We Need to Look Forward: Shared Mobility Challenges & Potential in Urban and Rural NC

monroe-connection

These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!

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’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.

Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.

In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):

  • Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
  • Personal drive
  • Military service and the GI bill
  • Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
  • Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth

The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”

Closing the Opportunity Gap in Vance County

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthening the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC held enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. The new superintendent of Vance County Schools, Dr. Anthony Jackson, participated in those discussions. Jackson was featured last week in WUNC’s series on rural schools, Perils and Promise. In his interview with Leoneda Inge, Jackson spoke about how his personal experiences influence how he sees his students:

Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’  And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Today, the opportunity gap in Vance—and surrounding counties—is stark. Parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. But Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.

In Vance County Schools, 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent, much lower than the state average of 83 percent. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed.

“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Jackson. In his view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. So, along with other leaders in the region, the superintendent is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.

To begin that shift toward more collective concern for community well-being and expanded aspirations, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. The community college also links to nearby four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University, students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.

These pockets of innovation and excellence show what is possible for the future. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Local leaders must continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Dr. Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies so that the region’s people share ownership of a vision for educational and economic success.

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

Creating Equitable Opportunity in Warren County, NC

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC has been holding enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence.

Even though MDC has roots in this area, like the Human Resources Development Program, the Rural Community College Initiative, and the Program for the Rural Carolinas our team has been fascinated to learn more about these counties. Coincidentally, two of our favorite news sources—CityLab and EdNC—have been talking about Warren County this month, and we want to share a little bit about what we’re learning about that county’s history of inequity and one way people there are building for a more equitable future.

Stretching along the Virginia border and the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, Warren County remains distinctly rural despite I-85 running through it and its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic metropolitan areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton are labor-intensive crops, and the soil in the area was well suited to their production. In 1860, 10,401 people in the county, or 66 percent of the total population, were enslaved African Americans. The slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. When enslaved African Americans were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers in a system where land owners provided land and resources to croppers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. The legacy of an agricultural economy, which created immense wealth for some by exploiting the labor of many others, and subsequent legalized segregation which barred African Americans from opportunity, presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained. The massive population shift of African Americans leaving the South, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Warren County: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by 20 percent. While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism and legalized segregation.

After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances at upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, and particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier agricultural and manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 20 percent of adults in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher. The area also faces significant health challenges. According to County Health Rankings, Warren County ranks 92nd in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. One-fifth of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from one-quarter in 2013). Nearly a quarter of all people are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Despite its challenges—or because of them—the area has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. In the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment, profiled here by Brentin Mock of CityLab. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. “Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area,” said Eva Clayton in a 1989 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. Clayton, who in 1992 was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, worked in the Soul City administration in the 1970s. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region, as Mock discussed in another article last week. For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with organized protests due to significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low income, and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP, to start using the term “environmental racism.”

Today, local institutions and groups are still thinking creatively about how to broaden prosperity in the region and improve wellbeing. In an article this week for EdNC, Nation Hahn interviewed Gabriel Cummings, founder of Working Landscapes, an organization that is working to improve access to healthy food in Warren County. Cummings is thinking about more than just health; the organization also wants to improve local livelihoods:

When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!

Farming may have created many of this region’s long-standing inequities, but a new generation of leaders is thinking about how to turn the region’s history and assets into a more equitable future. Many of the challenges Warren County has faced are emblematic of Southern history. Reflecting on the story of a place—who started there, who left and why, who tried to reinvigorate it, who has benefited from opportunity, and who has been left behind by economic and social change—is essential work for all communities as they build an infrastructure of opportunity.

Restoring the Infrastructure of Opportunity after Disaster

Today’s post comes from Dr. John Cooper, Associate Professor of Practice and Texas Target Communities Director at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cooper is also an MDC research fellow. Read more about the community disaster recovery work he led at MDC here.

