Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Tonight we go before the city council ...

to introduce to the community (meetings are televised) the first blush of our proposal for the Convention Center. The week has been spent trying to reach as many local leaders as possible in the hope that the support that we'll need to garner is really there. It looks hopeful.

Jennifer is carrying the lion's share of the work at this point since this phase draws upon her expertise far more than mine. Makes for some guilt feelings, but I'm fairly sure that this will change as we approach the next phase of activity.

This brings to mind that I've lived a lifetime of working over my head, and stretching mightily. The surprise has always been that, in time, there comes a sense of the "it" (whatever "it" is needed) has always been there to be tapped into. But that means that the cost is high in terms of energy dissipated in the attempts, and with a high anxiety level to overcome.

During those earlier times when I was in learning mode on the fifth floor offices at the Berkeley city hall, it was necessary to sit in on Planning Commission meetings, Public Works, Packet Sessions in preparation for council meetings (in order to prep our members). I was often lost. Being surrounded by people whose education and careers had been devoted to the work at hand made it possible for me to "catch" by osmosis knowledge that I'd not been privileged to own, nor had I needed. My experience in Project Community and life with Bill had prepared me to do that effectively, but there were surely gaps in performance.

Case in point:

When we (South Berkeley Housing Development Corporation) were working so hard to make our project compliant with our determination that all employment opportunities were open to the neighborhood people, I'd proposed that all of the demolition be done by local people. Thought this was an inspired notion since anybody could do this, right? There was an entire block of structures to be torn down and lots of idle hands with empty pockets to do it. It would mean that some laborers would have wages because of our good works on their behalf.

On the morning of the demolition, I stood dumbfounded as we watched two giant-clawed wrecking machines spend all of a few hours noisily chewing up every building in that block! Three huge trucks were busily hauling away the debris. The only human beings working were those drivers and a couple of men spraying water to keep the dust down. The technology involved bore no relation to the picture in my mind of human beings pulling apart those houses board-by-board and brick-by-brick for days if not weeks. None of those sessions in those city boardrooms had hinted at the scene before me. My knowledge base was completely irrelevant to the job at hand. This was as often true as not, and that recollection has kept me properly humble over the years since.

We'd also been very careful -- when time came for choosing the contractor/developer -- that affirmative action specifications were strictly adhered to. We'd sent out a Request for Proposals and had spent many days and weeks carefully reading each one in order to assure that this mandate was honored. How disillusioning to discover after the fact that many of those contractors were not local, but were from cities miles away. The common practice was to create (on paper only) a profile of a multi-racial work force by paying non-whites for the use of their names and pictures on their proposals. In some cases the same names of black or brown sub-contractors appeared on several different proposals. A complete distortion of the intent of the mandate.

When the construction work started, the contractor chosen was from a city in the far north of the state and every workman on the job was white. The proposal had cleverly masked this fact. This, in a black community with high unemployment. Not even the laborers who cleaned the site and hauled away debris were black. There were no black sub-contractors.

The community began to grow resentful and I knew it. The day came when a group of men came to me with an request that I join them to walk the construction site. The carpentry had been pretty well completed by then and the painters were beginning to turn up. There were a number of black painters in the neighborhood, so this could get ugly.

We walked back to my store after our brief tour. I got out some old posters and wood for making picket signs, and the men and I returned to protest this development. I was picketing my own dream! Shut it down! It was a pittance, but we succeeded in getting two laborers on the job, but only two. They were still no painters; union problems, doncha know... .

Found myself sitting on my own rage that day, lest I encourage trashing of the project we'd worked so hard to bring into being. But I wondered how often that buried rage was seen as passivity by the outside world? My inside view of that world assured me that the more appropriate word would have been "control." Low expectations better describes what it was like. Low expectations that led to a collective feeling of unworthiness, a feeling that pervades the black community without ever being recognized for what it is.

It was harder and harder to return home each night and into a unknowing world of white liberals whose life experience simply could not have prepared them to see what I was walking into every day. The disconnect followed me from hill to flatlands and back again, with the chasm between threatening to engulf me in the process.

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