Seven-year-old Tristan Singeltary has purple glasses and a matching lavender easter egg on her yellow t-shirt. She's really cute. And she's also happy to explain, to any interested parties, the complex problem that is gentrification:
Well, not exactly right, but it's a lovely thought from a smiley little girl. And after all, that’s why Tristan and her fellow campers are here at STEAM camp in Brooklyn. That's STEAM for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math" - this year's theme is gentrification. And in case you're worried, another camper, sophisticated 10-year-old Ayanna Lee, nails it.
"Just imagine, you were in a house, you were struggling to pay the rent," she says. "But you worked so hard to pay it. And then all of the sudden the landlord comes to you and says you’re being evicted – somebody is moving into this house. It’s like you did everything right and then something bad just happens to you."
Gerard Miller, community outreach coordinator with non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who works with the kids one day a week teaching financial literacy, says if they learn the basics now, hopefully by the time they’re adults, they’ll have a say in the sometimes scary changes they see happening around them.
“People feel like the neighborhood that they’ve known is ceasing to be,” he says. “Blocks in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, that 15, 20 years ago, people didn’t want to move onto are now multi-million dollar blocks.”
A shiny new building on a Bedford-Stuyvesant block has 9-year-old Xaavi Vericain excited, though his knowledge of architectural history and design may still need some work:
On a recent summer day, one of the camp’s co-founders, Clarisa James of DIVAS for Social Justice, took the kids on a documentary expedition. They were exploring the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant to photograph gentrification in progress. And even if they couldn't provide a formal definition, gentrification as urban reality is something the campers are familiar with. Many of them are experiencing it first hand on their own blocks and in their own neighborhoods. When James points out a "for rent" sign on a newly renovated building, 12-year-old camper Kiyari Jaundoo takes notice.
"I could tell my mom about it," she says. "Because we’re trying to find an apartment."
"Why doesn’t your mother get a fifth job so you can still stay in your brownstone?" asks 9-year-old Xaavi Vericain. "She might get a lot of money to buy a whole house."
Lately, Miller has been discussing mortgages with the kids. They get pretty deep about debt and how it can impact their lives.
Says 10-year-old Ayanna Lee, of debt: "That’s like basically having no social life.”
“It’s because you might go broke and you might not have that much money," chimes in 12-year-old Alydia Wells. "Plus you owe a debt to yourself because you never got a life. You’re always going to have debt."
"'Cause you’re going to owe your parents," says Lee, "and you can’t run away from your parents. The real lesson would actually be, to always be responsible if you have debt, because you can’t go blowing off your money [when] you owe somebody like $1,000 or $200 dollars, and you just spent it on a pair of Gucci shoes and ice cream."
Miller explains why he teaches at the camp: "When you talk about gentrification, you’re not really talking about the people who are moving in, you’re talking about the kinds of money that’s moving in," says Miller. "Not having a basic understanding of finances endangers you, because then someone else is making decisions that affect your life."
When a small, dusty, and empty plot of grass is spotted, 10-year-old Xaavi Vericain is asked how much money he has.
"A lot," is the answer.
And how much does he think the land costs?
The campers seem to be grasping the basics quickly.