“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?
This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.
Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”
Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)
Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016
Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.
Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html
Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.
Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042
Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.
And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.
Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data
But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
One of my favorite aspects of our State of the South blog is how this medium provides MDC staff members the opportunity to think through new things we’re learning. This site is where we turn our curiosity to exploration, to analysis, and to asking difficult questions regarding how social, cultural, and economic factors influence the odds of upward economic mobility in the South. In light of our recent community work sessions discussing economic mobility across North Carolina with the John M. Belk Endowment, my “#NCMobilityMatters” radar is on high alert. I’m more attentive than before to the myriad issues and experiences that may keep N.C. residents, and people all across the South, from progressing from foundational education all the way to economic security with a living-wage job.
So when I attended a screening this past fall of the documentary Private Violence, which shines light on the alarming rate of intimate partner violence cases across North Carolina (as well as the barriers to prosecuting such cases), my “mobility radar” went off. I was struck by the enormity of intimate partner violence (which in some form affects one in three women and one in four men) and sexual violence (which affects one in five women and one in 71 men)—the frequency of these crimes and their overarching effects on every aspect of a victim’s life: their ability to take care of their own families, to seek mental and physical healthcare, to save money, and to pursue their educational and career aspirations. I came away from the documentary wanting to know more about how intimate partner violence and sexual violence deter those who are affected by it—most often women—from staying on their chosen path to success and security.
Source: National Coalition against Domestic Violence
Stalled Mobility for Victims
We often hear commentary regarding the long-term effects on perpetrators of being charged with intimate partner violence (also called “domestic abuse”) and gender-based violence. Being convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to time in prison can certainly have enduring effects for perpetrators; for victims, who are disproportionately female, the pain, violation, and trauma of abuse and assault can carry devastating, long-term consequences. When these gender-based and intimate partner violence crimes are perpetrated, the path to opportunity is interrupted for both victim and convicted perpetrator. (However, it should be noted that only one out of four arrested abusers is convicted, and less than half of gender-based violence crimes are reported.) Furthermore, the fear of reporting assault—and the resultant pain when reports fail to lead to just convictions—can compound the trauma that makes it difficult for victims to complete educational and career endeavors.
These crimes are not inevitable parts of our society—the abusive actions that cause interruptions in opportunity can be prevented, so that fewer perpetrators and victims are derailed from pursuit of economic security and rewarding employment. Below are just some examples of how intimate partner violence and gender-based violence impede paths to success for victims, who are disproportionately female:
- Employment and Economic Security
Nearly 50 years of working to expand opportunity in the South has confirmed MDC’s analysis that clear and accessible pathways leading from education to employment to economic security are crucial for building a more equitable society. So it’s unsettling to see that gender-based violence often inhibits progression and retention along the path to an economically stable future, particularly for women. As Private Violence demonstrates, these forms of abuse are pervasive in North Carolina, presenting further barriers to opportunity where there already is significant stalled upward mobility for those born into the lowest income quintiles. Indeed, the percentage of women in poverty in the state of North Carolina has increased in the last 10 years, and the rate of women victimized by gender-based violence in North Carolina has risen above the national average.
Violence, Mobility, and Belonging
It makes sense that trauma associated with interpersonal violence would have such life-crippling effects. After all, how are you supposed to move along the path from education and training to employment to savings to civic participation if you are being routinely told—physically, verbally, and emotionally—that your body, your power, your dreams are threatened or in someone else’s control?
When we talk about opportunity at MDC, we talk about three particular dimensions that position people on the pathway to success: belonging, thriving, and contributing. We know that when we create a civic narrative in which there is room for everyone to belong, and bodies and lives that are routinely and systemically told they don’t matter are lifted up and reaffirmed as valuable, communities become altogether stronger from a wider sense of communal investment and engagement. But currently, the messages to victims of gender-based and intimate partner violence are shaming or silencing, rather than supportive. The influence of these messages can be seen in the educational attainment and economic security figures cited above.
In order to increase opportunity for both those at risk of being perpetrators and those at risk of being victims, we need more affirming and equity-based messages about power and gender in order to prevent gender-based violence from occurring in the first place. We need to embrace messages that value people over power, and we need to intentionally communicate these messages to our youngest community members. This can happen at home, in schools, in media and in the workplace (e.g. middle school anti-bullying programs or corporate decisions to eliminate outsourcing to sweatshops). Those messages are a starting point for influencing policies and practices that view every human being worthy of traveling the path to economic security with safety and support.
