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Introducing “Thirkield University”

In the fall of 2014, youth of the historic South Atlanta neighborhood began to articulate a vision and a plan to help kids from the neighborhood prepare for and succeed in college. The youth were guided in this effort by Malcolm Cox El, whose personal experiences and commitment to the cause fueled the initiative. Malcolm talks about TU in the video below. And he is more than one of the key founders of this effort. Malcolm is well on his way to becoming the first success story of TU as he enters the latter stages of his time in college at Georgia State University. His success is inspiring the 20 other youth who are currently involved in the program.

The program includes vital peer-to-peer support and helpful connections to supportive leadership and resources. While this is not a formal university, the youth believed that including the ‘university’ moniker would keep everyone focused on the goal – graduate from college with a vision for your life and your head held high. They named it for one of the streets in South Atlanta where the kids hang out – a street that happens to be named in honor of Wilbur Thirkield, an early twentieth century Methodist bishop and educator who championed the cause of education for African Americans.

Dan Crain has played an influential role in the process by encouraging Malcolm and other youth in the neighborhood to engage their talents over the past several years. He and Malcolm have co-facilitated Dignity Serves classes and have worked on numerous small projects together. The strength of their relationship and the things they are accomplishing are testaments to how much more we can do together than we can do alone.

Malcolm was afforded the opportunity to come on staff with POLIS part-time to build this initiative through a grant from Wesley Community Centers. He and Dan both joined Atlanta-based Church on the Street at the start of 2016 in order to mature this work and other efforts in Lakewood/South Atlanta.

Donate today to this important work.

 

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Orlando – least economically segregated large metro

Orlando is the least economically segregated large metro area in the United States according to a recent report update from sociologist Richard Florida.  This is good news for Orlando. Economic segregation, especially for the poor, has proven to be a significant social problem. Absent the social networks that open doors to the best of careers, the quality education that helps one obtain and succeed in those careers, and the role models that demonstrate the breadth of what is possible, the most talented and ambitious among us struggle to succeed.

And it’s not just about money. It’s the “deleterious social effects that accompany spatial concentration of poverty” – the stigmatization, the alienation, and the moral cynicism (Florida, Wilson, Sampson). These, and other factors, serve as psychological and sociological reinforcements that must be contended with to develop an abiding sense of one’s intrinsic self-worth even if one’s economic worth remains relatively low.

The level to which U.S. neighborhoods are economically segregated has more than doubled in the past forty years. The wealthy and the poor are becoming less and less likely to interact with one another and, as Richard Florida puts it, “effectively occupy different worlds.”

And since we tend to distrust that which we do not understand and tend to not understand that with which we do not interact, our economic segregation poses significant problems in building dignified relationships across socio-economic lines; the types of relationships that enrich perspective and facilitate opportunity.

From 1978 to 2012, in roughly the same time frame as the doubling of economic segregation, average CEO pay has risen 875 percent while the typical worker’s pay has risen 5 percent. These two facts are not completely disconnected. CEO pay is approved by board members who, most likely, are relatively high wage earners themselves. If these board members live in enclaves starkly separated from low wage earners, it’s not difficult to imagine the ease with which they might approve such disproportionate levels of CEO pay.

Said another way, when you do not know anyone personally who works a low-wage job, it’s easier to forget about them and to make decisions that adversely affect them without necessarily harboring any ill will towards them.

Currently, however, Orlando is less economically segregated than any other large metro. The main reason for this fact is the fundamental nature of the area’s economy – tourism and hospitality. Working and service class economies “militate against economic segregation” while knowledge-based economies tend to be the most economically segregated (R. Florida). Said another way, high-tech, creative class workers with college degrees seem to leverage their options to separate themselves from the poor.

Attracting these workers, and the industries that employ them, is a priority for many leaders in Central Florida who see diversifying the economy as one of the best ways to strengthen the region. There is wisdom in this goal. Orlando’s service sector economy has proven to be very vulnerable to national and even international economic downturns.

