Thoughts on Our Way Back – Dateline Atlanta
Earlier this week I had the good fortune of meeting an angel. Her name no less was Katrina. She brought a message about the poverty in our midst. Katrina – or Miss Trina as local folks like to call her – is a slim African American woman who works in the tucked away, poverty-ridden Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She makes her home just one neighborhood over.
After my talk on Tuesday night, Katrina showed me and two of my colleagues around Pittsburgh. As you travel the streets you see abandoned homes are everywhere. Trash and wrecked cars dot the landscape. Street corners are filled with young men with no place to go. Amid this despair, there are signs of rebuilding. In fact, as we drove around and talked, Katrina’s voice grew with anticipation as she led us, ultimately, to a house on a dark corner. It was the house that she had built, as a single mother, with her own sweat equity.
She told us that when she lived in the house she couldn’t sleep most nights due to the noise generated by two crack houses on either side. She would sit on her front porch in her rocking chair, keeping watch and calling the cops whenever things got out of hand.
She and her husband eventually moved their two boys – now 16 and 9 – out of the neighborhood to what she called a “middle class area,” only to move back in recent times. “Why?” I wondered aloud, “What about her boys?” She turned to me, and, in a quiet but firm way, said that she wanted to make a difference. Indeed, she had found that in her new middle class neighborhood she couldn’t sleep either. She didn’t have a crack house next door, but she couldn’t live with herself knowing that she was only taking care of our own kids and leaving so many others behind.
And yet, after she returned to the neighborhood, her car was stolen from right in front of her home. The people who stole the car that night had paid neighbors out on the street the princely sum of $10 each to look the other way. Katrina told me that some people are just mixed up (and wrong) and that she and her husband are committed to staying put.
Katrina started a new job this week, extending her now 5-year career with the Salvation Army, and will lead the effort to build a new community center in the neighborhood. She once taught in Atlanta’s inner city schools before starting her work with the Army. Only after much conversation did we ever learn that she had once been named Fulton County Teacher of the Year.
As we wound our way through Pittsburgh and its adjacent neighborhoods, we came out onto a larger boulevard – only to look up and find the beautiful and imposing Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. I had only seen the stadium on TV or from its other side when I drove from the Atlanta airport to downtown. Honestly, I never knew there was a neighborhood behind the stadium.
But now the beautiful stadium, built of deep red bricks, bright signs, and clean lines hovered over us. The new bridge that leads from the other side of town to the stadium had fancy street lights and huge Olympic Circles, commemorating the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, stretching across its lanes.
You must imagine this scene – and its jolting effect. Miss Trina had just showed me her small, one story home that she had built with her own hands; we saw the porch where she kept watch at night -- the view of that small home was clear in my mind as I gazed upon the stadium’s imposing grandness. Emerging from the neighborhood with so few street lights was this glistening bridge that extended only so far as the front gates of the stadium – and no farther. The neighborhood was lost in the darkness.
Sitting in the front seat of Katrina’s car, these questions came over me:
- How is it that a single mother can find the wisdom and wherewithal to build her own home, and yet a bridge is built that stops at the door of a new stadium and fails to reach into her community and connect one world with the other?
- How is it that I saw both President Bush and Senator Kerry – the election warriors of 2004 – speak on television this week, after I met Katrina, and both seemed to be speaking a language that bore little if any relevance to Katrina’s world?
- How is it that within our society – in political and civic debates, on television, and in our communities – so many of us seem to believe that people who live in the Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and in other areas rocked by poverty, hold fundamentally different hopes and aspirations and concerns from other Americans for themselves, their children, and their community?
- How is it that after Hurricane Katrina we entertained a debate on poverty in our country, only to revert to politics as usual? What happened to that needed debate?
The message I heard from Miss Trina was one of challenge and perseverance – and the need for all of us to recognize that poverty remains within our midst and that it will not go away if we do not act.
What’s also important to know is that we cannot tackle poverty simply through our periodic charitable acts of compassion and generosity. Such charity is necessary and inspiring; but when you visit places like Pittsburgh you know deep in your heart that it is not sufficient. What we need is not simply charity but change: in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our acts of prejudice, and in our community development programs. It must come as well – as Katrina would tell you and as she repeatedly told me – through people assuming personal responsibility.
There is no easy fix to poverty. Keeping a struggling neighborhood hidden behind a glistening new stadium is no answer either. We must find ways to see and feel and hear that which so often remains hidden from us in our daily lives.
There will be little progress if the bridge does not extend to all our people.