This weekend the South Carolina Gamecocks came to Texas to play my Texas A&M Aggies in football and left with new resources to help relief and recovery efforts after the flooding in South Carolina. In one instance, the Texas A&M Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) teamed with the 12th Man Student Foundation to donate proceeds from the sale of commemorative fan merchandise. In another instance, over 200 members of Aggies CAN, the largest student-athlete run canned food drive in the nation, organized a food drive that began on October 25 and lasted until game day. I should note that this all happened as the death toll from recent storms – tornadoes and floods – in our own backyard was rising.

The aftermath of storms in South Carolina and Texas remind me of the importance of disaster readiness, especially for the poor, elderly, disabled, and others who can’t survive and recover from disasters without help from outsiders. The importance of creating an infrastructure of opportunity is discussed often on this blog, and so are the inspirational and aspirational stories of people and places doing exemplary things to help others climb up the economic latter. Unfortunately, a disaster like the recent floods in North and South Carolina can pull the ladder from under those who need it most in a matter of hours, or minutes in the case of a tornado.

This past February Karama Neal wrote here about how hard it is for folks to live in the South when they face economic challenges, and disasters can exacerbate these challenges. While disasters don’t discriminate, it is no coincidence that disasters in the South (especially floods) tend to affect the poor and people of color more severely than others. This is because those folks historically tend to be concentrated in low-lying “bottom” areas; on land in floodplains not suitable for farming and that no one wanted until waterfront property became fashionable. In the South, it may have been the only land an African American could own. Nevertheless, due to their circumstances, many poor and people of color in the South are place-bound, in homes that are older and less able to withstand extreme forces. They also typically don’t have access to employment, savings, credit or other resources sufficient to recover from disasters. As a result, the hole that some folks were in before the flooding is now deeper and filled with water, and the ladder is missing a few rungs.

Handling disaster recovery is a daunting task even for someone with the knowledge and confidence to communicate with bureaucracy. For others without the resources or access to credit to cope in the short-term, we need an infrastructure of recovery. Volumes were written before and since Katrina about the inequities and inefficiencies of the way disaster relief is managed and I can tell from reports coming out of flood ravaged areas in South Carolina that we are setting up for more of the same. Now that response efforts are wrapping up and before frustrations begin to peak, I want to share a few things based on my 20 years of research and practice, for those interested in increasing the extent to which marginalize populations are able to survive and recover:

  • Don’t settle for a return to the status quo; build better. Typically, recovery efforts seek to “build back” to pre-disaster levels. For the most vulnerable, the status quo is not a desirable positive. Disaster recovery should be transformative; aiming for reduced vulnerability and greater equity.
  • Tighten the safety net. Because navigating the disaster relief process can be a daunting task for folks not accustomed to handling bureaucracy, it is important for non-profits and service agencies to be more vigilant to ensure the populations they serve don’t fall through the cracks. Case management is critical at this time.
  • Participate in local recovery decision making. My colleagues and I recently published an article on pre-disaster recovery planning efforts in 87 counties and municipalities in the South. We discovered most do a poor job of coordinating with nonprofits and involving the public in the process. Stakeholders and those whose mission is to care for the most vulnerable in a community should take the initiative and pursue opportunities to meaningfully participate in recovery planning to ensure the resulting plans account for the most vulnerable populations. They are not likely to be invited.
  • Keep dollars local. Millions of dollars allocated for recovery efforts go to consulting firms and nonprofit relief agencies not based in and ultimately not accountable to the community. One way to use those resources for transformative recovery is to hire local contractors who employ local people and purchase materials from local suppliers to rebuild.
  • Think long-term on housing. Nothing is more frustrating than witnessing resources and time wasted on temporary housing. It is better to invest in more permanent solutions sooner. For example, the Community Foundation of Brownsville, TX has come up with a temporary-to-permanent housing idea that starts with a 400 sq. ft. core unit that is expandable into a 3-4 bedroom customizable home.

My hope is for everyone involved in recovery efforts to be patient and understand that the key to community recovery is a strong community fabric. You are better together.