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Charlottesville is not alone among small cities with an African-American community in danger of falling behind economically, and the Tom Tom Founders Festival Hometown Summit put a spotlight Friday on solutions being tried in Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee.
“My hope is that we’ll be able to learn and recycle some information from them,” said Sarad Davenport, director of the City of Promise and the Charlottesville Promise Neighborhood.
The topic of the event was “Ending the Black Recession in Your City,” but some panelists pushed back on that title.
“It places the burden on the African-American community to lift themselves out of the cycle,” said Melissa Maddox-Evans, CEO of the Charleston County Housing and Redevelopment Authority in South Carolina.
“What we need to talk about is breaking the system that creates the cycle,” she said.
Davenport served as moderator at the event, which was held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
“In Charlottesville, we have a low unemployment rate but if you disaggregate the data, you will see it is much higher for some segments of the population, such as African-American males between the ages of 17 and 30,” Davenport said.
Davenport said many African-American men in that age group become disconnected from the mainstream economy and this affects the health of neighborhoods and local economies.
One national organization with a chapter in Akron, Ohio, said his group seeks to tell better stories so that younger men in that demographic can have role models.
“If you look at the media and the newspapers, you’re getting a skewed view of what’s actually going on,” said Ace Epps, a community manager with BMe Akron. “Our kids can’t be what they don’t see. We tell our own stories of people who get up every day. There are a million people who do things every day and it doesn’t get reported.”
Davenport agreed that one idea is to reframe the narrative toward one where people are considered assets and not threats or liabilities.
“When other people see that and it’s highlighted in the community, it inspires others to do the same thing,” he said.
In many ways, Charleston is a very similar community to Charlottesville, though on a larger scale.
“Both of our housing authorities combined serve over 6,000 families,” said Maddox-Evans, who also serves as general counsel for the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston.
Maddox-Evans said the overwhelming majority of residents are black and much of the work is done to help residents become self-sufficient in a community with an expensive housing market.
“Our programs are designed to bring someone in a situation of homelessness and, if they choose, get them to home ownership,” Maddox-Evans said.
Another goal is to promote economic development.
The director of multicultural affairs for the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, spends much of his time helping to ensure that the financial power of local government can be used to lift up communities.
“We have learned that a lot of the businesses are not at capacity,” said James McKissic, who has been in his position for four years. “We’ve spent a lot of our time connecting networks and holding workshops to get businesses ready to take advantage of opportunities.”
“For the past four years, we have been focused on some program areas where we can see some outcomes,” McKissic said, pointing out that 13 percent of the contracts awarded by his city are now given to women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
McKissic said small businesses based in the community are required to help end recessions. But private philanthropy is also key, so he is part of a giving circle of 20 people who contribute to help support ideas and nonprofits.
“We pool our money and donations and put those donations to work in Chattanooga’s African-American community,” McKissic said. “A lot of the problems that we see in our communities are because we are not growing what is already there.”
Maddox-Evans said the overall economy in Charleston is doing well. For instance, Boeing moved its headquarters there and invested in new programs and buildings at the local community college.
“Despite all of this growth, opportunities are not being made available,” she said, saying that local school systems need to address the achievement gaps between African-American students and other groups of students. The Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative released a report in 2016 that stated that one in three high school graduates in the area was not ready for the workforce.
The report also found that 81 percent of African-American third-grade students in the area were not proficient in reading, compared with 49 percent of white students.
Maddox-Evans said schools in low-income neighborhoods often have inferior equipment and do not attract the highest-quality teachers.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done to communicate with our population and to break down mistrust,” she said.