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Making Hope Happen

by Noah Manyika

December 6,2007

I rarely go very far into conversations with strangers before they ask me where I am from. Unlike my two daughters who immigrated to the United States at age three and seven (and our son who was born here), I cannot get away with telling people, as I sometimes jokingly do, that mine is a “Mint Hill accent,” although a few have almost bought it.

As a legal resident of Charlotte since 1995, I would very much like to feel like a “naturalized Charlottean.” Charlotte is a beautiful city, and a lot of great things are happening here. It is very tempting to settle and just enjoy it all. What I fear is losing the ability to see discomforting truths, and succumbing to the affliction eloquently described by one Nobel Laureate as the blindness of those who wish not to see. There is something about “settling” that is lethal to mission, unless of course “settling” is the mission.

My good friend, Darren Ash, who works with A Way Home, an organization implementing a ten year plan to end and prevent homelessness one person and family at a time, reminded a group of us recently why we can’t settle:

• There are over 5,000 people homeless in Mecklenburg County each night.
• Thousands experience homelessness each year.
• As housing costs outstrip income, homelessness becomes more of a reality for our working families.
• Over 2,000 children enrolled in CMS are homeless.

If Darren is kept awake at night by the plight of homeless people in general, it is the plight of at-risk children that is most unsettling to me. Some would ask: what at-risk children? Let us start with the 2,000 children enrolled in CMS that are homeless: what chance do these children have to make it in life? It’s tempting to think that is all the despair there is simply because we don’t see the concentrated hopelessness that we used to see at Piedmont Courts, Belvedere Homes and in Villa Heights – communities that have changed significantly as a result of gentrification. The discomforting question is: what are the life prospects for the children of the working poor who used to have relatively stable shelter but now live in fear of losing everything? What about the tens of thousands of children on free and reduced lunch in CMS, i.e. tens of thousands of children from poor families? Yes…we may not see them, but they are here. Have our collective efforts for at-risk children brought us to a point where we can honestly say we have broken the cycle of hopelessness and equipped them for success?

Data from a 2006 national study held by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that:

• Nine-year-olds growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.
• Half of them won't graduate from high school.
• Those who do graduate will, on average, read and do math at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities.

Are things any different in our city? If not, what can we do to change the life prospects of at-risk children? Perhaps we can learn some lessons from those who made a difference in the lives of children like me and many of my friends who grew up in Africa. While others settled to enjoy the beauty of Africa’s verdant forests and wild game, there was that hardy group of people called missionaries who refused to settle but chose instead to invest extravagantly in the lives of peasants. They were never satisfied that someone else was doing something somewhere. They saw needs in the darkest of places and spared no effort to make a difference. As a result of their work, many of the children and peasants they served have grown up to become engineers, doctors, pilots, businessmen, fathers, mothers and community leaders.

I dare say we can make a great deal of hope happen for many people in our city if, like those missionaries of old, we refuse to settle, invest extravagantly, and refuse to be satisfied that someone else somewhere is doing something.

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