In the early 1990s, Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood had a crime rate 18 times the national average, chronic unemployment and a failing school. Today, it is a shining example of how people of all backgrounds can come together to transform a community.
Violent crime is down 95 percent since 1995 and employment is up 500 percent among subsidized households. Their failing Pre-K-8 school, which was rebuilt and totally overhauled in terms of curriculum and perspective toward students to become Atlanta’s first public charter school, saw 100 percent of the children who were sent to high school graduate in 2008. Prior to that in 2007, 88 percent of Charles R. Drew Charter School’s students met or exceeded state standards for reading and 74 percent met or exceeded state math standards. The school has earned the title of Distinguished School for meeting Adequate Yearly Progress for three consecutive years.
How did East Lake do this? This change was possible because the community finally realized that saving their community and themselves as a collective group was more important than individuals seeing their own personal agendas realized while the community failed. They established the East Lake Foundation, which became one of the major leaders in the revitalization process.
Do they still have challenges? Of course they do, as any community will have, but they have made a basic collective decision that the progress of the community, the creation of ways for their residents to pursue economic stability and the education of their children will always be at the forefront of their thoughts and behavior.
It is clear to everyone who is willing to embrace reality with open eyes that the work in our community or any other community cannot be done by one group -- or in some instances even two or three groups. We have much work to do in Macon about many things, but education and crime seem to be on our minds more than anything else.
We have talked about these issues for decades. This is especially true with education. Yet we continue to find ourselves with failing schools, high dropout rates and too many young people ending up having to live a lifetime of poverty, spending time in jail or being the victim or perpetrator of violent crimes. Why is it so hard for us as a community to make more progress?
As a professor, I always insist that my students do not try to reduce complex issues down to overly simplified equations that make no sense given their complexity, so I want to be careful not to do that in this case. However, I do believe that some of our problems as a community lie in our unwillingness to form real partnerships. The powerful in our town have been unwilling to share power and become allies in the work of dismantling the structures that keep us from moving ahead.
I have seen too many dog and pony shows here where the stated intention was to make radical change, but the powerful who served as the major conveners of the efforts made sure the process did not lead to much change and certainly nothing radical. This is especially true when it comes to working for racial equality in Macon.
It is completely impossible to have change while maintaining the status quo. Those who have the power, no matter whether white or people of color, must be willing to work for the common good even if it means they will lose some of their perceived power. Real power is much better than the illusion of power, something so many fight so hard to keep without realizing that when one’s power is used for the common good it is made stronger.
East Lake is one small example of the benefit of joining hands for the sake of the common good. We can learn from them.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.