Not getting caught up in dress codes
A hole is nothing at all but you can break your neck in it.
-- Austin O’Malley
I was cleaning out my computer files on Sunday when I came upon an old letter written about six years ago when I brought, as my guest, Lateepha Hoating to a Weed and Seed meeting.
She was 24 at the time and wanted to volunteer as a community member to help bring unity to the streets of Hamilton Hill and was very eager to participate in planning and bringing to fruition a large block party in which (hopefully) all the agencies would work together for the betterment of our youth and their families.
Instead, she was harassed and embarrassed publicly.
I will quote directly from Paul Meier’s letter to the board president of that agency. Paul was a recently retired executive from Schenectady International, or SI, as it is now called. He had been a personal friend and a member of QUEST’s board and had worked as a mentor and job leader for the then-president of this agencies board.
I will quote from his letter (with Paul’s permission) to the board’s president at the time.
"As you might infer from the subject of this email, there has been another incident involving the ___ and QUEST.
"I have discussed this in some detail with Judy (myself). She tells me that Lateepha was not wearing a color that could be attributed to a Hamilton Hill gang. In fact, the current “gang colors” include a wide variety of colors and shades of color, including even white. Apparently if I attend the meeting and wore a navy blue blazer with a red tie (both are gang colors) I too may have been asked to leave.
"Of course this policy about dress preferences in individuals is counterproductive to the objectives of “___” and the other organizations that purport to serve the needs of the Hill residents.
Most importantly in this case, ___ and by association his supervisor caused a young woman significant embarrassment. Frankly if I had been there I would have taken issue with this action, immediately, on the grounds that it was unwarranted and discriminatory (it might even be legally actionable). Judy tells me that the demeanor of the other participants was shock or disbelief, but that no one seemed to intervene. Too bad!”
The letter goes on to ask for a written apology from the executive director and the site director. Two letters, one from each. It then continues in this vein.
“Perhaps if you as the board president require this of them, it will send the message that such arbitrary and disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated.”
This happened on May 25, 2005, at the Prevention Intervention and Treatment (P.I.T.) meeting. P.I.T. being an arm of Weed and Seed -- the object of that meeting being to enlist and hold community volunteers, and actually the scarf in question was a gift to Teepha from myself and was a Laura Ashley wool challis scarf -- brown with small blue flowers and a fringe. Teepha is of West Indian descent and wears scarfs often, as do many other women in the Hill and the surrounding environs. Needless to say, there were no letters or any effort at all to speak to Lateepha and try to explain to her or have any kind of dialogue at all with her about this incident.
I bring this up now because of Trayvon Martin. Essentially he was stalked by a neighborhood watch person because he was wearing a hoodie and for that he payed dearly, his life was held forfeit and he died on the streets. In a storm of nationwide protest thousands of Americans have donned hooded sweatshirts as a public outcry against this kind of dress discrimination.
Our sister city Albany marched last weekend carrying signs and wearing hoodies. Many of our local youth agencies still have these bizarre dress codes, such as no baseball caps, puffy jackets, and, yes, hoodies. They band together and claim it is a safety precaution. We at QUEST have been working with gang members (and others for almost 20 years) and have no dress code. Yet any problems or issues which have arisen have never come from clothing or jewelry.
More than likely anger rears its head over whose turn it is to empty the garbage or a stare-down among the young ones. We don’t have time for the nonsense. We are too busy moving people’s lives forward. Jose just got into the Job Corps at Glenmont. It’s been a month and he is still there. And we consider that a truly HUGE accomplishment. A shout out to Jose and 50 hugs. That’s what we’re looking at. QUEST -- Quiet Endeavors and Small Triumphs.
Remember the Rainbow Coalition? A Jessie Jackson idea, all colors working as one. Certainly reds and blues were not excluded from that continuum. Some of these ramblings started with Najjalea, a child wise beyond her years who moved to Florida over 2 years ago. Her picture is on Ellen Senisi’s website and she was part of the DVD that Ellen developed so lovingly over 11 months of filming the “Precious” project at QUEST.
I hear from her and her big sister Kyaja every Mother’s Day when they call me and we reminisce and share a few tears and memories. Last week she contacted me via Facebook and sent me a photo and caption of Trayvon Martin. Of course, she lives in Florida now, so she is heavily involved in speaking out. I like to think she got some of her big mouth and social consciousness from me. And her favorite color is/was purple. She often wore a bright purple jacket with the hood up. In fact, I have a photo of her wearing that jacket with the hood up inside at QUEST and she is on Ellen’s website wearing the same jacket peeking out from behind the hood.
You see, many of these children have trust issues, and they hide their faces behind their hoods. It makes them feel safer. I remember Sleepy saying about Bertie, (my dog) that he (Sleepy) couldn’t see Bertie’s eyes under his fur. It made it seem to Sleepy that Bertie and he were one of a kind. Hiding their eyes from the world, having a small amount of privacy in their lives because maybe their face and body are the only things in their lives that really truly belong to them.
We at QUEST are proof that an agency such as ours can offer both safety and fun without getting caught up in dress codes. We talk to kids about violence and “getting even” for what they perceive as being dissed. We want our kids to travel the world, to be a citizen of the universe, not that “scary ghetto kid.” Our kids are keepers, a welcome addition and a real contributing citizen of the community in which they live. Out of the mouths of babes comes truth. You just have to listen.
"To understand truth one must have a very sharp, precise, clear mind; not a cunning mind, but a mind that is capable of looking without any distortion, a mind innocent and vulnerable.”
-- J. Krishnamurti