Saturday, October 23, 2010

CMS and race: Cutting through the noise

On Thursday night, in an auditorium at West Mecklenburg High, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board Chair Eric Davis introduced himself to a crowd of parents and teachers whose schools he might close. TV cameras pointed his way, as did reporters’ notebooks, ready for drama to break out.

Davis seemed ready, too. As he has at previous forums, he explained briefly why financial strains have caused CMS to consider closing eight schools and changing dozens of others, most in minority-heavy communities. When he finished explaining, he noted that everything he had just said was the logical, rational side to this discussion.

“But,” he said, “there’s another side to it.”

Oh, yes. Davis has, in the past month, been called racist and segregationist, along with his fellow school board members and CMS officials. They likely will be called this all over again Tuesday, when the school board meets to discuss final proposals.

Protests are planned at that meeting, led in part by the local NAACP president, the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, who said this month that CMS had “a diabolical plan, a national plan to close all the inner-city schools.”

It’s been difficult for decades to have a discussion about CMS without including race – and rightly so. In any large metro school system, you have a jumble of parents and communities, each wanting what’s best for their children. You can’t avoid conflicting needs. You can’t avoid past inequities. And you shouldn’t avoid talking about them.

But, for a moment, let’s try.

CMS faces a significant deficit next year – likely somewhere from $30 million to $90 million in state money alone. Add in about $47 million in federal money that won’t be back next year, and CMS officials will have to find at least $75 million in savings from a $1 billion budget.

That number will come from a number of places, including teacher cuts next summer. But CMS has proposed a solution that would lessen those layoffs: close schools that have some combination of poor performance, unfilled classrooms and aging buildings.

Those schools are concentrated mostly in neighborhoods in and near Charlotte’s core. Most of the students who walk through the doors of those schools are black.

And so, we’re back to race. And protests. Nantambu, who was arrested at a forum two weeks ago, has vowed to be loud at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Meanwhile, he declined to attend any more public forums, which he called shams.

So what were we left with Thursday night?

In classrooms and the main auditorium, parents and teachers explained to CMS officials their worries about a plan to send students from closed middle schools to new preK-8 schools. Those schools have had some success in other cities, but they also puts eighth-graders on buses with kindergartners, parents said. And what, they asked thoughtfully, would this mean to their neighborhoods, where schools are a dynamic part of the larger community.

Was race a part of the discussion? Certainly. One questioner wondered why, if the preK-8 plan was so good for their westside schools, that CMS didn’t also try it on schools not filled with minorities. (The answer: Unlike the underfilled schools, there’s no room in suburban schools to combine those grades.)

But drama? There was little. Instead, parents and school advocates spoke about how CMS had brought star principals and teachers to their schools, and how that was working. At Wilson, scores have been improving at a rate greater than any middle school, they said, and Spaugh also was on an upward trajectory. “Can’t we see it through?” one asked, and the crowd heartily applauded.

It not only was a plea, but perhaps an acknowledgement that CMS officials, men and women, whites and blacks, are trying to help their children. In many cases, with staffing and per-student funding and class size restrictions, they have.

Now, those same men and women face difficult choices about the costs that come with trying to saving money. If you’re a cynic, you probably believe school board members already have made their decisions, and the only chance to change their minds is to get loud enough to shame them into it.

Or maybe you can believe that Thursday night was the way to go – that logic and rational thinking can come from all sides and, just maybe, cut through the noise that hijacks too many meaningful discussions in our lives. Because even with questions about schools and race, sometimes the answers aren’t black and white.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Was rainbow light show a statement? Welllll....

If you were within eyeshot of Uptown this week, you might have noticed a twist to the nightly light show at the new Duke Energy Center: A rainbow theme, running atop and down the corners of the 48-story building.

That happened Monday, which also happened to be National Coming Out Day, a nationwide gay and lesbian celebration that included events in Charlotte.

Was it a coincidence? Or was it an uncommonly bold corporate statement – an enthusiastic arm around the shoulder of the gay community as it reels from a brutal attack in New York and teen suicides across the country?

We called Alexandra Ball, the smart and helpful spokeswoman at Wells Fargo Charlotte, which owns the building on South Tryon and operates the light show.

Was the rainbow intentional?

“Yes, it was,” said Alex.

There you go. Bold and enthusiastic. Has anyone complained?

“Um,” she said, sounding a little caught off guard. “No.”

Whose idea was it?

Rustling of papers. More rustling of papers.

“Is this something I can get back to you on?”

Uh-oh. Maybe “enthusiastic” isn’t necessarily the word here.

Let’s set this one up for you: A San Francisco-based bank has its Eastern headquarters in a Southern city. Someone in the bank decides it’s a good idea to light the Southern city’s evening sky with a 48-story stamp of approval for a gay and lesbian event.

Odds are, the person who made this call was a mid-level manager type, because bold statements like this have a tendency to start gasping and wheezing the farther they work their way up the corporate stairwell.

But we weren’t sure what happened. Two hours passed, and no phone call. Clearly, a thoughtful response was under construction.

This is precisely what Wells Fargo had hoped to avoid with its new toy. In an interview this summer about the impending light show launch, Wells Fargo exec Curt Radkin had said the displays would commemorate national holidays, sports successes and significant community events. They would, however, steer clear of religious holidays and controversial events.

