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A Convenient Incarceration

A continuation of “It’s All About Sex…And I Don’t Like It”

“How much for both of us?” asked the driver of a dark truck. Nicky was enjoying a plate of barbecue on the porch of a vacant house. It was July 4th and she was not looking for work. Out of instinct, she named her price. The potential customers declined and drove away. A few moments later, a squad car raced toward Nicky. Two Atlanta police officers, one male and one female, jumped out barking instructions. Nicky was arrested and taken to the Atlanta City Detention Center and charged with prostitution.

On August 2nd Nicky was ushered into a crowded courtroom in a red jumpsuit where she waited with other inmates to receive representation from the public defender’s office. During the intervening time, Nicky talked with the attorney, cried, rolled her eyes, and mouthed words at me. At trial, her attorney asked for Nicky to be placed in a facility for women leaving the sex trade. I was given the opportunity to speak on her behalf. The prosecuting attorney rejected the deal, citing prior misconduct. The judge sentenced Nicky to six months in jail.

During her incarceration, I visited Nicky several times; Sunday afternoons at 3:00 was our standing date. The visiting rooms were small and separated by thick glass. The phones for communicating had a noticeable delay; Nicky and I decided to speak with raised voices. Our visits were pleasant. She was always glad to see me and usually in a good mood. We talked about life on the inside and the latest happenings on Rockwell Street. She asked about my family and Rocky, the kitten we adopted from Rockwell Street.

Nicky was released in early November after four months served, thanks to her good behavior and willingness to do work detail. While Nicky was confined, I had an opportunity to reflect on the aforementioned events.

Her incarceration was one of convenience. I’m sure it’s easier, safer, and cheaper for law enforcement to arrest an acquiescent prostitute than it is to pursue, arrest and build a case against the pimps, Johns, and drug dealers that undergird the sex trade.

It’s easier for the courts to sentence Nicky to six months in jail than it is to build an internal rehabilitation program or monitor an outside provider. It’s easier to pass laws about mandatory sentencing than to build a system that supports judges as they consider each case based on its merits. It’s easier for elected officials to tout favorable crime data than it is to do the hard work needed to address the systemic societal factors that foster crime and poverty.

It is also easier for citizens to believe that their community has improved when “criminals” are behind bars than it is to acknowledge the reality that the “undesirables” are being hidden in shelters, institutions, and correction facilities.

So what did all this convenience lead to – Nicky back on Rockwell Street. For Nicky, there was no training while in jail, no attempt at rehabilitation, and no network of support when she got out, not even any new clothes or bus fare or food money upon her release. For her, life is the same after jail as it was before, she’s just four month older.

I had not spoken with Nicky for two weeks prior to her release; I was caught off guard when I got the news that she was back in the neighborhood. I kept telling myself I was going to be there for her when she got out. I thought I had more time.

As it turns out, it was also more convenient for me when she was in jail. Our visits were scheduled and controlled. Our conversations were pleasant, because in jail she was safe and stable and because there wasn’t anything I could give her other than my time and attention. I didn’t have to select my path to work each morning based on whether I wanted to see or avoid her. My emotions didn’t rise and fall on our interactions. I didn’t sit at my house feeling guilty because she was sleeping outside, and I could perpetually tell myself, “Maybe this will be good for her.” It wasn’t.

Jail made our relationship cleaner, but real relationships are messy. It gave me an opportunity to gain some emotional separation from Nicky. It was nice. And I hate it. I’m committed to being Nicky’s friend and being with her as she tries to reach her full potential.

What’s the answer for this situation? I don’t know, but I’m sure it won’t be convenient.

It’s All About Sex…And I Don’t Like It

I rode the dark streets of the Pittsburgh community looking for a prostitute; it was around 7:30 pm on a Saturday night in January.  The forecast was for overnight temperatures to dip into the teens.  I found Nicky on one of her usual corners, bundled up and smoking a cigarette.  I offered to drive her to the old Stewart Center building and put her up for the night.  She sheepishly declined and said she needed to make money.

 

Nicky was born in East Point Georgia to a single mom.  She was raised by her grandparents and never knew her father.  She bounced through childhood, attending at least six different schools before completing the 12th grade, without graduating.  At some point her grandmother kicked her out of the house.  In her twenties she worked at a salon and a security company, met the wrong guy, got involved with drugs, lost her job and then the apartment.

