Changing The Dialogue

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:

Hi Stephanie,

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,

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11 Responses to Changing The Dialogue

  1. I was surprised at the thoughtful response you got and, after taking the time to watch the piece, what great PR you got. I must be missing something, because I don’t sense all the loaded language and implications that you seem to.

    One sentence from the letter does bug me quite a bit, and seems not to bother you at all, so I guess it shows perspective is very influentual. This is it – “There are many schools in Baltimore City where the parents don’t give a damn.” In my experience at lots of different schools in Baltimore, the “damn-giving” among parents is pretty consistent. The level of parent involvement is very different, but parents do love their kids and care about the schools they go to. Some reasons they might not be involved in their kid’s school:
    1. They work multiple, physically taxing jobs and are just trying to keep it together. Extra hours are hard to come by for them.
    2. Related to 1. above, the school might have very limited opportunities to pitch in – they are not flexible as far as gratefully accepting what a parent has to offer.
    3. Adminstrators can be unwilling to share any real power with PTA/PTO organizations, so it’s hard to want to be involved
    4. Related to 3. above, weak PTA/PTO’s don’t have the ability to organize volunteer events, but that doesn’t mean no one would pitch in if they did.

    I could go on, but I already posted on the topic on my blog.

    Personally, I think your being pretty thin skinned. What I saw was a great piece that talked to all sorts of people and basically was respectful to all parties concerned. I thought the CSX people were honest about feeling that they were part of the community especially because the train goes by MBES so closely. What’s not to like?

    Honestly, there is a difference between schools with lots of money and schools with very little money. Maybe that’s the implication from using the term innercity. Perhaps Title I would be a better term, but not too many people are familiar with what that means.

    • stephanie sterling says:

      Hey, thanks for the comment. I read those posts and actually bookmarked them to raise some of the issues at our next PTO meeting. I posted this because I was wondering if I was being too sensitive. I’m REALLY glad to know that you watched it and it didn’t make you think negatively of the school and/or neighborhood. I hope that other people shared your impression.

  2. Shannon says:

    I’m a BCPSS parent and I’ve always hated the term ‘inner city’. I think it has pretty much replaced the word ‘ghetto’ in the American vernacular. I have never heard Roland Park or Federal Hill or present day Canton once described as ‘inner city’. They are called by their neighborhood names and they are respected.

    I’ve been paying extra close attention to news coverage of events at private schools in the city and guess what? They are called by their school names. What school? Mercy High School. Where is it? Baltimore. But OUR school? Margaret Brent. Where is it? Lower Charles Village in the inner city. See the difference?

    Without any prompting or discussion beforehand, ask 5 friends or family members for a definition of ‘inner city’. Then ask them for 5 words to describe ‘inner city’. Are the words positive? Or are they negative? What do people *outside* city limits think ‘inner city’ means? Does the definition change? It would be interesting to see the results.

  3. Mark says:

    Why not publish the application that led to the CSX partnership? I’d bet whatever the school or PTA submitted provides a pretty colorful self-description of urban challenges… otherwise CSX would not have shown up for the charity project. And kudos to the reporter for the thoughtful response. “Great things” have been promised at Margaret Brent since reformers arrived in the 70s, yet the results, as we actually measure them in reading and writing, are still shockingly abysmal.

    • stephanie sterling says:

      Mark, you’ll notice that was one of my questions. How is it that we reconcile that? Maybe it’s time for us all to move away from the phrase. How do you feel about the characterization of Charles Village as inner city? Does that leave Oakenshawe in or out?

  4. Shannon says:

    While I did not see it, I would bet that the application that led to the CSX partnership painted a pretty good description of the effects that time has on a structure and the environment as opposed to the effects that a location might have. And every school in Baltimore City is faced with the challenge of raising funds for maintenance, renovations and repairs, regardless of test scores.

    The issue I have is with the language. Would you want your neighborhood described as inner city? Would Guilford? Evergreen? Harbor East?

    • I’m fine with language evolving – I press people pretty hard to stop using the R-word when describing people with intellectual disabilities, but I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Should we never use the term inner-city any more, and if that’s the case what is the right word? Or are you saying that inner-city should be reserved for neighborhoods that have no green spaces or have high poverty levels? I’m not being sarcastic, I just am trying to get to your meaning when you listed Guilford, Harbor East, etc.

      • Shannon says:

        There are plenty of neighborhoods in the middle of Baltimore City that would never ever be called ‘inner city’… they are wealthy and they are mostly white.