We’re in a special season here at MDC: it’s the time of year when we select our new Autry Fellow, a recent college graduate who will spend one year learning from and contributing to MDC’s programs that help bring people and places closer to opportunity and success. As MDC staff members review applications each year, we keep in mind that an ideal Fellow brings to MDC a spirit of both reflection and hope: they critically examine systems that produce inequitable outcomes, but also firmly believe in the potential and strength of leaders and communities to make those systems better. Indeed, this determined mix of examination and encouragement is a crucial asset in any community working towards change. My colleagues and I saw this spirit first-hand when we discussed economic mobility with leaders in Fayetteville last month.
Our discussion with a cross-section of leaders in Fayetteville was the last in a series of community work sessions that MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment held throughout the state in 2016 to disseminate the report, North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity. In these sessions, representatives from MDC, the Endowment, and various sectors in each locality examined data related to economic mobility in North Carolina and discussed strategies for changing the odds for success, rather than merely helping individuals beating the odds.
In mid-December, we traveled to Fayetteville: a mid-sized city in the Sandhills of North Carolina with strong higher education institutions and a notable military population, thanks to the presence of Fort Bragg. As we learned from session participants, some of Fayetteville’s greatest strengths lie in community leaders’ ability to come together and speak honestly and reflect about community challenges. But, participants told us, all too often, a thorough examination of the issues leads to exhaustion and discouragement, distracting from the great work—often of national recognition—done by dedicated leaders in education, government, philanthropy, public service, and more.
But the leaders gathered at Fayetteville Technical Community College’s Horticulture Education Center that Tuesday afternoon collectively refuted the persistent whisper of discouragement. “There’s a lot to be proud of, and we need to tell our story more effectively,” Dr. Larry Keen, President of FTCC, told the group. Keen and others acknowledged the barriers that can keep people in Fayetteville stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder: competition for limited resources, a cradle-to-career continuum with room for increased collaboration, and difficulty getting new perspectives involved in planning and design. But they also acknowledged that they had significant work to build on and resources to tap, including what they shared during our afternoon session: a group of knowledgeable leaders, their honesty and self-reflection, and their determined belief in the potential of Fayetteville’s residents and institutions. And they were ready to put these strengths into action: “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Keen said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility to step in.”
Thank you, Fayetteville, for showing us at MDC what it looks like to have difficult conversations with compassion and integrity, without becoming discouraged or apathetic. Economic mobility requires having high expectations for what can be achieved—and those expectations are too often stolen by the hopelessness of poverty. With continued courageous conversations like this one, Fayetteville can begin changing the odds in their community.
A big thank-you to all the communities and leaders who spoke frankly with us this past year about the economic mobility opportunities and challenges in their communities. You can read here on the State of the South blog about our time in Western N.C., in the North Central Prosperity Zone, in Monroe, N.C. and Wilkes County, and in the Northeast and Southeast region.
If you’ve been keeping up with us here on the State of the South blog, you probably know that we’ve been traveling across North Carolina since August facilitating community work sessions with the John M. Belk Endowment and local institutional partners. These work sessions were sparked by a report that MDC and the Belk Endowment released earlier this year titled North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity, examining how North Carolina reflects recent research showing that the South has the lowest rates of economic mobility for young people in the nation.
To find out how these data play out in real places in North Carolina, we talked with leaders from eight communities in the state about how residents and institutions are confronting slim odds for upward mobility. Now we’re reconvening those same leaders and more to reflect on the data as a cross-sector group and to lay the groundwork for planning next steps.
Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers (Pitt Community College) share why mobility matters to them.
In mid-November, two MDC staff members had the privilege of traveling to the eastern part of the state to hold two of these work sessions: one in Brunswick County, including leaders from New Hanover County; and one in Beaufort County, including leaders from Pitt and Martin counties, as well. Though distinct in geography and history, these regions in the southern and northern parts of the state have a lot in common—people in leadership who care about their community and are striving for deeper cross-sector coordination; a mixture of urban and rural areas, each with unique needs; and strong higher education institutions that are determined to expand access to all residents in their service areas.
