Fitness Philanthropy, Failed States, and Physical Cultural Fissures: The Problem of Addressing "Urban" Youth in Baltimore

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Mower, Ronald Lee
Andrews, David L
Situated within a severely polarized Baltimore City, this dissertation explores the increasing role of voluntary organizations in addressing health disparities and various "crises" commonly associated with the "urban" environment (juvenile delinquency, crime, poverty, and ill-health). Given renowned cultural geographer, David Harvey's (2001) proclamation that Baltimore is a city "emblematic of the processes that have moulded cities under US capitalism" (p. 7), the rise of privatized voluntarism reflects a distinct shifting of responsibility inherent to neoliberalization processes. The failures of the state in providing adequate public resources for physical activity and health for example, has resulted in more private citizens deploying their educational and professional expertise, wealth and spare time, and creative ambitions to intervene in ways they deem most appropriate. Amidst an effort to map the broad structures of racial and class inequality shaping Baltimore's divisive environments, the specific focus of this project entailed a close ethnographic engagement with one non-profit organization that sought to reform the health and fitness lifestyles of "at-risk" and underserved African American youth between 2008 and 2012. As a participant observer, I examined the everyday operation of fitness pedagogies, disciplinary structures, and power relations between wealthy, white philanthropists and middle class fitness professionals ("faculty"), and the underserved working class black youth ("students") they attempted to instruct about fitness and health. Employing what Wolcott (2008) defined as the ethnographic methods of experiencing and inquiring, I observed and spoke with people concerning their perceptions of fitness and health, and their experiences within the program. I also examined programmatic documents from several fitness-based non-profit organizations across Baltimore. Issues of white privilege, philanthropic intent, colormuteness, and the normalization of neoliberal healthism emerged as key findings. As an embodied participant, I also encountered scenarios that challenged my habitual ability to cross the racial and class boundaries typified by the positionalities and lived experience of faculty and students. Having been reared in, and routinely experienced, such divisions in my own life, the performative politics of embodiment became an important point of analysis to make sense of my cultural "betweenness" (England, 1994), and the role that self-reflexive writing practices played during fieldwork.