        It seems like this is a term that everyone is free to throw around, but no one seems to know what it means. It is absolutely not just a geographical reference. I definitely don’t want another vague PC replacement that is code for whatever we want it to mean to enter our vocabulary.

        This makes me really sad. The kids at our school are amazing. They are bright and compassionate and happy. Our teachers are phenomenal. Our neighborhood was recently named one of the most beautiful in the country. Charles Village is home to the BMA, Village Learning Place, St. John’s Church (2640 space), Johns Hopkins University and filled with a diverse population of students and families and professionals from all economic. ethnic and racial backgrounds. We are so much more than ‘inner city’ and prefacing the news story with this term to describe us really pigeon holes us in people’s minds. It’s loaded with assumptions and prejudice.

  5. Deneen Morgan-Burley says:

    I can relate to both sides. I went to schools that were in the “inner city” coming up, but, back then the distinction was between “public school” and “private school”. Going to a private school was indicative of somehow being better and on a higher economic status as opposed to public. It also denoted that the students were somehow “better” from a socio economic status as well as breeding.
    Thank God I had the parents I did who raised me to think I can and that I’m as good as and my chances are as good as anyone elses out there. I went to Western High School for a while, which was never referred to as “inner city” but, rather, was considered the creme de le creme. However, I transferred when I got accepted to The Baltimore School for the Arts. I ended up graduating at the top of the class, the first valedictorian from this “inner city” school, which, by the way, was never referred to as such.
    What my experience is is this: “inner city” often connotes schools where the population is predominantly black and the parents are considered low income. I didn’t realize until I was older that I was considered poor, black, low income, at-risk, etc. Since my parents raised me the way they did, with lots of love and encouragement, I grew up believing I could do anything I put my mind to. What society wanted me to believe about myself, to make me feel dejected and as one to be pitied, my brain wasn’t buying it.
    I was an “excellent,” “outstanding,” “principal’s/dean’s list” kind of girl from elementary school and through college. I believe it could be the same for our students today, “inner city” or not, if we believe that they can and teach them the same. Students tend to aim for the bar that’s set for them. If it’s low standards that’s put before them, that’s pretty much as far as they reach. The adults need to change their attitudes. Afterall, it’s not the students who come up with these terms about themselves.
    I challenge everyone to tell their child they are good, they can do well, the sky is their limit, as my parents did me, and a whole change in their attitude about themselves and their demeanor will develop. Smartness has nothing to do with race, otherwise, I should have always been at the bottom of the class. Bottomline, just call all schools by their proper name, regardless of geographic location. Don’t make students feel bad about where they attend school. Make them believe they are educable regardless. They are.

  6. Cindy Hartzler-Miller says:

    I agree that there’s a really important opportunity here for discussion around our definitions and images of “good” neighborhoods vs. “bad” neighborhoods” and “city” vs. “suburbs.” Thanks for offering this story and for your courage.

    I’d like to broaden the topic and suggest that the problem lies in our common tendency to think in terms of dichotomies. Asserting that Charles Village (or Guilford or Oakenshawe) isn’t the “inner city” sets up an implicit contrast between Charles Village (not the inner city so therefore a good neighborhood) and the (presumed) existence of neighborhoods which ARE the inner city (read poor, downtrodden and therefore not as good). This is the same kind of thinking that the TV reporter engaged in, although in that case, the contrast was very explicit and between “Lower Charles” (low test scores, steady crime stats = neighborhood with challenges) and “Ruxton, Towson and Bel Air” (PTA’s with money = fortunate neighborhoods).

    I think that framing (pun intended) neighborhoods in terms of dichotomies is harmful for two reasons. For one, residents don’t like to be labeled by outsiders who are looking only at statistics and not spending time getting to know their neighborhood deeply and intimately. This is true whether the residents live in Charles Village or in Cherry Hill (where I worked for four years) or in East Baltimore Midway (where I live). For another, dichotomizing tricks us into thinking that if we’re on the “good” side of the dichotomy, we aren’t affected by the negative labeling of someone else’s neighborhood. In Antero Pietila’s book entitled Not In My Neighborhood, he traces the devastating consequences when everyone – developers, public officials, lawyers, realtors, and private citizens – engage in a process of labeling Baltimore neighborhoods as “good” or bad.” The result has been concentrations of poverty and racial segregation at much higher levels than in most other major cities, which affects our tax base and availability of resources.

    One way to break dichotomies is to appropriate the negative labels. Thus, Gay pride, Black is beautiful and . . . Embrace your inner city?? Yes, TV reporter, this is the inner city and it’s wonderful and complex and surprising and inclusive and can never be summed up by a sound bite or a statistic or a pat phrase.

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