In Memoriam

Ed. Note: MDC Program Director and South Carolina native Shun Robertson shared these thoughts this morning in response to yesterday’s act of terror in Charleston, SC:

By now, we’ve all heard about last night’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and the senseless killings of Pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney and eight members of the Emanuel AME Church. This story is personal for me. I first met Senator Pinckney as Representative Pinckney when I was a page for the South Carolina House of Representatives. Years later, we would work together again when I was a lobbyist for the two-year college system. He was always one of the first to stand up and speak out against injustice in South Carolina. He had the loud, booming voice of a Southern Black preacher—when he spoke on the State House floor he demanded attention. I remember his impassioned pleas for more education funding for the poor, rural areas of the state. Legislator was more than a title to him. I also remember the times he would put his hand on his stomach, his head would go back, and he would give the deepest, loudest laughs. That’s how I choose to remember him.

We lost a fighter last night.

So today, in your quiet time, please send warm thoughts to the families of the victims and to my home state.

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity in Greenville, SC

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity in Greenville, SC

Last week we took State of the South on the road to one of the cities profiled in the report: Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is a quintessential Southern city—full of friendly people, great food, and beautiful sights. All of this Southern charm was on display during our short visit.

We met with nearly 40 education, nonprofit, and business leaders in an early morning meeting at the West End Community Development Center. After a presentation of the findings and data from State of the South, we led the group through an activity that we’ve used with other community partnerships and two-year colleges, the Loss-Momentum Framework. This framework is MDC’s adaptation of a tool created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; it helps institutions and communities visualize the structure of connections and gaps along the path from K-12 to two-year and four-year degrees. The Loss-Momentum Framework guides a deeper analysis of strengths and weaknesses, and identifies which transition points in the continuum need reinforcement or incentives to move more students toward the goals of credential completion and economically rewarding employment.

In Greenville, we mapped programs and activities that are part of the city’s infrastructure of opportunity, increasing the odds that students with limited access will make it through the education-to-career pipeline. After only fifteen minutes of brainstorming, the group was able to list nearly 100 programs in place throughout their community.

Participants eagerly started analyzing the framework, noting areas where there’s a lot of energy (school readiness) and areas that need more attention (completion to employment). During the conversation, several themes rose to the top:

  1. Greenville has a lot going on, but these activities typically operate in isolation. The city should find ways to dismantle silos and connect complementary organizations and programs in meaningful ways. A recent United Way of Greenville County study found between 30-40 different community visions across organizations in Greenville. Participants concluded that there should be one shared vision with common measures and goals, created through a collaborative effort that can unite and energize the community.
  2. Participants recognized the importance of good data to drive decision making. They want to drill deeper into State of the South data to get a better understanding of what’s happening in their community, and use these data to build more effective programs and systems with positive outcomes for young people.
  3. The group felt the need to expand the meeting table. Parents and students should be a part of these conversations, offering their thoughts on how to strengthen the education-to-career pipeline. One participant said, “Let’s stop talking about people without inviting them to be a part of the solution.”

This is the beginning of a larger conversation in Greenville. We know that systems change does not happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere. Greenville has taken the first step in changing their systems and building an infrastructure of opportunity that supports everyone.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.

Making College Possible in the Arkansas Delta

Making College Possible in the Arkansas Delta

Across several Southern states, educational opportunities for youth are defined by where they live. This fact is evident in rural areas where access to opportunities are often few and far away.

Many students raised in the rural South are not provided the same academic and college preparatory resources as their urban counterparts. And in state and national conversations discussing ways to increase educational attainment, rural students are frequently overlooked.

During our State of the South visit to Arkansas this summer, we heard about the state’s culture of collaboration: when community members see an issue, they come together to fix it. So when rural residents realized their children were not going to college, they came together to find ways to reduce the barriers that kept young people from taking that next step.


My State of the South

My State of the South

By now you have probably seen The New York Times income mobility map. It’s a powerful visual that provides a stark image of the economic immobility crisis facing this country, especially those living in the South. It’s hard to see it and not think about the working families trying to create better lives for their children. It has also prompted me to reflect on my own life.

