You Know What They Say about Assumptions…

I’ve always loved community service- I volunteered in a creative movement class for autistic children in high school, participated in SHOW (Students Helping Out Williamsburg) day before orientation, and became a member of the CKI community service group last semester. Interestingly, the projects I did with CKI in the fall kept me on campus, and I only ventured out once to the surrounding neighborhoods to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. At the first meeting last tuesday, however, I discovered that my schedule had cleared up on fridays to allow to participate in the Lafayette trips, where CKI members go to the Lafayette low-income housing complex and help tutor and play with the children. One of my friends had gone to Lafayette last semester, and had loved interacting with the kids there, so I decided to give it a shot, too.

As I walked to a fellow member’s car on friday, I had many expectations of what Lafayette would be. I pictured old, small apartments with flaking paint and deteriorating structures. I envisioned reading to the children from outdated books and playing with board games that were missing pieces. I thought I would be able to recognize fraying bags and old clothes, and expected to be overwhelmed with sympathy for the children and grateful for my own modest, yet affluent, upbringing.

As we turned off of Richmond Road onto a side street that marked my first venture outside of William and Mary’s immediate influence, I began to take in my surroundings. Things didn’t look that different from my hometown. We passed a playground and park that, while modest, looked well-kept and accessible. There were lots of residential houses, which were no “McMansions”, but looked sufficiently comfortable and welcoming. Actually, the oldest and most dilapidated thing I noticed was the car we ourselves were riding in- an older standard transmission with crank-down windows that had probably seen better days. As we continued on, we turned onto a main road which was surprising devoid of stores and restaurants. There was a gas station and a couple of strip malls, but nothing compared to areas I’m used to around the outlets and Richmond Road, which I swear contain every national chain store and food establishment known to mankind. The area was definitely more open and spread out than Colonial Williamsburg and my home in New England, but nothing about it screamed intense poverty to me.

About five minutes later we pulled into Lafayette, and as I took in my surroundings I thought it must be some kind of a joke. The housing complex looked exactly like every other apartment complex or living area I’d been to; the apartments were new and well-kept (although clearly very small); the grass was mowed and groomed; there was even a small playground in the center of the area. This was definitely not what I expected low-income housing to look like. When we walked into the community room of the complex, where kids are sent after school to ‘stay out of trouble’, I was even more surprised. The room consisted of a small kitchen area, an area with tables for the kids to work at, and five computers. Was it small? Yes, but I was extremely surprised by the amount of technology present and the general good condition of the room.

As the kids started to trickle in, the only big difference I noticed between Lafayette and the Williamsburg I was used to was who seemed to live at here. The two community room supervisors were both African American, and most of the kids seemed to be either African American or Hispanic. This is very different from William and Mary, where African American students only make up about a quarter of the student body, and other minorities account for even less. Seeing the kids at Lafayette really made me realize that there does seem to be a sharp distinction based on race here in Williamsburg. It definitely reinforced the message that I hadn’t seen all of the town, and that the student population of William and Mary isn’t very representative of the area. Seeing the children of minorities that came from low income families also reminded me of a curious observation I made last semester- while a vast majority the students at William and Mary are caucasian, almost all of the dining hall employees, construction workers, and housekeepers are from minorities. Just thinking about this sharp dividing line makes me uncomfortable, and I wish there were an easy way to fix the clear racial inequalities I see every day.

The kids themselves, however, shared many of the same interests and personality traits that I did as a child. We all loved playing “Apples to Apples” and kickball, and I even exchanged SillyBands with some of the kids. Contrary to what I had expected, I probably wouldn’t have known that these children came from low income families or that Lafayette was partly subsidized housing if I hadn’t been told previously. The children’s clothes were perfectly fine, their books were up to date, and the well-kept condition of Lafayette hardly suggested a disarray or lack of funds. The program supervisors from Lafayette even offered all the CKI members snacks and soda, which we politely declined but further added to Lafayette’s hospitality and sense of “normality”.

I guess I learned two important lessons from visiting Lafayette friday. The first lesson is that there is definitely a distinct division in Williamsburg between the jobs and education that white individuals receive compared to individuals of minorities. I’ve learned that William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg don’t tell the whole story of this town, and that many areas are very different from the tourist-centric area that surrounds the college. The second lesson is that places, and people, aren’t always what they seem. Lafayette and its residents did not seem impoverished, and I wouldn’t have connected that it was a low income complex if I had simply driven through. Because things can be different than they appear, I must be careful when interviewing individuals and be sure to keep my own biases in check. Visiting Lafayette allowed me to see Williamsburg in a different light, and I will be sure to keep the lessons I learned friday with me for the rest of my time here and beyond.


About

The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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