Last Friday I submitted my first real grant proposal. The Bashkia and I hope to help improve the schoolyard infrastructure at a local school this spring while incorporating some clean up days and a recycling education event. I’ve been reluctant to talk about the project until after it’s a go (i.e. receives funding) because I think it’s a pretty legitimate, community-driven idea and I really hope it can come to fruition. Plus, it’s something my counterpart and the local school have been thinking about and working on since the summer, so it feels like a part of my life already. At times this project feels like a really small thing on the scale of international development or even peace corps. But, for me, the proposal was a lot of work and a learning experience and the turning in of it all was a bit of a milestone. Let’s hope it works out.
I was in the urban development office at the Bashkia scanning documents for the grant proposal on Friday and a friend and colleague who speaks very good English (one of the newer urban planners/architects in the office) asked me what the name of my hometown was. I spelled out Blacksburg, VA and he typed the name into google earth. From sattelite view he admired the grid layout of the downtown and commented on the number of trees. We then went on to talk about other things. After a while, when I had kindof forgotten he was looking at Blacksburg, he turns to me and says “there must not be any black people there.”
“There must not be any black people there, it’s too clean,” he clarified.
This comment completely threw me. All the hours of class talking about social justice and city planning seemed to suddenly seal up into some vice in my brain and I tried to [uneloquently] explain that no, that did not necessarily mean that that was why Blacksburg appeared clean. There are many complex historical, legal and geographical factors that all come into play in the racial demographic makeup of cities in the US (and that might be very hard for a member of an almost completely homogenous Albanian society to understand). Plus, what can you tell from a sattelite photo, anyway? He was not convinced.
My floundering for proof and lack of ability to impart any of my claimed knowledge of American social politics and city development made me frustrated and embarrassed for myself. Why couldn’t I get it together and show this very well educated (by Albanian standards) young professional in my same field that his view of American cities might be a bit narrow? To add insult to injury, he looked up the demographic breakdown of Blacksburg from the last census and found that it is over 80% white, thus confirming his theory in his mind.
So, on the heels of my personal success of getting a grant proposal in on time, the inherent cultural differences of Albania came up and hit me in the face. It’s definitely a rollercoaster of success and failure for me here everyday. My whole conversation about Blacksburg is just another example of a time when I feel both completely hopeless and stupidly idealistic, which actually happens quite a lot.