Two weeks ago, I accidentally stood up for the wrong person. And I got in trouble for it. Our neighborhood association meets once a month in a small room that holds about 20 people. The seats are scattered with young white urban professionals and aging black residents who have lived on these streets for most of their lives. Our guest speaker was a representative from a waste management company that is proposing to re-purpose a warehouse in our neighborhood for trash collection.
He used a power point presentation to show us their plans. Meanwhile, a couple of our members who had been in the neighborhood for years began heckling the man - insulting him for mispronouncing our street names, yelling at him to stop using the word "waste" and call it what it is: "GARBAGE!" The nice man couldn't get a word in, and I was so embarrassed by our rude neighbors.
So, here's where I messed up: I stood up for the man. I literally stood up and instead of calling my neighbors out for simply being rude, I called us all out for not recognizing that trash, ultimately, has to go somewhere. I stood on my soap box and referred to my experiences in Africa and how each person in a community is responsible for their own trash. I channeled Wendell Berry and spoke about how we need to be responsible for the waste we create. I shamed my neighbors and sat back down.
I couldn't have been more wrong. Just because someone is nice doesn't mean they're right. And just because someone is rude, doesn't mean they aren't justified in their anger. It turns out that this waste management company is not for our residential trash. It is for corporations that would bring outside garbage and dump it just a few blocks from our homes. My fellow neighbors made sure I understood what I was standing up for.
They had every right to be angry with the man, and with me. They lived here years before families like ours ever deemed it safe to inhabit. This neighborhood had been a dump for years, filled with crime, drugs, prostitution and insurmountable urban poverty. For the last ten years, the conditions have been improving and the streets have become safer. Much of this is because of the passionate and aggressive voices of neighbors like the ones who spoke up at the meeting. The last thing our neighborhood needs is another signpost that says we are still the ghetto or another young white urban professional to stand on the side of corporate power.
So, I am the one who is ashamed. If ever there are sides to be taken in my neighborhood, I want to be on the side of the residents who have fought long and hard battles amidst discrimination and limited resources. We have collected more than 800 signatures for a petition to keep the waste management company out, and Metro Council votes tonight. I hope my neighbors will someday trust me again. I have learned my lesson and am humbled by it.