlos told us he is a bridge between the gangs and the police. Both accept him.
When he was in my class a couple years ago, Carlos told his classmates and me that sometimes he knows about a crime a gang member committed, but he doesn’t tell the police because the gang would drive him out of the neighborhood, or at the very least hurt him or a member of his family. The police accept this because they believe it is more valuable to have him in the neighborhood trying to get kids out of gangs. We use this example in our discussions of ethics in youth work.
The squad pulls away. We cross the street and turn into a side street. Carlos says hello to a woman who is standing in her front yard looking at the stars.
“Hello Carlos,” she says with a smile.
“What you looking at?”
“Northern lights, but I don’t think we’ll be able to see them, not in the city with all these street lights.”
Carlos looks and says, “No, probably not.”
We continue our walk. A car with fours teens in it, “gang bangers,” stops in an alleyway that crosses the street. Carlos walks to the car, exchanges hand greetings, puts one arm on top of the car, leans in and says, “What are you dudes doing on the streets. You should be home doing homework.”
They give him a little heat. “I’m serious,” he says and taps on top of the car.
They drive off. We continue our walk. In front of a bungalow, Carlos turns, says, “Let’s go in here.” He climbs the porch steps and rings the doorbell. An older woman answers. Carlos speaks to her and she invites us in.
We stand in a circle in her dining room, surrounded by boxes of plastic garbage bags. Carlos explains that she is a community leader, a person everyone trust and respects. She offers us a can of pop (a soft drink). A few of the students accept.
“The police donate the pop and these plastic bags,” she says, pointing to boxes of large trash bags.
“What’s it for?” one of the students says.
“The children,” she says. “I want them to feel they can come here any time and get a can of pop and a plastic bag to pick up trash in the neighborhood.
That’s how we build community. The police stop here too, and help out.”
“How long have you lived here?” a student asks.
“All my life.”
“Why didn’t you leave?” another student asks.
“Because it’s my home.”
She invites us to come back on the weekend to clean up with her. Carlos walks us back to our cars. I thank him.
On the way home I think about my father, who grew up not too far away from the community center. It was mostly a German and Polish neighborhood then. He used to pick up coal that fell from the railroad cars to heat their small house and his brother and he had to fight back to back to keep the Polish kids from stealing the collections from his paper route. After dinner he turned on the streetlights with a long pole.
I wonder what he would have thought about the neighborhood today? It is much more diverse with Hispanic, African American, Southeast Asian, German and Polish families. I think he would have been disappointed that it was still rough and poor, but he would have liked the diversity. I do. Several years ago, I marched with many other people to help make it this way.
I drive by the house where my father was raised, a small bungalow like the one we were in before. He told me a story once about how when he was a boy he wanted to go to camp but they couldn’t afford it. Then one day he was digging with his toes in the back yard and he found a coin purse with a several dollar bills, just enough to go to camp. His mother made him put an ad in the newspaper to see if anyone would claim it (that was good community work) and when no one did, he got to go to camp. Later after my mother had died and he was living alone in another part of town someone broke into the house. They took the TV set, some silverware, and the coin purse. He felt totally violated. But he continued volunteering his time for causes he thought would make the community stronger. As I drive away, I think about him turning on the streetlights, lights like the ones that blocked the woman's view of the sky.