Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Inner City Reality: A Parent's Testimony

Back in April at our annual urban ministry prayer breakfast, we hosted the top seven Dallas mayoral candidates in a public forum. We asked each of them to tell us what they intended to do in response to the growing needs of our fellow citizens who struggle daily in poor neighborhoods, especially in South Dallas and the Southern Sector of our city.

It was an interesting morning attended by about 1,200 people.

Included in the morning's program was a "testimony" by Wyshina Harris, a member of our staff of community builders. Wyshina works in the public housing development where she lives. She does great work in our After School Academy located at Turner Courts. She is working every day to make her neighborhood better for everyone.

Her powerful words need to be heard, not only in Dallas, but across the nation. Here's what she had to say to the candidates and the large audience that was present.

My name is Wyshina Harris and I am a resident of South Dallas. I have two kids--a 10-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.

I want South Dallas to become a place where I don't have to worry about my kids' safety every day. We see violence and drug dealing all around us. We hear gunshots fired regularly. My kids still get scared when they hear the gunshots. I don't want my kids to get over being scared of that. Kids aren't supposed to get used to hearing gunfire outside their front door.

There are as many liquor stores as churches in South Dallas. I'd like to see that change. We need a decent grocery store, clothing store, and gas station. It's hard to travel all the way to North Dallas to buy a decent pair of sneakers for my kids.

My kids go to H.S. Thompson Elementary. When people outside of the neighborhood find out where my kids go to school, they say, "Oh my gosh. You let your kids go to school there?!" Well, what's my alternative?! That's the neighborhood school. I can't afford private school for my kids. Our school needs good teachers and counselors who will fight to get kids on par with their grade level rather than sticking them into slow learning classes. We need resources to enable our kids to learn technology and to explore the arts. We can't allow our schools to set our kids up to fail.

I will tell you that there are a lot of things that need fixing in our neighborhood. I will also tell you that there is a lot of hope and a lot of strength in our neighborhood.

I think sometimes people think that people in poverty are just too lazy to pull themselves out. That isn't true. My neighbors talk to me about desperately wanting to find work and wanting to go to school to change their lives. We want the same things for ourselves and our children that you want for yourselves and your children.

I'm not giving up on South Dallas. I ask that you not give up on South Dallas either. We don't need a handout. We need authentic, impactful partnerships to help us solve these issues.

I don't share this with you today because I want your pity. I share this because I want your partnership. I want to work with you, and with the future mayor of our great city, to make Dallas a better place for all of us.

Thank you for listening.



IBreakCellPhones said...


Do you have any thoughts on whether there is a "critical mass" of upstanding citizens in a neighborhood to keep things like Mrs. Harris is describing out of the neighborhood? Conversely, is there a critical mass of not-so-upstanding citizens in a neighborhood that makes it nearly impossible for an area to recover?

Larry James said...

Welcome back, ibreakcellphones. Long time since we've heard from you!

The "upstanding citizens" out number the negative influences by a large margin. The problem is in organizing and "resourcing" the good to battle and overcome the bad.

Most of the positive people like Ms. Harris--and there are many of them in her neighborhood--feel isolated and alone. Due to the fear of the negative and the notion that they stand alone without sufficient backing or protection to stand against it, they often stay "inside" their own smaller worlds--kids don't play outside, people don't spend much time outside, etc.

It is easy to see why this is true. In addition to the negative forces, it is hard to feel very good about yourself or your community when the larger community sends the message again and again that "your area, your community, your neighborhood is not worth our investment of institutional support."

The positive forces of the majority in these neighborhoods need the support of the larger community in consistent code enforcement, adequate sanitation services, police aciton in real, on-the-ground terms (community policing), housing support, community health services, great educational options for children and adults, infrastructure improvements, economic development, etc.

But the larger community does the opposite--it cuts investment, rather than increasing it.

Thankfully, people like Ms. Harris stay and fight every day to make things better, but their efforts are not enough. There has to be the larger scale, institutional commitment of the city to support and encourage the work of community leaders and organizers.

People like me who enjoy so much advantage may be thinking that what I enjoy is available to eveyone in equal portions, so the problem with these neighborhoods must be with the people who live in them. Nothing could be more untrue. Unless a person is living there, like Ms. Harris, it is likely impossible for one to really "get it." The people who have not given up are taking advantage of everything offered, but the fact is we need a community-wide commitment to improve things in areas like this.

Charity is not the answer. Just, sustainable community resource investment is the only way to go forward, if we really want to see things change and if we want to give the good a chance to overcome, convert and/or drive out the negative.

SeriousSummer said...

I don't know of any measure of the number of "upstanding citizens" it takes to change a neighborhood, but a pretty good study by Paul Jargowsky at University of Texas-Dallas, indicates that neighborhoods fall into decline and become slums when the total of poor residents exceeds 40%, that they don't when the total of poor residents is less than 20%, and that in between those numbers it varies.

I wouldn't be surprised if that 1/5 to 2/5 ratio holds up in other contexts as well.