The duality of the Queen City

<p>Once a model for school integration after the civil rights movement, Charlotte is now ranked lowest in economic mobility out of the 50 largest U.S. cities.&nbsp;</p>

Once a model for school integration after the civil rights movement, Charlotte is now ranked lowest in economic mobility out of the 50 largest U.S. cities. 

About three and a half weeks ago, I landed in Charlotte, N.C., the Queen City. At first, I was swept up by the novelty of a new place — this was my first time in Charlotte, and I wanted to see everything. But in seeing everything, I started to note troubling disparities that tie into the work I’m here to do this summer as part of DukeEngage.

On our first day, we went on a grocery run as a group. Our program coordinator rented a van for a couple days for this purpose, and it was a luxury. I don’t have a car onsite and the nearest grocery store is not close enough to walk, so I was worried about food. There’s a Family Dollar within walking distance, but no fresh food to be had there. When I found out that there would be a farmer’s market on Tuesdays just outside our apartment building, I immediately texted the rest of the group. I was so happy and relieved and I felt so fortunate to have stumbled upon that gift.

I commute to work on the bus with another student in the program. I’m working for Freedom School Partners at Highland Renaissance Academy, about a 35 minute bus ride, with a transfer at the depot that has to be timed just right. The privilege of having a car — which I had always counted upon at home and never really needed at school — was again underscored for me a few days ago, when a man asked the two of us to watch over his bags of groceries while he went to purchase his bus ticket.

This week was the first week of actually teaching kids; the past three had been filled with training with all of the Charlotte Freedom School Partners interns, over 100 total college students or recent graduates. Those trainings were in churches in South Charlotte, one of the richest parts of town.

The churches were huge, as expected in a well-to-do neighborhood. On the first day, I walked down the hallway and passed a spin room, an indoor track, a full weight and cardio room, the works. In the parking lot, I saw people walking in carrying yoga mats for classes. It was such a sharp contrast with the area we live in and the area around Highland. The nearest buildings to the school are a Burger King and a 7-Eleven. We live in Mosaic Village, an apartment building owned by Johnson C. Smith University, surrounded by nondescript businesses and their parking lots.

That contrast likely won’t be changing anytime soon. Upward mobility in Charlotte is incredibly difficult. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force report published in March 2017 cited a Harvard and University of California, Berkeley study that found that the odds of a child in Charlotte moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth in income based on national income distribution is only 4.4 percent, the lowest of the 50 cities ranked in the study.

Maps of wealth and ethnicity published in that same report show what are known as the crescent and the wedges. The crescent is an area in the middle of the city that has a lower income and a higher non-white population, while the wedges sort of butt in from the bottom and top of the map and have the exact opposite numbers.

The numbers reveal a resegregation in a city that was initially a model for school integration, meaning that schools are again unequal, more than 50 years after the civil rights movement.

It’s issues like this, this inequality in education and opportunity, that make me angry, and frustrated, and concerned. We have had so many years to combat inequality, and yet, the problems of 50 years ago continue to persist.

These issues are ones that the books of the Freedom Schools curriculum aim to introduce to scholars, even those as young as kindergarten through second grade, the age group I’m teaching. In the six weeks of the program, I’ll be reading them books about Martin Luther King, the Children’s March, Malala Yousafzai, the struggles of immigrant families, homelessness, loss of parent figures and so much more.

The issues can be heavy, and I didn’t know at first how I would be able to talk about them with such young children. It’s awful that kids have had to experience some of this already in their lives. But that is what makes it incredibly important that we do this, that we introduce children to booksf in which they can see themselves and see their struggles. By relating to books, children come to know that they are not alone, that they can overcome their obstacles and make a change in their own lives and the lives of others. This will be my reminder, my motivation for the days when I’m tired and discouraged.


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