Editor’s Note: This editorial was written following a discussion about how Racine and Mount Pleasant can fix its poverty problem.
Driving along the industrial corridor along the areas near Douglas Avenue and Racine Street you see the outward appearance of broken neighborhoods: the shattered windows, boarded up homes, churches for sale, and empty carcasses of old factories that loom large over empty lots.
These factories once employed people, but now they don’t. And now lawmakers and municipal leaders from Racine and Mount Pleasant are applying to have the area designated a federal Promise Zone, which could bring grant dollars to the area. On Monday night, a number of people gathered at Gateway Technical College to talk about what people need to lift themselves out of poverty.
But I would argue that we need to acknowledge the broken promises before we start making new ones: with mental health, our judicial system, how we see children and young people in this city, and our moral obligation that we have to help one another. Only when we acknowledge our failures in our community can we even start fixing them. And what I mean by acknowledgement isn’t by having a pity party, but really focusing our attention on having an honest dialogue with the human beings that actually live in these neighborhoods.
We need to ask: What do you want and need?
Why? Because generational poverty doesn’t just happen. It’s tolerated and made. But if we as a community don’t acknowledge those shortcomings and admit that we allowed people to live this way, well then our Promise Zone will be made on a foundation of empty promises. And I believe Racine is ready to do the work, but as Mayor John Dickert said last night… there’s some heavy lifting that is going to be required to fix neighborhoods that have 60 percent unemployment in some cases.
One of the most powerful statements made at the meeting last night was by Alice Ervan, a teacher at Janes Elementary School, who talked about the trauma she sees children going through in her school and the lack of mental health support her students need. She talked about the difference between asking a kindergartner and a fifth-grader if they liked school, which is night and day. The change usually comes around third grade, she told the audience. But while the school system is piloting mental health programs in a few schools, the need is much greater.
But before we even do any of those things, we need to realize the trauma these children and young adults in this city have endured when they have watched their parents jailed and lose job after job or not work at all, their neighbors’ homes boarded up, their church put up for sale, and their peers become part of a gang. We need to ask: How do we make people believe again that we’ve got their back, and that they are worthwhile. But how can we tell them that they matter when we can’t even agree on who matters and who doesn’t?
So if we want people to work, we need to stop calling them lazy and show people a better path to success. We need to acknowledge their struggles and fears, help them work through that, and offer opportunities that they can find a hope in pursuing. And if we want people to become educated, we need to pony up and leverage our resources to meet people where they are to help them get to the next level.
A fella by the name of Bobby underscored the need accurately:
“We’re trying to un-see what we do see,” he said. “… I mean we need to treat people correctly.”
The question is: How will we do that?
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