 

Housing redevelopment is a major component of the Stewart Center’s strategic plan.  In the next couple of months the Center will complete renovations on two homes in the Pittsburgh community of south Atlanta. The housing initiative is designed to provide families with quality, stable housing.  Among other criteria, families must have children in Stewart Center programing to qualify for one of our rental properties.  As it so happens, Nicky is one of our neighbors.

 

This September, I’ll turn 40 years old.  I had a great childhood; I grew up in a safe neighborhood and went to great schools, then off to college, work, graduate school, and finally the Stewart Center.  Our paths could not have been more different, yet Nicky and I are working the same block in south Atlanta.

 

This November, Nicky will also turn 40 years old, meaning our lives have covered the same period of history.   We were 9 when the Challenger exploded, we were 13 when the Gulf War began, and we were 24 on September 11, 2001.  Nicky has been having sex for money for the past twelve years.  Over that period of time Anna, and I moved to Atlanta, I completed graduate school, we had two boys, bought two houses, and celebrated our 15th anniversary.

 

Knowing Nicky for the past 9 months has enlightened me to the role sex plays in our lives.  For some people, sex is a sacred part of marriage; for some, it is an intimate experience shared with only a few people; for others, it is little more than recreation; and for quite a few people, it is a profession.   As troubling as it is, it is not the sex that has me agitated.

 

The social context of our parents, the people who had sex to create us, has a huge impact on our life’s trajectory.  Nicky, a black girl born to a single mom in a low income neighborhood without a dad or a college savings account did not grow up in the same America as a white kid raised in a college town with great parents and good schools.  As a child I struggled to overcome learning disabilities.  I went to special classes in elementary school, took medication, and had numerous tutors.  If I had been born as a black boy into Nicky’s context, statistics say that I would most likely be in jail instead of writing this blog.

 

Nicky provides sexual services, stays in vacant houses in the Pittsburgh community, and is banned from two local convenient stores.  She has a long rap sheet that includes prostitution, indecent exposure, and criminal trespassing.  She can be hard to love, but Nicky has met my boys and calls them by name, she has done work on our construction projects, she takes care of elderly neighbors, shares what she has, and has a sharp mind.

 

On the day the Stewart Center closed on the house at 552 Rockwell Street, I went with a uniformed police officer to sweep the house.  The officer had to kick the door in to gain entrance.  He removed a woman who had nothing to her name except a grocery bag full of clothes.  It was not until recently that I realized the woman was Nicky.

 

I have no judgment for Nicky; I hope she does not have any for me.  I care only for her health and personal safety.  In the 70’s, we were two kids with our whole lives in front of us; today we are two friends brought together by the Stewart Center.  I have no idea what will become of this relationship, but I am certain that my life will never be the same.

 

Nicky is not enrolled in any Stewart Center programing and there are no goals and objectives for our relationship, but it does relate to the Center’s mission.   For 100 years the Center has existed to love our neighbors and to disrupt a society that offers disparate opportunities based on who your parents had sex with.

Drawing Outside the Lines – by Ashley Hicks

I was at the beach a few weeks ago and I was doing one of my favorite things: people watching. I watched families play with their children, I saw people riding their bikes and drawing in the sand, I saw people relaxing with an umbrella drink in hand. One thing that kept my attention the longest though was a little boy, knee deep in the ocean with a fishing net. I watched him as he scooped the net through the water and would excitedly check to see if he finally caught anything. Nothing. He would do it again. Nothing. He repeated it with excitement each time until he ended up catching something. I’m not sure what he caught but I could see pure enjoyment on his face as if he had discovered the answer to life’s hardest questions.

