Last night, I ran into the woman who hired me for my first job shortly after I moved to Baltimore 23 years ago. The chance encounter made me reflect on the me of two decades ago, back when I was the communications coordinator at the Maryland Food Committee, a non-profit organization that worked to bring an end to hunger and poverty in the state. Lofty goals! It was hard, grim work, immersing myself into people’s lives of quiet, and not-so-quiet, desperation. Attempting to make the face of hunger real instead of a nebulous abstraction, I’d interview people for stories I’d run in a monthly newsletter. Their stories are still vividly fixed in my heart, so generously shared with a fairly naïve, small-town girl from Minnesota, transplanted to a decently sized and decidedly complicated East Coast city. Stories of homes filled with flaking lead paint picked at and ingested by children desperate with hunger who were then left with unalterable brain damage. Stories of hard-working men, laid off, no family support system, forced to live on the street, trying to find a new job with no phone number to list on job applications, no address.
My office was in a clapboard row house on 25th Street. The neighborhood on the unquestionably sketchy side, one day, as two colleagues and I walked to grab some lunch at a local deli, someone grabbed the wallet out of my coworker’s hand and sprinted off with it. She mourned not the loss of the money, but the picture of her infant son, and was relieved when her empty wallet was retrieved from a nearby dumpster, cash free, but still picture rich, the next day. I admit I was somewhat intimidated by my new surroundings, but strove to push down my fears of driving and walking around some of Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods and public housing complexes as I tried to do what needed doing for my job of making the invisible visible — telling the tough stories and trying to open people’s hearts and minds to food inequity issues.
We all worked long hours in our dark and sparse offices, educating the public about the serious problem of hunger in Maryland, lobbying for better legislation to provide school breakfast to children and permanently eradicate hunger, working in partnership with the Maryland Food Bank to make sure soup kitchens and food pantries could meet the demand and feed all people in need. (Did you know many soup kitchens close in the summer simply because they can’t manage the additional burden of feeding children who would usually be served at least one or two meals a day in school under the free and reduced school lunch plan? Heartbreaking stuff.)
In this professional environment, the cramped row house, rooms stuffed with desks and earnest advocates, drawers bursting with data on all that is lacking, on the empty refrigerators, and emptier pockets, a colleague and I decided to start, of all things, a Joy Committee. We saw yet another unmet need, another form of emptiness, so we held a meeting of two and started a campaign to transform the tone of our somber office to one of gratitude and cheer. Our approach was simple and direct, leaving random notes of appreciation for staff, surprising people with flowers cut from gardens and slipped into plastic tumblers repurposed to vases, dispensing hugs and taking the time to warmly greet people and drench them with smiles as they resolutely trudged to their tiny, allotted spaces, wearing crab-shaped deely-bopper headbands as we conducted the day’s business around the office. We strove to inject laughter into every day.
The Maryland Food Committee staff had become a pretty gruff bunch, driven to darkness because we gazed on all that is wrong all day long. We’d taken to donning hair shirts and filling our shoes with tacks, concerned that any signs of personal peace or happiness could be construed as a lack of commitment to our righteous cause. All that really did was make our hard work harder and our staff burn out sooner, yearn to head out to some space that offered more radiance and softer attire. Embracing joy where we could find it did not detract from our productivity or passion for justice, it just made the pain and injustice we witnessed every day slightly more endurable.
My dedication to the Joy Committee, formed 23 years ago at my desk pushed up against the loading dock doors in that row house on 25th Street, has never left me. Until last night, I’d pretty much forgotten about the period of official ratification of my fringe committee. Although I eventually moved on from the Maryland Food Committee, I realize that I’ve attempted to remain a lifelong member of the Joy Committee. How different am I now than I was 23 years ago? Very. And not much at all.