You see, this map is talking about me.

It encompasses data on the 1980-82 birth cohorts (of which I am a proud member) and the chances of a child born in the bottom fifth rising to the top fifth. I was raised in the bottom quintile, in a small, rural South Carolina town. Now, many years later, I am out of the bottom quintile. As the map shows, the probability of moving up is limited if you were born in the South. As I look at that map, I notice my own speckle of red. And I ponder how did I beat the odds? How did I move out of the bottom quintile? How was I lucky enough to not fall through the cracks?

I have come up with two reasons for my own personal experience:

A strong support base. I am a first-generation college graduate. My mom did not know much about college, but she knew I was going. Every day after school, my mom and grandmother made me go to my room and not come out until I finished my homework. I hated it at the time, but now I see the value in hard work before play.

I also benefited from growing up in a small, rural area. I had teachers who knew my mom and my aunts and uncles (some of my teachers actually taught them, too). My mom would know about my day before I got off the school bus in the afternoon. I had a band teacher whose mission was to show us the world outside of our small town. He took us to colleges all across the South, helping us believe that we could be students there one day.  Sure, we did not have many of the resources our urban counterparts had, but I value the education I received there. It shaped my views on the world.

Good social policy. As a high-school and college student, I participated in several programs targeting first-generation, low-income students. I was involved in the Federal TRIO Educational Talent Search program while in high school. I learned about FAFSA, college applications, and scholarships. In college, I participated in another TRIO program—the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. This program encouraged first-generation college students to continue their education beyond undergraduate school and pursue doctoral degrees. As a McNair Scholar, I wrote my first doctoral personal statement. Years later, when I finally did apply for admission to a PhD program, I referenced that personal statement and used it as my framework.

My alma mater, the University of South Carolina, made a commitment to diversity. I graduated in the top-five percent of my high school class, but I was still anxious about completing my college applications, hoping that someone would accept me. I am so happy they took a chance on me, a poor black kid (or academically speaking, a first-generation, low-income, minority student) from rural South Carolina. And I am sure they were even happier, 3½ years later when they could include me in their graduation rate.

As we continue to do research on the mobility issue here at MDC, I will look back fondly over my educational experience and be more than grateful for all the people, programs, and policies that helped me move from that bottom quintile.

Now, let’s get to work helping other youth have the opportunity to move up, too.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.

In Greenville, SC, Dirt and Entrepreneurship Go Hand in Hand

At Mill Village Farms, they are growing food and jobs. We visited the farm on a recent State of the South road trip. In a community that has gone through so much after numerous textile mill closings, Mill Village Farms is a ray of light—community members have come together to restore hope for their future by investing in their youth. Each summer the farm employs students, ages 13 to 18. Participants learn how to garden and then sell the produce in their communities and surrounding Upstate South Carolina counties.

On the surface it looks like just another neighborhood garden, but it’s more. The farm provides valuable learning opportunities for youth in a community where there’s not much going on in the summers. Sean Dogan, pastor of Long Branch Baptist Church, is one of the farm’s supporters. “The youth of Greenville are great, innovative, smart, spontaneous, and energetic,” Dogan says. “In the right atmosphere and with the right opportunity, they blossom.”

Here’s Tisha Barnes and Will Fallaw discussing the Youth Partners program and the Good to Go Mobile Market.


In addition to gardening, students in the Youth Partners program learn about leadership, teamwork, and sustainable agriculture in a 10-week partnership with Clemson University. Students learn the concepts of entrepreneurship and write a business plan. Their summer includes a trip to Charleston, S.C., to visit the historic Charleston City Market. They meet with vendors, gather ideas, and develop a vision for a business they want to start.

Once proposals are developed, students pitch their ideas for $1,000 in seed funding. These creative students have come up with really interesting ideas, from bike repair to youth development. By stamping out food deserts and providing at-risk youth with job experience and entrepreneurial skills, Mill Village Farms is changing Greenville communities—one vegetable at a time.

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.