This sense of curiosity gets lost as we get older, doesn’t it? We enter school. We are overwhelmed with pre-assessments, post-assessments, one-answer questions, standards, worksheets, and more. We ask questions, not out of curiosity, but so that we get it right on tests. We become easily frustrated. We become unmotivated. Instead of raising kids as collaborative problem-solvers and critical thinkers, we are raising them as independent, by-the-book students and we wonder what is going wrong. Too many kids are falling through the cracks and being passed from grade to grade as schools transition to new “rigorous” standards. As a educator, I understand how it has gotten this way, but as a educator, I’m not okay with it. It’s time to draw outside the lines. And that’s why I’m excited to be the program director for a place that values education. I certainly don’t have everything figured out but that’s what being a life-long learner is all about. When I tell our staff about some of my plans, I’m constantly saying, “I know I’m crazy, but I have a purpose. There’s a reason why I’m doing this.” What is the purpose? To foster intellectual curiosity, to promote academic enrichment, to support our little readers and critical thinkers and problem-solvers outside of school walls…I want to draw outside the lines.

One thing I learned about the Stewart Center is that it has a way of drawing people back. The Stewart Center promotes building relationships with our kids, families, and the community. We learn each other’s story and push each other to reach our full potential. My story with Stewart Center began when I was a 7th grader. I’m now a college graduate and working somewhere that has had my heart from the very beginning. In middle school, I came to the blue center twice with a group to volunteer for a week. A few years passed, and as a senior in high school, I came back to the center with a different group. At the end of our week there, Clayton Davis told us that if anyone was interested in interning the following summer to let him know. Without much thought, I knew exactly what I wanted to do the following summer. I could tell the Stewart Center was a special place and I wanted to be a part of what was happening. Little did I know, I would be back after the first summer. Again. And again. For 2 summers, I worked as a summer camp counselor and then the following summer, I was the Jumpstart leader for our Pittsburgh site. I recently accepted the position as program director.

One thing I can tell you about the Stewart Center is that is has a way of drawing people together. I’m excited about being a part of this special family, to work with this organization, and to grow as an individual, leader, and teacher. If I haven’t met you yet, I look forward to meeting you in person. You are welcome at the blue center any time!

Ashley Hicks

AshleykidsSM

The “Power” of Partnership

The year was 1981 and I was in preschool.  I cannot remember names but in my mind’s eye I can see myself diligently working to build a fort out of blocks when the teacher informed me that I needed to share some blocks with a female classmate so she could build a princess castle.  Princess castle? I protested.  I cannot recall how the dialogue progressed after my objection but what resulted was a crude form of collaboration that ended with a princess fort…

For most of the Stewart Center’s existence the organization has benefited from strong partnerships with Baptist people, churches, and organizations.  The Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) and the North American Mission Board (formerly the Home Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention have provided staff, finances, resources, and networking in years past.   While these partnerships have brought great value to the Center and contributed to the maturation of the organization they have primarily originated from outside of the local community.  For the Stewart Center, the summer of 2014 represents a new breed of partnerships that will define our future.

This year the Center is hosting three summer-long camps, each made possible by the substantial contributions of community partners.  In Reynoldstown our morning rotations of Jump Start (academic enrichment), art, recreation, and faith development are hosted at Lang Carson Recreation Center.  Through a partnership with the City of Atlanta we have been granted use of Lang Carson’s educational space.  For the second consecutive year we are partnering with the Atlanta Public School System to provide camp for over 70 children in the Pittsburgh community at Gideons Elementary School.  In Grant Park we are collaborating with Park Avenue Baptist Church and field personnel from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to execute a leadership camp for middle school students.

These are NOT our predecessors’ partnerships and our impact has never been greater.

Power, according to Merriam Webster, is the possession of control, authority, or influence over others. Since arriving at the Stewart Center in 2009 I have dreamed, talked and written about the Center’s power to influence young peoples’ lives.  We deeply desire to help children and communities unlock their full potential.  The Center seeks to employ its resources to grow enlightened, responsible, and courageous young people that desire the best for themselves, their families, and their communities.  Experience teaches that these things do not occur by holding control, authority, and influence over others.  We must exchange the power of control for the power of collaboration.

The power of partnership is characterized by discovery, engagement, and creativity.  The Stewart Center has relinquished some control and compromised on certain elements of this summer’s programming and in return we are seeing the greatest potential for growth in the organization’s recent history.  Access to cutting edge technology, environments conducive to learning, progressive curriculums, and expanded educational travel are a few of the benefits directly affecting our campers.