But if Orlando succeeds in diversifying the economy by becoming more high-tech, it will likely become much more economically segregated. Either way, Orlando’s population will almost certainly continue to grow and larger urban areas tend to be more economically segregated.

While Orlando is the least economically segregated large metro (more than one million people), it is still ranked 203 out of the 350 metros that were analyzed in the study. Orlando is economically segregated, just less so than other large areas. Add the inevitable population increase and a successful move to a more knowledge-based economy, and Orlando will drop further down the list unless steps are taken to prevent it.

So what steps could Orlando take to improve its economic diversity?

  1. Focus on neighborhoods – If our distressed neighborhoods become more desirable places to live, those with a wider range of choices will choose to move in or to not move out of these communities. According to Richard Florida’s study, it is the migration of the wealthy to exclusive enclaves that most propels economic segregation. Polis Institute identified 100 distressed neighborhoods in 2009 and outlined a best-practice driven plan to remediate this distress over a generation (distress was calculated as an index of income, housing, education, family structure, and crime rate variables). Five years into the process, tangible progress is being made in over 20 of these neighborhoods. Continuing to utilize asset-based strategies with the residents of small geographic areas is still the best option to strengthen these areas.

 

  1. Choose diversity – Nothing fuels economic segregation more than personal choice. If people don’t personally see the value of living in and interacting with economically diverse communities, they will not choose to do so. So value-espousing institutions such as churches have a responsibility to communicate the value of diversity. This may require a learning curve or even a wholesale paradigm shift for the leaders of such institutions. The book Place not Race makes a strong case that diverse classrooms are far more adept at raising educational achievement levels than merely providing additional resources. Living life with people of different backgrounds and social status proves over and over to be of benefit to everyone involved. But such diversity doesn’t always come easy. It has to be worked for and in order for people to work for it, they have to value it. In order to value it, they have to understand it.

Orlando is changing. The four counties that make up the metro area (Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Lake) have seen a net population increase of 88 people per day, every day, for over 40 years and counting (U.S. Census, ESRI). As more people call this area home, as leaders work to attract more knowledge-based businesses, as world-class venues get upgraded and built, Orlando is becoming a big city.

Orlando’s emergence on the big city scene affords it a tremendous opportunity – to show the country how a big city can still enjoy economic diversity and afford its citizens, all of its citizens, genuine opportunity to rise with the tide. By improving quality of life in distressed neighborhoods and by embracing diversity at the personal level, Orlando could accomplish what no other major city in the U.S. has been able to accomplish – retaining richly diverse communities that grow and thrive together.

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Monthly Learning/Networking Opportunity

POLIS is excited to announce “Third Wednesdays,” a monthly series for people in Orlando involved or interested in community development. Beginning Feb 18th, 2015 you will have the opportunity to learn best practices and meet others working in this important field. Together, we will improve our efforts to alleviate poverty related distress in the City Beautiful.

Each Third Wednesday from Sept. to May will start with an Executive Learning Session followed by a more in depth Volunteer Training. Then at noon, the Metro Orlando Neighborhoods Co-op will meet – a group of professional practitioners actively engaged in community development efforts across the city.

  • 7:30am – 9:00am: Learning Sessions. POLIS and LIFT Orlando will co-facilitate these sessions focused on the big ideas in community development such as Collective Impact and how the ideas are being implemented with the Communities of West Lakes which are located near Orlando’s Citrus Bowl.
  • 9:30am – 11:30am: Volunteer Training. POLIS and other partners will offer a training session each month such as Dignity Serves that will help volunteers and others serve more effectively.
  • 12:00pm – 1:30pm: MO COOP. The Co-op is an existing group that is working to improve quality of life in the 100 distressed neighborhoods of Orlando as identified in the initial POLIS research. The co-op began meeting in the spring of 2014 and has proven to be extremely valuable to its members – which currently include POLIS, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, South Street Ministry, Kaley Square, 306 Foundation, and LIFT Orlando. The success of the co-op led to the formation of Third Wednesdays.