Greensboro might be the best equipped to address emerging divisions

by Jordan Green

Mary Louise Frampton and David Anderson Hooker, a pair of change-oriented researchers respectively from Berkeley, Calif. and Atlanta, have spent the past two years talking to Greensboro residents about their perspectives on race, power, communication and trust.

Last week, they reported their progress to about 20 political, philanthropic and community leaders during a breakfast meeting in an auditorium at Elon Law School in downtown Greensboro.

Frampton, a law professor at UC- Berkeley, and Hooker, a senior fellow for community engagement at the University of Georgia, are both interested in restorative justice and whether the truth and reconciliation process achieved its goals. If the truth process isn’t the right model to build upon, they want to explore whether a broad community dialogue might help Greensboro push through some barriers, possibly complemented by some kind of action project.

I have met with Frampton on two occasions to share my perspective on Greensboro through living and working here for the past eight years, and I have attended three group sessions. It would be a violation of our group’s consensus to reveal who participated and what individual persons said, but I think it’s fair to characterize the group invited by Frampton and Hooker as progressive in political outlook, low-key and below-the-radar in leadership style and comprised of people who act as bridge builders. While individuals have forged new relationships, we haven’t coalesced around any particular vision or reached agreement on the particulars of Greensboro’s major challenges.

Frampton laid out a set of observations based on interviews with a variety of residents to the group at Elon Law School, which included Mayor Robbie Perkins and Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann. She said the geography of Greensboro still reflects stark residential segregation by race, that African-American parents tell their children to not stay in white neighborhoods after dark, that locating housing is a minefield for black professionals and that fear and distrust remain hallmarks of life in Greensboro.

Hooker referenced two Greensboro narratives within a short geographic distance from one another: the modern, impressive nanotech campus on East Lee Street and the demolished public housing project that was the site of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings.

There was some discussion about whether Greensboro has the stomach for another discussion about race, and most people who spoke up seemed inclined to think not. I’ll refrain from quoting individuals at this meeting, with the exception of the two elected officials. In their case, I think the interests of accountability and transparency outweigh those of candid and uninhibited dialogue.

“If we’re going to break through the barriers that we should, we’re going to do it through everyday life,” Mayor Perkins said.

I tend to agree with that sentiment.

It seems reasonable that overcoming distrust, democratizing decision-making and addressing deep-rooted and emerging disparities is most effectively pursued one relationship and one social encounter at a time through honesty, compassion and personal integrity.

Our discussions have also acknowledged that focusing overmuch on traditional racial divisions between black and white excludes the new and rapidly growing immigrant communities in Greensboro, not to mention the LGBT community and young people.

Councilwoman Hoffmann said she has made an effort to reach out to young people to engage them in city government, and she senses that “they feel totally thwarted.”

The saying that the generals are always preparing for the last war comes to mind. If we haven’t overcome the old racial divisions between black and white, then how can we possibly begin to address the emerging divisions between a small cohort of affluent and connected cultural movers and the young people who are caught in an undertow of deepening poverty with ever-diminishing opportunities for education, employment and upward mobility? This is a growing crisis of enormous magnitude not at all unique to Greensboro, one we haven’t even started to wrap our arms around.

We know that the official poverty rate in Greensboro has doubled over the past decade. The boom of the 2000s was largely based on a real estate bubble and overleveraged household debt, and since 2009 there has been no significant recovery of the economy, especially for those clamoring for a shot at entry-level jobs. K-12 education is inadequate to prepare young people from poor communities with the skills to access what few jobs are available. And without adequate education and economic opportunity, we know that young people are inevitably funneled into the criminal justice system, which functions more as a warehouse for poor people than a deterrent against crime or a site for rehabilitation.

Add the denial of opportunities for undocumented young people to pursue higher education and to obtain legal drivers licenses compounded with the open bigotry directed at Latinos, and you have the makings of profoundly alienated, disengaged and frustrated generation.

It makes a lot of sense to me to focus resources on engaging young people, particularly from poor, immigrant and non-white communities that have been traditionally excluded, in leadership development. We should raise their voices to the forefront. This is the proper place for a shout-out to the National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad’s Anytown progam, which is undertaking some of this work.

Much of my attention these days is focused on Winston-Salem and High Point, communities that have their own challenges with social division and distrust, along with frustrations about lack of police accountability. There are modest signs in both cities that young people, immigrants and poor people are beginning to assert their right to participate with more boldness.

But I think Greensboro, with its broader middle class, rich history of interracial cooperation and robust public sphere, might have the best opportunity to effectively tackle the great challenge of our age.