Wednesday, April 9, 2008
A Little Southern Charm
Our new digs!
'The Big P," the non-profit I work for, went before the city zoning & planning commissions a few weeks ago to ask for approval to change our zoning from "offices" to "neighborhood center" so that we can open our doors to the general public, officially hold ESL classes, give people access to a safe space where they can take a shower, wash their clothes, organize themselves, hold community meetings, etc. instead of just being open for appointments only.
The first part of the process involved submitting a proposal to the zoning board, which was a bit of a bumpy process. The zoning board had a hard time understanding that although we are under the umbrella organization of a church denomination, and we will be starting a new church plant somewhere in the neighborhood, we are NOT a church. Church offices and a church worship space are two completely different things and can be located in two completely different spaces. Also against our favor is the fact that we share the same denomination as a local pre-storm homeless mission which was "notorious" for allowing its clients to get a breath of fresh air in the parking lot (aka "loitering") or to find temporary respite from sleeping on the streets by spending the occasional night at the mission (aka "zoning violation"). This association made the city nervous about what kind of operation we'd be running. In response, we downplayed the part of our mission which does outreach to the homeless community and reiterated 17 times that we were NOT going to hold church services in our offices (an activity which would fall outside the zoning we were requesting). And, we dressed up.
One of my coworkers tells the story of a friend of hers from up north who got a speeding ticket here in Mississippi. She went to court to contest the ticket, and watched as the woman in front of her, all done up, pleaded her case with the judge: "Oh, I'm so sorry your honor, I didn't realize I was over the limit, I promise it won't happen again. I'm just so sorry!" (Bats eyelashes, simpers, maybe squeezes out a little tear.) She got her ticket reduced or waived, I forget which, as the judge smiled indulgently and sent her on her way. Next up, my coworker's Yankee friend, who had shown up wearing a not particularly feminine outfit, and who immediately and vociferously began protesting her ticket as unfair and unmerited. She couldn't, for the life of her, understand why the judge, with a stern glare, doubled her fine after the lady in front of her had gotten off scot free.
This story illustrated for me and my good friend & coworker E, the two green Midwesterners, the tenacious power that the Southern Belle archetype continues to exercise over Dixie culture. The woman who flaunts her sex appeal, subverting the patriarchy through use of her so-called feminine wiles, wins the day; every Southern woman has a little Scarlett O'Hara in her, and when necessary, she knows how to turn on the charm.
How does this relate to the zoning commission? The moral of my coworker's story was that, when dealing with Southern males in positions of authority, you play into the archetype and you get what you want. Every member of the commission is male--the only woman in the room (besides us) was the secretary taking notes. So the morning of our appointment, we all got dolled up (seeing that I can get away with wearing a t-shirt and jeans at work, this is a big deal), dressed to the nines (heels! trouser pants! blouses! oh my!), and practiced our most simpering smiles, which the Fire Chief and his cohorts just ate right up.
Did it feel a bit off? Yes--I'm used to being treated as a person first, a woman second; France is the only other place I've felt so keenly a woman first, a person second. The whole thing tasted like a farce, a lovely little bit of play-acting designed to get us what we wanted. (You decide where you fall on the question of whether this is a degrading blow to women's dignity or a feminist co-opting of the patriarchy.)
Did it work? Yes--after several back-and-forths, we were recommended for approval by the zoning commission, and the city council (also all male, also a meeting for which we arrived all done up) unanimously passed our zoning change. Which allows us to open Project SafeSpace next week, which means showers, laundry, and a community of acceptance and transformation for our displaced and homeless brothers and sisters on the street.
A curious culture, a worthy end.