05 August 2009

Neighborhood people

Last fall, I read an article in Key, the NY Times Real Estate Magazine called “It’s a Wonderful Block” (Fall 2008) about how some neighborhoods and streets just ‘work’. In that article, Mark Oppenheimer described a great block as a ‘delicate ecology, consisting of elements in perpetual flux.’ That characterization has really stuck with me, as I've thought about what makes my particular neighborhood block work, and I thought about flux again last night, after my neighborhood enjoyed its annual Blockwatch Night Out for Crime potluck.

I happen to live on a wonderful Seattle street, which had an established blockwatch program when I moved here in 1996. I and another neighbor now share the blockwatch captain duties, which means we maintain the neighborhood map and contact list. We all know who lives in every single house, along one block, on both sides of the street including the corners: that's over 20 households! I take my responsibility seriously, sending or forwarding neighbors regular emails about crime reports or incidents, but looking at the content of many of my neighborhood messages over the years, it's clear that although the neighborhood came together in order to fight residential crime, we also stay connected for practical and social reasons. We've come together over the issue of traffic safety, by organizing the acquisition of a traffic circle to slow traffic on one of the perpendicular streets, and we regularly call the city to fill the potholes that inevitably appear on our street or intersections. We pass on news about new farmer's markets or garage sales. We also share rides or walk to school in groups, we pick groceries up for each other, occasionally share meals, and we have neighborhood happy hours and craft nights and even bipartisan election night get-togethers. Ultimately, our neighborhood, our street, satisfies a social need in many of us, a need to be connected. This is particularly so, in a highly-mobile society like ours, where extended families aren't exactly next door, to share practical assistance and offer social continuity. For many of us, our neighbors are the people we see regularly, the people we rely on, and the people who help give our daily existence purpose and social meaning.

In fact, President Obama invoked this same idea in January this year when he told the dance crowd at his first inaugural ball stop that he and his wife Michele are 'neighborhood people', and that was why they wanted to have and attend a D.C. neighborhood people's ball because D.C. was their new neighborhood. For Obama, being in Chicago and now in D.C., means he has been far from his familial roots, so being a neighborhood person is what has helped keep him socially connected to his community and given his life meaning.

So, what about the 'perpetual flux' of a great block? That simply means that the nature of our neighborhood connections, however rich they may be at a given time, are constantly evolving. The Night Out potluck I enjoyed with my neighbors last night really showed how change is the only constant factor in neighborhood life. For example, one elderly neighbor, Phyllis, is no longer living on our block, and we always counted on her to bring baked beans, as we might count on someone else to bring the pasta salad or the brownies. In fact, several other neighbors have moved on or passed on since I've lived here. And of the neighbors present, we're older and so are some of our kids. In years past, the bulk of the 20+ kids on the street have traditionally decorated their bicycles elaborately for a bike parade from corner to corner and have spent the 3 hours of the potluck playing in the closed street since the closure happens just once a year. This year many of the children have grown up enough not to want to decorate their bikes or even ride them all evening on the closed street. Actually some of these kids have gone or are going to college now, while an smaller, emerging younger set is still too young to ride! We must have sensed this change, as we've moved to showing an outdoor movie on a neighbor's front lawn.

Change... people move, age, and social connections shift. Indeed, our neighborhood is deep into its renaissance; when I first moved in, my elderly neighbor, Clint, shared with me how in the 1950's and 1960's, this street was very lively, with young children and families socializing, like we do now. He even had a party room and wet bar in his basement! But, the character of the street changed by the 80's, as the demographic shifted, and as it will again. I think my old neighbor Clint would be surprised by the ubiquity of email correspondence connecting neighbors on the block. It just goes to show that we don't stop seeking social connections--some of us really are neighborhood people. But, how we seek those connections, and who seeks those connections are indeed constantly in flux, as we should expect in any great neighborhood!

27 May 2009

Mommy penalty indeed

As I ponder a fuller re-entry into the job market (after 10 years of part-time university lecturing), I 'm seeing more clearly the career risks I took in having children and curbing my employment during their early childhoods. In many ways, I feel surpassed by the economy and its labor requirements, and wonder how to match my skills with what is needed out there.

Coincidentally, just this morning on my way to a breakfast honoring the new Consul General of Finland, I read the headlines about President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court replacement to retiring Justice Souter. Judge Sonia Sotomayor has a compelling immigrant story and a brilliant legal career, and she is single (divorced), with no children. Likewise, the Finnish Consul who has just been assigned the plum consular post in Los Angeles seems to be a remarkably intelligent, personable, well-traveled woman with a long career in the Finnish Foreign Ministry, and she is married, but with no children (I asked). These are amazingly accomplished women, and their similar family statuses struck me.

