by Andrew Young
“Our entire agency is federally funded, and for those who are aware of federal funding, you know the outcomes, regulations, and mandates in which we must uphold.” — African Services Coalition
“ARCO is committed to providing safe, affordable housing for its tenants.” — Agapion owners
“Unattended cooking” — Greensboro Fire Department
We’re almost at couple of months after the May 12 fire at Summit-Cone apartments that killed five refugee kids. There’s a lot still swirling around, but you wouldn’t guess it from the news coverage. Fires are spectacular, funerals are sad and, as befits Greensboro, a community with a history of promoting civility over civil rights, we’ve decided it’s time to move on.
Such a conclusion isn’t shared by the families that are still living in dangerous apartments, many of whom want to leave. Despite suffering blatant racism, exploitation and everything else that happens when your familiarity with American customs and English are weak, some exhibit meek thankfulness to everyone and for every material good, while others eventually catch on to American DIY, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own bootstraps, gig-economy entrepreneurship. At the recent community meeting of District 2 council member Goldie Wells, refugee family members, indistinguishable from black residents who crowded into the room, experienced American democracy in a manner far different from their citizenship classes. There they were regarded as Americans with rights, not supplicants looking for favors. After numerous meetings in the fire’s aftermath in which they heard promises, lectures and expressions of love and concern, the city’s human relations director told them that here in the United States they have civil rights and her office was there to protect them. But no one spelled out how that works in practice (besides calling a phone number, with details about language interpretation hazy) or that in America, it’s our right to get mad as hell, speak our piece and sue like crazy when all else fails, which is guaranteed to get everyone’s respect, is guaranteed to change refugee resettlement practices that put vulnerable families into inherently dangerous housing, is guaranteed to hold notorious scofflaw landlords liable and is guaranteed to accelerate the lackadaisical pace of the fire department’s final report.
In the years I’ve worked with newcomers, whether refugees or immigrants, I’m continually surprised that citizenship is taught as the memorization of one hundred questions and answers, not an assertion of rights. Unfortunately, this is a trend consistent with scrubbed civics courses taught in schools and definitions of civility and civic engagement exemplified by White House officials suffering interrupted meals in public restaurants. At the District 2 meeting, longtime residents gave a demonstration before newcomers what’s needed to keep a democracy going in the Trump era: persistence, insistence, facts, knowledge of history, holding elected officials accountable. Wells struggled to explain that the fire which took place in her district was indeed part of the evening’s agenda. (It wasn’t, she added it later.) A Summit-Cone resident stood and in very clear English described the filth and danger she and her neighbors endured every day. She brought photographic evidence. Lewis Brandon, Beloved Community Center’s historian, pointedly reminded officials and community members of the generations of Agapions who’ve been allowed by the city to rent dilapidated, dangerous units to poor people. Perhaps in other districts there might ensue accusations about “shame and blame,” not the truthfulness of what was said, but how it was said and digressions into hurt feelings and the need for “solidarity.” This didn’t happen. During the question-and-answer period other community topics were raised. Community members spoke up. Earl Jones stood up. Afterwards, we made it a point of introducing Africans to African Americans, new Americans and District 2 residents to their elected representative. We caught Councilman Justin Outling, too. He was there because one of the three June 25 shooting deaths took place in District 3.
In Greensboro and America, the buck has to stop somewhere.