In the winter of 2011, Dr. Ronald Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University, pulled together dozens of community leaders to enlist their support for a lofty goal: reversing decades of social and economic decay in the area in the citys Northwest Corridor. Carter, a veteran of South Africas anti-Apartheid politics, dubbed his inaugural gathering an indaba, a native term for meeting of the minds.
The corridor, to be sure, was languishing in double-digit unemployment, high crime and dropout rates. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board had recently announced its decision to shut down several schools in the community, citing poor performance, without heeding feedback from residents. Adding insult to injury, weeks later CMS decided to use the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a snow make-up day.
The good news is that since then, JCSUs Indabas the university is currently planning its third have evolved into a highly organized, grass-roots coalition breathing new life into a community too long overlooked by this citys political and business leaders. For instance, in March, some 200 residents converged on campus during Marchs Indaba to develop real solutions for their communitys challenges. The first step: drawing up a broad action plan aimed at everything from beefing up community policing programs, to after-school vocational training and mentorship, to creating new capital sources for the areas small businesses.
Couple that with new bricks and mortar already spouting up around JCSU and youve got something that resembles a renaissance in one of Charlottes most valuable, yet neglected, assets.
The bad news, however, is that Charlotte, a bankers town to the core, loves a quick, tidy return on investment. Unfortunately, this deal isnt that. Sure, revitalizing the corridor will ultimately pay big dividends, but the yields will come gradually and will be hard earned. Counterbalancing the corridors rich cultural landscape of vibrant churches, historic neighborhoods, and plethora of small businesses is an entrenched culture of generational afflictions: joblessness, high crime, absentee fathers, poor health, and so on. In other words, the corridors ills didnt appear overnight; its cures wont, either.
One can only hope that the much-anticipated Project LIFT, CMSs high-octane initiative aimed at closing minority students achievement gap in the corridor, doesnt become a case in point on the perils of unrealistic and unfair - expectations. Generously funded by some of Charlottes top philanthropic organizations to the tune of $55 million, Project LIFT seeks to eliminate educational disparities at nine schools that feed into West Charlotte High School by leveraging a range of successful reform models.
Yet last week, as Project LIFT superintendent Denise Watts waxed optimistic to a group of Indaba leaders, she also conceded that some folks within CMS are already throwing stones at the programs scope and strategy. It hasnt helped either that Shelton Jefferies, principal at West Charlotte High and central to Project LIFTs success, recently announced that he is leaving Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for a top school administrative job in Union County. As Indaba leaders listened to Wattss challenges that night, it became instantly clear to them what their next priority should be: galvanizing the community around Project LIFT to ensure its strong start in September and the duration of its five-year contract. If we dont get this right, all of our efforts will have been in vain, Carter told the group.
On that note, Carter introduced 2011 JCSU graduate Cory Carter and Michael McCallister, a High Point University alum, who recently launched Charlottes Web, a mentorship through technology program aimed at turning around the lives of young black men in the Northwest Corridor. Beyond the companys impressive start it was recently awarded a $172,000 grant from Project LIFT, both Cory and Michael represent proof that a bit of patience, hard work, and yes, faith can pay off big in the end. Carter is a Tampa, Fla., native who spent his early life lost within the states foster care system (often medicated, he says, due to behavior issues), while doctors predicted that Michael, severely hearing impaired, would never hear or talk. Armed with a hearing aid, today Michael does both.
Cory and Michael recently told their story to a group of teenage boys at West Charlotte High School, holding a kind of Indaba of their own. The result: some two dozen boys signed up for Charlottes Web. It was amazing, Cory said. These kids are ready to break out of their situations. They just need something positive to connect to. That is true. But they also will need time time to heal, time to grow, and time to live up to these great new expectations Charlotte has laid out for them.