To fight poverty, listen first

jwise@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2014 

— If city leaders want to relieve poverty neighborhood by neighborhood, Charlestine Royster has some advice:

“For starters, walk the neighborhood,” she said. “Identify what the problems are.”

Royster knows about the problems. “I live month to month,” she said. She’s disabled and lives in an apartment complex where rents are affordable for people of modest means.

She identifies herself with those Mayor Bill Bell’s anti-poverty campaign is meant to help, but, Royster said, only “in a sense.” She’s been busy for a long time already helping herself and her neighbors in East Durham’s Census Tract 10.01.

“We’re pretty much on our own,” said resident Sheryl Smith.

Royster and Smith are president and vice president of the residents’ council at Franklin Village, on the former site of the once-notorious Few Gardens public-housing project. They’ve been to City Hall, been to meetings, heard the mayor say what he wants to do.

“We just need him to step up and get what we need,” Royster said. “Get familiar with the neighborhood.

“They mayor says that he’s driven through but that’s not like walking through,” she said. “Sometime, he needs to get out and talk to some people.”

Reaching

From Royster or from others, the mayor and other city leaders have heard that message. That’s why a series of “listening sessions” is going on this month and in June, where those who live with poverty are encouraged to talk about their lives, needs and neighborhoods and officials sit in the background and in silence.

“The people being impacted aren’t at this table,” Bell told the elected officials he recruited to lead task forces on education, finance, health, housing, jobs and public safety in Tract 10.01.

“We want to reach out to people who don't come to meetings,” said County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

But reaching out to the city’s poor, much less turning what they say into effective responses, is not a quick nor simple process. Experience has shown that conventional ways of spreading the word – news releases, newsletters, emails, even distributing fliers – don’t work well in distressed neighborhoods.

“When we get information, we put it out,” said Royster. But those they put it out to “don’t respond.”

Reaching out means getting through what she called a “poverty mindset” – resignation to living in want without motivation or knowledge of how to make a change. Opening eyes and raising expectations so that people in poverty move out of it takes making connections across lines of race and class, said Camryn Smith, who lives by choice in Tract 10.01 and has years of direct experience in poverty relief.

“People coming in and just giving things without actually getting to know – having relationships with the people and actually valuing what the people were saying – had an impact that was negative,” she said. “It was paternalistic, it was top-down.”

Long haul

Smith is coordinator with REAL Durham, an anti-poverty project independent of the mayor’s campaign. Its “circle” approach, a recognized “best practice” in the field, teams a “leader” who is in need with three or four middle-class “allies” in a relationship that helps both those in need and those who want to provide, across divides of race and class.

“We want to do something that’s very different, that not only challenges the leaders but also the circle allies as well and makes them aware of what people who are struggling with material poverty, what they have to go through, because they are very resilient, strong people.”

It takes time – “two, two and a half years,” Smith said. Alleviating poverty is a long-term undertaking.

Retired minister Mel Williams, who co-founded the faith-community group End Poverty Durham in 2004, recalled trying to start an uplift effort in Walltown, a poor and predominantly black neighborhood near Duke’s East Campus.

“Some of my African-American colleagues said “We’ve seen you do-good white people come through here before. How do we know this is going to be different?’ I said, ‘We’re signing on for the the long haul.’

“The big challenge for all of us is how to be persistent,” Williams said. It’s a challenge Bell, the mayor, has acknowledged.

“This is a long-range project,” he said. “I won't be around when it's completed.”

‘About the people’

It starts with getting to know the neighborhood.

“How else are they going to know what is needed in the neighborhood?” said Steve Hopkins, a neighborhood organizer who has lived and worked in Northeast Central Durham for decades.

Hopkins came to a meeting in the neighborhood, at the Durham Rescue Mission, where Bell asked his mostly middle-class audience to sign on as “foot soldiers” in the campaign. Hopkins, who lives in Tract 10.01, enlisted.

“I’m part of this initiative, that’s why I was interested in it,” he said. “Though I would have been interested whether I was involved in it or not because it’s affecting Northeast.”

Bell’s initiative is not the first such effort in the long-depressed, high-crime area between downtown and U.S. 70 East. More than 20 years ago, City Hall announced a revitalization program, coining the term “Northeast Central Durham” for the 96-block district that includes the current target blocks.

“They did stuff with the buildings and the streets but they didn’t do anything with the people but move them out,” Hopkins said. “This ain’t about the buildings or the streets or the houses or anything like that, this is about the people.”

Apart from the city’s listening sessions, residents have arranged a town hall meeting with the mayor May 31.

“The mayor’s coming to do his presentation to Northeast, and Northeast is going to respond,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

 

Wise: 919-641-5895

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