Is there a mommy penalty? Have these women succeeded partly because they have not had children, left the job market, re-entered? Certainly these women are incredibly talented, well-educated and are successful on their own merits (and there many women who have succeeded as well, but with children). Still, one wonders, how does not having children help? If not having children makes it possible to stay engaged with the job market and ever-developing industries, then it does help. If it means sticking to a career path with a clear trajectory, then it helps. For women with children who've chosen to or been compelled to curtail their employment for multiple years, getting out of touch with the job market and its requirements is a real danger, and stepping of the career path means getting back on it is nearly impossible. In some countries in northern Europe, positions are protected during parental leaves, and returning to work is more seamless because of this protection, but such jobs and protections are rare in the United States. In the U.S. it may be that re-entering mommies will need to do some drastic re-inventing and re-training. That seems to be what I need to think about myself.

08 April 2009

Pro-democracy movement in Moldova?

A former student of mine currently teaches English in the Peace Corps in the small, former Soviet republic of Moldova, so naturally I thought of him when I saw this morning's papers reporting on the youth protests against the government in the Moldovan capital city of Chisinau. These youth protests resulted from suspicions over the recent elections in which the Communists had a stronger showing than some had expected. Moldova is a poor country, and after the Soviet patronage ended and the initial flirtation with western capitalism, the Communists were re-elected into office. But, the younger generations are unsatisfied with what they perceive as a corrupt leadership that has done little to improve the conditions in the country.

These protests remind me immediately of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989. In many ways, that was a generational protest, as the Moldovan one is being described, 'grandparents vs. grandkids'. One big difference now is that these Moldovan youth organized seemingly more spontaneously, without a lot of time or legwork, but with the help of newer technology unavailable to the Chinese youth of the late 1980's. As The NY Times reported today, such organizing using Twitter and Facebook has been the more recent pattern in other former Soviet republics as well. Technology-savvy youth can quickly mobilize and then congregate, surprising even the organizers themselves. (See "Protesters in Moldova Explode, With A Call to Arms on Twitter," The New York Times, 4/08/09.)

How will the Moldovan authorities respond? They can block Internet access as a way to counter the means the youth are using. And, like the Chinese leaders in 1989, the Moldovan authorities may crack down with military force, (more strongly than yesterday), if they perceive genuine threats to their power. My student actually emailed me later this morning, much to my delight and relief. He is safe, but he had hiked into the capital city to see what was happening (mass transit networks were down) and wandered around taking some fantastic photos. He heard that more activities could take place on Friday, and I'm hoping if he decides to go into Chisinau again he'll exercise caution. The military will likely be in force, and the outcome may be much more deadly.

12 March 2009

President Obama, a new kind of black man?

Although the occasion of President Obama's inauguration is past, his journey to the presidential post is a remarkable one. In many ways, he seems to have transcended his race, and the media reports on the first few few weeks of his presidency have highlighted his family's rather typical upper middle class sensibilities. His children reportedly have to make their own beds and set their own alarms, and his wife shops at J. Crew and feeds her family healthy, unprocessed food.

In a piece by Elijah Anderson called The Melting Pot Reconsidered (2000) that I assigned for the last week of my course on social stratification, Anderson seems to have predicted the arrival of Barack Obama. In this article, Anderson offers an update to the argument made in the 1960's by Glazer and Moynihan who asserted that the U.S. was on the cusp of being a true melting pot, with ethnic identities finally weakening in relevance and assimilation being the order of the day. Anderson suggested that Glazer and Moynihan were in fact unrealistic, that ethnic and racial identities in fact remain quite important markers of distinction, both for the minorities themselves and for society at large. Instead of a melting pot, in the 2000's, we have a salad bowl.

Anderson notes the special case of African Americans for whom the path to assimilation to the American common identity has been especially difficult; for them, race remains a master status. Given this, black men, Anderson suggests, have generally either aggressively embraced their 'other' status as 'Race Men', or have rejected their racial roots, 'selling out'. More recently, a new alternative has emerged, that of a 'new type of black professional', whose race and roots are acknowledged, but whose professional or occupational status are more important to him or her. This has of course created reactions from within the African American community, that this too represents a rejection of African American identity.