Those of us at MDC who had the opportunity to speak with a variety of leaders in both communities couldn’t help but notice a similar challenge, followed by a similar proclamation, in both regions: Fragmented work makes for fragmented funding, which stalls strategic investment that could move a community forward as a collective group. Both sets of leaders bemoaned that all too often, groups of leaders get together, each say their bit about the work they’re doing, and then go back to their corners without having really changed much about their way of working. Even in communities where there is some cross-over, it can be difficult to create deep collaboration that reaches every system or institution at every level. In fact, a participant at the Brunswick County session raised an issue with the word “collaboration” itself: one definition of the word refers to how an enemy might gather information from their opposing side. Though malicious intent doesn’t apply, this sense of working on separate “teams” is all too common as communities strive in silos to achieve change and growth.
But both of these work sessions were different. Inspired by sobering data showing that nearly 70 percent of children born into poverty in both the southeast and northeast regions in North Carolina will stay at the very bottom or rise only one income quintile as adults, leaders from these eastern counties were ready to put their heads together to find a new way of pooling their resources. By aligning their efforts and working to fill gaps in resources as a community team, in which all players are working towards the same goal, these regions can start to build an infrastructure of opportunity in which the systems and factors that influence a person’s path to success are strengthened and aligned to make sure no one sees inequitable barriers to opportunity.
Big thanks to the caring and insightful leaders from New Hanover, Brunswick, Pitt, Martin, and Beaufort counties for two great conversations this November on why #NCMobilityMatters! It’s hard to believe we only have on more community work session to go—we’ll see you Dec. 13, Fayetteville!
“Because it mattered to me and my family.”
“Because people matter.”
“Because the alternative is stagnation.”
“Because kids deserve to have their dreams within reach.”
These are just some of the responses we got when we asked a room of leaders in Swain, Jackson, Macon counties and the Qualla Boundary to complete the phrase, “Mobility matters in Western North Carolina because … .” Representatives from higher education, the K-12 system, economic development, and philanthropy came together two weeks ago for a work session on increasing the odds for upward mobility in the region.
Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions.
We wanted to look at the nuanced ways that our home state of North Carolina, a state grounded in Southern geography, history, and identity, reflects the patterns of “stickiness” illuminated by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Researchers looked at economic mobility in “commuting zones” (regional economies that share a labor force and sometimes cross county or state lines). In the commuting zones that encompass Swain, Jackson, and Macon Counties, one third of children born into the lowest income quintile will remain in the bottom as adults. An additional half will rise only to the second-lowest or middle income quintiles, leaving only one-fifth of low-income children rising to the upper or upper-middle quintiles as adults. And these counties fare better in terms of economic mobility compared to their in-state neighbors: 19 of 24 commuting zones in North Carolina have worse mobility odds than these Western counties.
What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Franklin area?
Source: Equality of Opportunity Project
What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Sylva area?
Source: Equality of Opportunity Project
Yet on August 31st, in a room at Western Carolina University, people well aware of the challenges facing the region were not filled with a sense of defeat. Rather, there was a sense of urgency and a charge set forth by the university’s chancellor, David Belcher: “Those of us in the room are the privileged, but we’re also the leaders. It’s time we broke from our old ways of working, because either we own the issue or we own the outcome.”
Participants affirmed the chancellor’s charge by contributing their own perspectives on the local forces both supporting and impeding equitable mobility in the region. The group named some familiar challenges in the Western part of the state: a geography that draws tourists, but also makes it difficult to draw large employers and to provide affordable housing, transportation, and broadband solutions to improve access to resources. But the region has its strengths as well: solid entrepreneurial programs at the university and community college; a strong sense of regional care and collaboration; and a cultural tradition that values education and helps residents form social connections.
By thinking through the forces working both for and against increasing the mobility odds in the three-county region, leaders found themselves thinking through creative ways to strengthen their community’s infrastructure of opportunity, or the systemic factors that can be aligned to work more effectively in favor of expanding education and living-wage prospects for residents. The group of 50 participants discussed the need for increased private investment in the area; the promise of starting college and workforce preparation even earlier than high school, so even middle school students can set aspirational goals that will, in turn, contribute to local economic growth; and the urgency of including more partners—even across state lines—in a conversation about expanding broadband access, so that those living within the counties can enjoy the benefits of technology, and those working inside the counties’ lines can afford to call it home.
Creating an infrastructure of opportunity is made possible when communities collectively digest data, understand the challenge, engage in dialogue about the set of conditions working for and against their shared goals for mobility, and respond accordingly and collaboratively. Thank you, Swain, Macon, and Jackson counties and the Qualla Boundary, for joining us in a conversation about economic mobility in the western part of the state. Up next: Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin, and Nash counties! Stay tuned.