Collaboration is not without struggle.  Expectations and communication are huge components that must be carefully managed.  Trust must be established and grace must be given if partnerships are to endure.  These potential hurdles are often elevated when working with people, communities, and institutions that function with social and professional norms different than one’s own.  There is also great risk.  The risk of failure, the risk of broken relationships, the risk of tarnished reputations, and the risk of financial loss are all possible outcomes.  On top of these add the reality that collaboration can be downright maddening.

The Stewart Center still benefits from great partnerships with churches and individuals outside of our community but it is the work with neighborhood stakeholders that will determine the Center’s direction.  Despite the struggles that accompany partnerships there is a larger narrative unfolding in our community, city and world and the Center’s autonomy must not hinder the growth of others.  When we partner, I become a little less me and they become a little less them and together we become a little more us.

Who knows, we might end up with a one-of-a-kind princess fort?

Reynoldstown Camp

Reynoldstown Camp

iLead - Middle School Camp

iLead – Middle School Camp

The Test of Time by Megan Warley

“Mrs. Little approached Mrs. Andrew Stewart asking her to make this nursery a Memorial to Mr. Stewart, a man who was known to be a friend to all children and especially interested in all unfortunate ones. Mrs. Stewart was delighted with the idea-stating that Mr. Stewart had told her to give-and to give generously-just as he had given and to commemorate his name in an Institution whose one purpose was to help every child that came within its doors; to give the child an opportunity to make the beginning of life on equal footing with its more fortunate brothers.”

I was recently approved to research and compose a comprehensive history of the Andrew P. Stewart Center as a part of my graduate studies at Georgia State. While giving my advisor some background on the Center and detailing the research I had done, he made a very astute observation: that perhaps what is most significant about the Stewart Center (from a historical perspective) is its ability to survive the test of time.

Gentrification, racial tensions, financial problems, building concerns, and rotating leadership are just a few of the challenges the Center has faced over the past century. While the question of its survival is important to me in understanding the Centers overarching story, it has also been important to me in understanding and accepting my day to day struggles at the Center.

While my time at the Center has been life-giving and beautiful, there have been some tough times. On days when I felt frustrated, unappreciated, tired, angry, ineffective, or cynical, I found myself needing reassurance and strength. Oddly enough, I often sought that reassurance by reading about the people who carried the Center on their shoulders throughout the past 100 years. Like Mrs. Stewart and her friends, who worked tirelessly to get the Stewart Center on its feet through their social influence and financial support, even before they had the right to vote. Like Myrtle Salters and Elizabeth Lundy, who walked the Center through four decades of turbulent social and racial change (1935-1974). Like Alice White, who reached out to neighborhood children when drugs and crime were at an all-time high in Reynoldstown. These leaders faced incredible obstacles and made decisions that would alter the future of the Stewart Center forever. Their courage gave me strength.

Having spent so much time reflecting on the strong leaders of the Stewart Center’s past has helped me identify and appreciate those strong leaders in our present. Like Clayton Davis, who made an empty, dilapidated building come to life again through his clear vision and tireless efforts. Like Bridget Grant, who never stops giving, and who reminds me so much of Mrs. Stewart. Like Jeneen Mitchell, who for four years has continuously modeled unconditional love and respect to the children. And like the countless volunteers, interns, and staff who do the hard work of running an after school program and summer camp…I wish I could write about you all.

Today the Stewart Center is thriving—this summer it will operate 3 simultaneous summer camps, serving over 150 children in two neighborhoods. The staff has grown in numbers and in expertise. We have quadrupled our network of support over the last few years, and it continues to increase. The future is bright, and I am so excited for all of the opportunities the Center will be able to offer children as it grows.

The Center has survived for 98 years because generations of people believed in Love and Justice for every human being, and selflessly gave of themselves for the sake of children. Whether their actions were guided by a call from God, a desire for social justice, or a love for children, their tireless efforts created a truly special place in the Stewart Center. The spirit of love that so many leaders, volunteers, and families shared together at the Stewart Center lives on, and it grows with every act of generosity, selflessness, or reconciliation that occurs today.

While I could try to summarize in a few sentences why I believe the Andrew P. Stewart Center has successfully kept its doors open for 98 years, I’ve realized that the “why“ isn’t the point. Even if the Center celebrates another 100 years in 2116, the reality is that no institution lasts forever. But the spirit of love that lives in this big blue house will forever carry on in the lives of those it touched—including mine.