I proposed to my students that perhaps President Obama represents the apex of the new type of black professional, whose racial background is an element of his identity, but is not as central to him as his professional experiences and position are. My students were not so sure. Some suggested that his multiracial background, orc his African roots (as compared to African-American ones) set him apart from the start, not really making him comparable to African-Americans in general. For others, he is maybe more identifiable as just another member of the small black middle class, (which itself may in fact be primarily composed of these new types of black professionals). Others noted that his wife may be the better example of the new type of black professional.

For now, Obama's path remains atypical of the African American experience in the U.S. But, does he represent hope for African Americans and their futures? For Americans with multiple origins? For all Americans? Anderson suggests that for each black man who makes it, there is a certain alienation from the group out of which he has ascended, as well as a failure to win true acceptance from the masses. The prize comes with some drawbacks, in other words. What about for Obama? He has 'made it', his election suggests that he is widely and truly accepted, but does his victory alienate those who may share similar racial and/or ethnic roots, but whose life experiences and attainments are very different?

Anderson, Elijah. 2000. "Beyond the Melting Pot Reconsidered." in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States. 3rd edition, ed. by Thomas M. Shapiro (2005). Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 264-270.

03 March 2009

Tracking Little Leaguers

As my inaugural post, I repeat an example I used last week to illustrate mobility paths in my Introduction to Social Stratification course.

My twin sons recently went through their first Little League draft, to join the American League. This league is for children who turn 9 by April 30, and it is characterized by draft selection, fancier uniforms, and the spectacle of kids pitching to kids. Up to this point, any child could participate in baseball, and the teams have typically been composed of school and family friends. Tee-ball and coach-pitch games have been convivial affairs, with parents socializing on the sidelines, and coaches and volunteers shepherding kids to home plate and then again from base to base (in the early years, one sees a lot of wrong-way running). No one keeps official score, but the kids try to, with the final score invariably reflecting a win for their own team.

Now, everything is about to change. All the kids that want to play still get to, but their selection onto teams depends on their performance in a draft. In the draft, the coaches rank the players by ability and then select them onto teams (with the rankings and selection order kept secret by the coaches). The goal is to create more evenly-matched teams, and then to begin keeping score and reflecting each team's performance on a league scoreboard.

Creating more evenly-matched teams will certainly make for more competitive games. But this year is really just the beginning of the tracking process in youth sports, where the opportunities to move up begin to narrow. I suggested to my students that this reflects 'contested mobility', a concept illustrated in Ralph Turner's classic piece on social mobility (1960). In that piece, Turner characterizes the U.S. school system as a system of contested mobility where individuals seek elite positions through the means of an open contest, purportedly based on merit. The best, most talented will ascend to the top, and those in the middle go to middling positions, and so on. But, as we have seen in the U.S., a contest based on merit assumes a level playing field, which we do not have, in school or in youth baseball. Our educational system does not receive children with the same level of school preparation, nor does it create level outcomes for children at the other end, and neither does baseball. The draft was an attempt to identify talent, but it also reflects much more. Certainly, there were some clearly talented kids at the draft, batting at the balls coming out of the pitching machine or successfully catching fly balls. But, how fair was the contest? One student in my class wondered how much my children's performance in the draft, for example, might have been influenced by social capital investments. Indeed, the fact that I have signed the kids up for baseball each year gives them an edge in experience. The pre-draft warm-up course in which my sons participated over three evenings several months ago also was an investment in their skills. And, the encouragement from extended family helps, the support from grandparents and aunts on the sidelines, and gifts of mitts and baseball bags. So, the draft doesn't only reflect talent, but also level of preparation and other intangibles.

This year, such investments may not matter all that much. But, next year, the path narrows even more apparently, as the draft rankings determine which kids go on to the elite league and which ones to the common league. Merit, or talent, remain the basis of the ranking in the draft, but from this point, the system begins to resemble what Turner calls the sponsored mobility track, where the elite are identified relatively early in the process and put on a separate track altogether, while the rest are directed into another track.

These two kinds of mobility systems, sponsored and contested, have other kinds of distinctions. Turner brings up the difficulties of ensuring loyalty to either kind of system (e.g. how to get the masses vested in systems in which most of them will never reach the top). It will be interesting to see how Little League fosters that American loyalty to baseball that seizes the populace each spring, even though most of those fans never got picked for the elite teams in Little League. Something still inspires them to 'play ball' or to fork out money to watch it being played. Needless to say, I'll have lots of time to ponder this as I sit on the sidelines during the interminable innings of kid-pitch baseball this spring.

(Citation: Turner, Ralph H. 1960. "Sponsored and contested mobility and the school system." American Sociological Review 25.)