/reconstructions nov 7 '17
On Saturday, October 21st, I had the chance to attend the Homestudio-Lab workshop, “Home Sweet Home”, which took place as part of a day-long series of programs focused on gentrification and displacement. Homestudio-Lab collaborators, Shari Hersh and Beth Enson, led participants in this workshop which explored the ways that discriminatory laws and institutional practices like red-lining and the GI Bill influence the accumulation of wealth throughout multiple generations. Shari and Beth, (whose long-term friendship and commitment to collaboration is so inspiring), pull from different forms of trauma-informed practice in structuring their workshops and discussion, which results in an atmosphere where difficult topics can be approached and discussed without judgment.

Participants learned about key acts that have enabled, or prevented, families, to accrue wealth based on their race, supported with independent readings of articles available during the workshop. The slower pace of the workshop, which was discussion-based and not a lecture, allowed time and personal space to explore these issues and reflect on them through the manual art activities. Each participant was invited to look up their address on a red-lining map and to contextualize their family experience within the context of this larger societal issue.

The next activity involved looking up the same address on Google street view, tracing a contour line drawing of the house, notating whether the house was marked hazardous or desirable, and writing a small reflection about the house and family experience in the context of these historical events. The drawings will be stitched into a sewn book, as well as added to the PHLA City Panorama mural.
I was touched by the approachable atmosphere of this workshop. It was educational, and asked participants to find their relationship to systemic injustice, while also offering space for reflection on personal experience. It is nostalgic to look up a street view of the house you grew up in, especially if you don’t live there anymore. Sometimes there’s a clash between your memory of a space and a recent image of it. Some participants found out that their family history was directly impacted by red-lining. Others found that the property value of their homes directly impacted their family’s ability to accrue wealth.

I would like to share a little bit about my story because so many white people of my generation, whose families may have moved throughout the country, lack a sense of roots to any geographic place or culture. Finding how your story fits into the complicated social landscape of America can take a little time to distill. I grew up in South Carolina and there were definitely discriminatory practices there, and the residue of segregation continues to this day (in my town there were very few people of color, and the majority of them lived in an area near the Intermediate school, which was the “colored school” during the ear of school segregation). But for this workshop, I ended up focusing on my grandfather’s house in New Jersey. It was a chance to further explore the subtleties of white privilege, as well as the qualms that some people have in exploring it. I come from a family of Irish Immigrants and I have frequently heard people hold the sentiment, “It doesn’t have to do with me. My ancestors didn’t own slaves and weren’t even here during slavery. The Irish were oppressed too”. What is striking about this tone is its defensive nature. The Irish have been a very oppressed people; Celts were dominated continuously within Ireland, and throughout the diaspora. Background research (some links below) helps explain how many Irish people lost their culture in the black and white racial divide of America. Many subconsciously internalized this oppression, losing tradition, language, and ethnic identity, to become “white”. Additionally, descendants of Irish and “colored” people, were labeled as black.

My ancestors settled in Paterson, NJ, seeking employment in textile and industrial factories. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 opened access to the suburban spaces and “white flight”. My grandfather was able to purchase his home with benefits from the GI Bill (benefits many people of color were denied), after serving in the Korean War. It was a humble home, nine children in a three-bedroom house. But having access to the loans to make this purchase possible allowed my aunts and uncles to grow up in a stable “desirable” neighborhood, and opened doors for further education and social mobility that my cousins and I benefitted from. When my grandfather passed in 2008, the property value had risen since the time he purchased it, and the profits from selling the house were divided among family members. But the wealth accumulated by my family had less to do with financial wealth, and more to do with social privilege. We had the privilege to grow up in neighborhoods with good schools, green spaces, and low crime. I know that my family always sought to take care of their own as their first priority, wanting their children to have the same or more opportunities than they were given. I am grateful for the opportunities they worked to give me, but I mourn that others were denied these privileges. I mourn the culture my family lost, and the richness of diversity that I was denied growing up in a predominantly white community. I mourn that these institutional acts continue to displace families as red-lined areas become gentrified. Injustice after injustice. I mourn that the institution of public education, which is supposed to function as a ladder to social mobility, instead frequently funnels many children into a path towards prison.

In our polarized political climate, it is critical to see how racial division was historically implemented by elites to maintain the power to dominate lower classes. I have witnessed the ways that racism still causes people to view immigrants and people of color as economic and cultural threats, and distracts from the root economic and governmental issues that impact us all. Workshops like “Home Sweet Home” offer a chance to learn from the past and talk with others, in the hopes that we can continually become more aware and active in creating inclusive communities and equal opportunities.

Nolan, J. (1997). How the irish became white. IMR; International Migration Review, 31(2), 486-487.

Dunne, S. (2013). The irish bifocal and american sport: Exploring racial formation in the irish diaspora. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 48(4), 405-420. doi:10.1177/1012690212443340

Sarah Gregory