Durham and “A Tale of Two Cities”


Editor’s Note: the following is excerpted from the annual State of the County address delivered by Dr. Michael D. Page, chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners on March 24 . The Reverend Page is also chaplain of North Carolina Central University and senior minister of Antioch Baptist Church. 1415 Holloway St., Durham. Page is also a long-time supporter of the Northeast Central Durham Community VOICE.

The Reverend Michael D. Page of Antioch Baptist Church, flanked by VOICE Editor (fall 2014) Zoe Schaver, left, and VOICE co-editor (spring 2014) Zach Potter on MLK Sunday. (Staff Photo by Jock Lauterer)

The Reverend Michael D. Page of Antioch Baptist Church, flanked by VOICE Editor (fall 2014) Zoe Schaver, left, and VOICE co-editor (spring 2014) Zach Potter on MLK Sunday. (Staff Photo by Jock Lauterer)

Some 50 years ago, President Johnson declared a war on poverty. That declaration was followed by social programs designed to help lift families out of conditions that led to a life of poverty and hardship. We have seen improvements in the incidences of poverty over the generations. Others can debate whether we have come far enough.

I say yes, progress has occurred, but more work is required if we are to eliminate poverty.

For years, it has seemed as if Durham is reflective of Charles Dickens’ familiar writing….A Tale of Two Cities.  I recall the familiar line in his classic tale…  “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Yes, Durham epitomizes that idea of two distinct realities in the same community.  We have booming areas of broad prosperity; we’re known on national lists of accolades that highlight the best in education, food, attractions and economic development.  The best of times. 

Conversely, we have areas that have been plagued by poverty for generations, despite our best efforts so far. There are too many areas and communities that are home to embedded poverty, blight, economic disenfranchisement, crime and an unbreakable sense of hopelessness. The worst of times.

As you know, Mayor Bill Bell announced a new initiative to work neighborhood by neighborhood to address and eliminate the conditions that keep some of our residents bound in poverty.  Durham County is pleased to join with the Mayor in his “Reduce Poverty in our City, Neighborhood-by-Neighborhood, and Year-by-Year starting in 2014.” Be assured that we are at the table working together. I joined the Mayor as he held an initial meeting last week with members of that committee, and I am encouraged by the conversationWe are already organizing and I look forward to seeing our community make impactful strides.

Just a month ago, President Obama announced a new presidential initiative called, “My Brother’s Keeper”, which is focused on helping young men of color who continue to struggle. He noted that this is a time of crisis for black and brown males.  They disproportionately face high unemployment; they drop out at greater rates than any other demographic. And unfortunately too often connect with the criminal justice system.  His program will call on businesses and foundation leaders to use their best thinking and resources to help students succeed educationally and to help them avoid interactions with the criminal justice system.  I look forward to seeing the results of that work in communities across our nation.

I announce today “A Call to Action” by Durham County Government to host an upcoming “Summit” to bring our best ideas to the table to help our young men of color.  We, too, are seeking new ideas to help promote prosperity and opportunity for all, and of course new strategies to attack the barriers that prevent economic self-sufficiency…. Low educational attainment, poverty and economic vulnerability, unemployment, lack of job skills.  We need to connect these young people with a clear path to move out of poverty and into the middle class.

We are already working to bring the business community to the conversation to help provide opportunities for training, internships and more to help our young people graduate from school and become trained for the jobs of the future.

Durham has many, nonprofit agencies, many here this evening who have toiled for years to help alleviate poverty and the conditions that allow it to continue.   We must to build bridges out of poverty in order to move the needle on this negative condition that  impacts too many of our residents.

In order to fully gain momentum as we tackle high poverty in Durham, we must also engage our higher education community.  I am also reaching out to Dr. Bill Ingram at Durham Technical Community College, Chancellor  Dr. Debra Saunders White of North Carolina Central University and Duke University’s President Dr. Richard Brodhead.  Together they will greatly increase our capacity to seek and develop successful, research based strategies to tip the scales in our community’s favor.

If we can steer young men out of poverty and get them gainfully employed and self-sufficient, think of the positive impact on children and families.  We can really make a lasting difference in Durham if we keep a laser-like focus on lifting men, women and families out of poverty.

We can more vigorously engage our business community to provide internships, summer jobs and training. We can look at our fraternities, sororities and community groups to mentor, help build support networks and intervene with our youth in a way that has not been done before.

We can challenge our faith community to provide more coordinated support to struggling families, even “adopt” families to help them succeed for more than just a season.

We can look to our judicial system to help provide support and alternatives to a life in and out of the corrections system.

We can make sure we are linking with Durham Public Schools to reach those who are most vulnerable and connect them with partners who can help keep them on track to success. The best way to provide services in these challenging times is to look for every opportunity to collaborate.

At the end of the day, I am convinced our answers are here in Durham and that they don’t rest with a federal government program. We have the will and capacity to make the change we seek.

I invite men and women of goodwill who are currently engaged in this work to join me for the Summit, on a date to be announced very soon, to meet and talk through proactive practices and measurable steps that we will take to improve the lives of others. I am looking for business leaders, single parents, educators, faith leaders, the medical community, young people, and persons who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work on this important issue.

Our challenge will be to find successful programs across the country that are “moving the needle” on poverty, and begin to replicate anything that makes sense for our community.  Together, we will make a difference.

I’m looking for a total engagement across the Durham community to sit together at the table, share successes and finally to put forward new and more coordinated, comprehensive strategies to knock down poverty in this great county.

Together, we will make a difference in the lives of others.  We must help our brothers and sisters become self-sufficient and able to earn salaries that will allow them to successfully raise healthy and happy families.

Thank you for your continued support of Durham County Government.  We will continue to support our residents and provide the best quality of life for all in support of our theme: Live. Thrive. Grow.   Thank you!