Makes sense – you don’t want to loudly take sides on issues that divide your customers. But now that someone apparently had, Wells faced a choice: It could embrace its show of corporate heart. Or it could delicately back away, as in “We welcome one of our employees enthusiastic support for the event, but we are evaluating how these decisions are made company-wide…”

But sooner would be better, Alan Freitag told me, while I was waiting. Alan is an associate professor of public relations at UNC Charlotte. “Someone needs to just say, ‘Yeah, we did it. We thought it was the right thing to do. What’s the problem?’ And it’s over.”

Not only that, it shows us something – a willingness to stand by a conviction. We get those opportunities regularly in our lives, in big ways and small, corporately and personally. Sometimes, they come with a price.

And no, the test of owning up to a rainbow light display isn’t exactly on the level of the cock crowing twice. But it’s a statement to this city, and to a community in this city, at a time when such statements are important.

Which is exactly what Wells Fargo decided to do.

Alex called back four hours later, apologizing for the delay. The light show explanation: A Wells Fargo workplace group here was participating in a local National Coming Out Day event, and someone from the group asked if the light display could be lit to commemorate the day and event. The company made a decision to support that.

“Wells Fargo supports many community events in Charlotte,” Alex said.

Bold? Maybe not. But enthusiastic enough.

And this week, its community is a little better because of it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What do we do when giving becomes complicated?

What do we do about the Lockharts?

They are 17 and 19 and 20 and 21, and they live together but alone in a small house in University City. They have mattresses on the floor and no decorations on the walls – but one picture, on a dining room table, of their mother.

The Observer told you in April about Tonya Lockhart, how two of her children, Brittany and Brandon, were about to graduate from North Mecklenburg High. Tonya, who was dying of cervical cancer, wasn’t sure she’d make it to graduation day, so her doctor and the high school arranged a ceremony on a Monday morning at Presbyterian Hospital.

Tonya hugged her children, in caps and gowns. Two days later, she died.

What did we do?

Readers wrote checks to pay for Tonya’s funeral. We donated more money to help the children with the next steps of their lives. A Charlotte church collected it all – more than $44,000 – and arranged for a non-profit for homeless families, the W.I.S.H. Program, to put together a team of volunteers to help guide Tonya’s children.

One woman, from Blowing Rock, offered to pay for the Lockharts’ college education.
It was an extraordinary outpouring – and wonderfully unsurprising. This can be a fine, generous place to live, with kindness that again and again provides happier endings to hard stories.

Except, as we know, that most endings aren’t really endings.

Neither Brittany nor Brandon had the credits to graduate from North Meck in June – and neither has yet graduated, although Brandon is back at school. None of the four is working, and none at this point has enrolled in college.

Also, there is tension between the W.I.S.H. program and the children, who believe the donated money should have gone directly to them instead of having the program make judgments on needs vs. wants. Brittany, in protest, has yet to attend a meeting with the W.I.S.H. team volunteers.

It has been bumpy, even ugly at times. It may be disheartening, too, for those of you who donated money and are reading this now. It certainly has been for the volunteers who raised their hands to work with the family.

“They say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be this hard,' ” says W.I.S.H. official Lisa Howell.

It usually is. When we decide to give our money and our time, we often confront a gap between our lives and those lives caught in generations of poverty. It’s a gulf that involves not only money, but different expectations and definitions of success, different emphasis on the tools needed to get there – and a shortage of models who can show how it’s done.

Our good intentions can’t overcome that, not in six months. Our assumption that donations would quickly go toward the next, logical step of college?

“That may not be a realistic expectation,” says W.I.S.H. executive director Darren Ash.

So what do we do about the Lockharts?

They are 17 and 19 and 20 and 21 – still kids, really – and they sat in their dining room recently and talked about their lives and struggles.

And yes, they say, they are struggling. They appreciate the donations people made this spring, but they don’t like that strangers are telling them how to spend money that other strangers gave them. “That’s about the whole issue we have,” says Brittany.

They are adjusting, perhaps, to that reality. The brothers have attended meetings with the W.I.S.H. volunteers, and Brian, the oldest, has worked to get his driver’s license and is planning to enroll at Central Piedmont Community College in January. Brittany says she’d like to go to cosmetology school then.

She says, too, that she will attend the next family meeting with the team.

For now, they are learning to pay bills, to budget, to be self sufficient. That, says Ash, is what success will look like, if the kids choose it. Because ultimately, the Lockharts will have to do for themselves.

That’s what Tonya Lockhart wanted for her children. She was a single mother who moved her family to Section 8 housing in a middle-class University City neighborhood. She got a job and stayed in that job and leaned on her kids to go to class so they could do the same.

She saw for them a simple but difficult thing – a break from the cycle of poverty that so few in her family had broken from. It was happening, before she died, and it’s why the W.I.S.H. team is persevering with her children.

So this is what we do for the Lockharts – or for anyone.

We give not expecting results, but to improve their possibility. We give not to be the solution, but to offer someone a better chance to find theirs.

We do it knowing we may be disappointed.

And if we are?

We give some more.