It took me a long time to write this. A long time to put my finger on what it is that I find so distressing about the phrase “inner city.” And I still haven’t quite figured it out. I started to think about it after the CSX work day at Margaret brent. On that day, CSX generously donated their time and resources to help Margaret Brent beautify the school’s outdoor space by, among other things, helping to build an outdoor classroom and to plant trees up and down 26th Street. You can read all about it here but, in short, it was terrific. A local tv news outlet did a story about the event that I found really disappointing.
So disappointing in fact that I felt compelled to ask the reporter about it. We engaged in a lengthy exchange that didn’t really go anywhere but to heighten my awareness (and outrage?) at how our school and neighborhood is portrayed in the media. Words like “inner city” and arbitrary distinctions like “lower Charles Village” are not simple “geographic reference[s]”. They are words that are loaded with meaning and that send signals to the listener or viewer with a very specific intention. Inner city might refer to “the ring of neighborhoods surrounding downtown” but a quick search of the term reveals that it means much more.
I think it’s outrageous that the media can present to the public a piece that completely misses the spirit of an entire event and claim that prefacing it with the term inner city provides context. There’s something really wrong there.
I think there’s a really important discussion in here somewhere. In the interest of keeping this brief I excerpted from the email exchange but will post it in its entirety below because what I really want to know is if you are as perplexed and irritated as I am. So tell me, does it trouble you to be told that “[i]nner City is a geographic reference. It’s the ring of neighborhoods surrounding downtown”? If you live, work or go to school in Charles Village how does this make you feel? If you live in Federal Hill or Mount Vernon how do you feel about living in the inner city… or didn’t you know? And at the end of the day, aren’t we all guilty of throwing around phrases like this. Particularly when it might suit us? Let’s discuss.
Here’s what I wrote:
Thanks so much for coming out on Saturday to see the great things happening at Margaret Brent. I enjoyed watching the story but the tone struck me as “benevolent corporation engaging in acts of kindness to benefit poor, downtrodden inner city school.” Margaret Brent is so much more than that. I live in Charles Village and Margaret Brent is where I send my child, it’s where my friends send their children. It’s a great school with great teachers, faculty staff and parents.
That’s why, in addition to the CSX volunteers, there were over 60 school and community members there with their sleeves rolled up as well. This project isn’t just a good deed by CSX for which they deserve to be publicly thanked. It’s a part of the big-picture vision for the school shared by our principal, Dr. Jacqueline Waters-Scofield and the parents and teachers that support her. The outdoor classroom, the greening, that’s all a part of our vision for our school and we’re working hard to make it happen.
Margaret Brent isn’t an “inner city” school, whatever that connotes. It is the community’s school serving Charles Village, parts of Remington and Harwood and hugely supported by the Village Parents network of over 200 families living in Charles Village and the surrounding neighborhoods of which many have children enrolled at Margaret Brent.
I would love to take you on a tour of the interior the building and to talk to you about all of the great things that are happening. In the meantime, here are some links where you can read about what’s going on: [links omitted]
I think it’s really important that people know that there are great schools in Baltimore. Too many of our middle class families don’t even give them a second look but that’s all changing in Charles Village.
And here is the response:
Thanks for watching, thanks for writing. I do hear your criticisms yet I disagree with your assessment of the tone.
The words” benevolent corporation” and “downtrodden” never came out of my mouth. Look at who is interviewed, they are all parents of children at the school, teachers, or one of the 60 community members who participated in that day of service.
I hear your objection to the phrase “inner city” but that’s where MBES is, it’s no knock on the school or the neighborhood but it is an accurate description. Inner City is a geographic reference. It’s the ring of neighborhoods surrounding downtown.
No doubt there are great students, faculty, staff, and parents at MBES. This story doesn’t say otherwise. Had I wanted to I could have shown the last three years of test scores at MBES which in most areas have declined. I could have gone to the crime stats which in your area a pretty steady. I put local people in the story along with CSX because without the R.R. that service day, in that fashion, simply would not have happened. While I don’t get all warm fuzzy about big corporations… in this case, without CSX, MBES would not have had as successful of an event.
To be presumptuous, I think you heard the anchor say “inner city” and you prejudged what was to come. I ask you to go to the web and look at that story again, the parent says it’s what the kids have done (planning executing this event) which will boost their self esteem, the words: “awesome”, “great”, and ‘positive” are sprinkled about. When I approach a story, any story, I go in with an open mind. The whole theme of that story is in reaction to what the people themselves, … your people, are telling me. As a journalist, I don’t have a dog in your fight but I do have a responsibility to put what you and your neighbors are doing into perspective. Without mentioning that MBES is in a neighborhood that has challenges is to do a disservice to people who don’t know anything about Lower Charles. The reason these types of events aren’t happening in Ruxton, Towson, & Bel Air is because they don’t have face the troubles that… , pardon me, and inner city school like MBES has. Those schools have budget for murals, paint, trees, playground equipment… the city doesn’t. Even in the suburban schools, the PTA’s make sure that the extras are provided… that’s not news when a fortunate school is endowed with even greater fortune. News is when 100 people from all walks of life come together on a Saturday and use the resources provided by a large faceless corporation to benefit the kids who need it the most. MBES is actually in a bit of a sweet spot. You have just enough negative things going on to attract attention, and a huge number of positive intelligent people who can affect change. There are many schools in Baltimore City where the parents don’t give a damn. The people who organize these civic projects have written off such schools as sites for improvement because they can’t get enough community interest to help out on the event day.
Please know I appreciate what you are saying, but as the storyteller tasked to bring what happened at your school to a larger audience, I do not think I portrayed what took place in a false light or your school negatively.
Thank for your time,