There is a point to be made in this column. Please, bear with me as I do some setting up before getting to that point.
A couple of weeks ago I was working in the Fayetteville Community Garden and across the way, a young man called out, “Hello, Mr. Merritt.” As he came closer, I remembered having met him a few years ago. He is less than 18-years-old. We started talking and I asked how he was doing. His response saddened me almost to tears. After some summary statements about all that was going wrong with him, he broke eye contact with me and said, “Mr. Merritt, life is all messed up.”
This young man is not unique in his circumstance. There are far too many like him in Fayetteville and across this nation. Among the pressing, baffling questions of our time is how do we revive lives like that of this hurting, struggling boy? How do we prevent others from coming to the despair that I saw on that boy’s face and heard in his voice?
There is an amazing amount of research (completed and ongoing) that aims to answer those questions. Tim White, editorial page editor of the Fayetteville Observer, refers to one such study in a column titled, “Our leaders ignore our biggest problem.” White makes the case that until Fayetteville leaders seriously address the issue of poverty, none of our other major issues will be resolved.
In Tim White’s words: “Here’s the bottom line, and it’s not pretty: Unless we solve our chronic poverty problem and bring hope to Fayetteville’s young people, we’ll never lick our crime problem, never have the money to fix infrastructure, always have ugly gateways and continue our long tradition of intergovernmental bickering.”
It is in his calling for solutions that White reports the John H. Belk Endowment reviewed available data which showed the enormous negative impact of poverty across North Carolina. He says in response the endowment “…hired MDC, a Durham nonprofit, to research the reasons, put more flesh on the bare bones and try to come up with some solutions, or at least some strategies to start finding the way out.” The MDC report is titled “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity” and is available at mdcinc.org.
The MDC report includes seven pages of discussion resulting from the team’s visit to Fayetteville. The following quote from the report clearly reflects the severity of Fayetteville’s situation:
“Recent research from the Equality of Opportunity project shows that the city has a “place penalty” of almost negative 18 percent — the lowest figure in a study of the 100 largest commuting zones in the country. That means, no matter where he or she ends up as an adult, a child born in Fayetteville will earn significantly less than she would have otherwise, had she been born somewhere else.
Through research regarding our city and interviews of various individuals in Fayetteville, the MDC team’s report presents conditions and deficiencies that might contribute to our difficulties regarding opportunities for citizens. For instance, reference is made to our community lacking the “sophisticated marketing” effort to translate a person’s military skills to a civilian job description. The lack of “stitching together” among various systems is raised as a limiting factor. Jim Lott of the Cumberland County Office of Workforce Development is quoted as saying, “The challenge is linking all the systems. We have most of the pieces in place here. I don’t know that they’re stitched together well enough.” There is a discussion of our educational assets such as universities and community colleges along with Fort Bragg as an asset. Then, referring to our schools, there is the statement, “...black students are three times as likely to be in high-poverty schools (27 percent) as white students (9 percent).” This is a very limited sampling of what the report presents.
As is the case with most reports such as this, there is valuable information that can produce positive results if used. However, I always see the same missing piece as I read reports that aim to answer the question of how do we save people from coming to lives filled with constant struggle and repeated failure, from achieving so much less than is possible in America. My father, Rev. M.W. Merritt Sr., reinforced in me an understanding of that missing piece. When I was installed as pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Stafford, Virginia, Daddy preached the installation sermon. He talked about how “attitude determines altitude.” That is, a person’s feeling or way of thinking affects his or her behavior and, thereby, determines the extent to which they achieve positive results in life.
A powerful demonstration as to the critical role attitude plays in a person’s living comes through in an article by Greg Barnes, a Fayetteville Observer reporter. The title is “It Takes a Village: Chris Wallace, who grew up in poverty, helps children like him.” Barnes writes, “Chris Wallace Jr. was 6-months-old when his mother dropped him off at his grandmother’s house and never returned.”
The reporter traces the life of Wallace from that point. His mother left this 6-month-old black boy to be reared by his father, a heavy user of drugs and alcohol, in Fayetteville’s poorest neighborhoods. (The father has since gotten his life together.) The article details the tremendous challenges faced and overcome by Wallace. Those challenges included, but were not limited to, bouncing between living with his father and with his grandmother; confronting the temptation to sell drugs; surviving in the midst of a neighborhood enduring a crack cocaine epidemic; going to school without washing because water had been cut off; being ridiculed and bullied by other children as “the boy with the do-it-yourself haircut, shabby clothes and holes in his shoes.”
Fast-forward to where Barnes talks about Chris Wallace the adult. He records that Wallace earned a degree in journalism and mass communication from A&T State University in 2003. Three years later, he added a communications studies degree from UNC Greensboro, followed by a nonprofit management certificate from Duke University. Wallace is head of the University of North Carolina’s Communiversity Youth Programs, which picks up kids from area elementary schools, takes them to a local church and provides them educational enrichment. He was recently awarded the Robert E. Bryan public service award from UNC.
So, how is it Chris Wallace Jr. rose from the ash heap of his dismal beginning, which was compounded by years of negative experiences, to a successful life? First and foremost, it was because he took on an attitude conducive to successful living. That attitude was clearly one of seeking opportunity, thinking for himself, having goals and remaining focused on them, not allowing others to destroy his self-confidence; the listing of similar attitudinal elements goes on.
This success-oriented attitude did not just happen. There were people in that Old Wilmington Road neighborhood that helped plant and nourish that attitude. Among them were James “Pete” McEachern and his wife, Mizella. Barnes powerfully describes how on their way home from school Chris and other children walked past drug dealers and into the home of Mizella and Pete McEachern. Those children sat at the kitchen table and did their homework while eating fresh cornbread Mizella always baked. I know Mizella and Pete McEachern well. The good that went on in that kitchen was about far more than homework and cornbread. Barnes quotes Mizella as saying, “The only thing I did was encourage them to stay in school and always say ‘yes, ma’am and no, sir’ to older people, not because it was something you had to do but because it showed a type of respect,” Those children were given an opportunity to develop the attitude necessary for successful living.
Chris Wallace got it. His having gotten the success generating attitude shows through not only in his living but in a single statement Barnes attributes to Wallace, “Service is not a part of life. It is life.”
If we are going to make broken lives whole again or help people navigate around the choices that result in brokenness, society must first nurture in them attitudes conducive to successful living. Make a multitude of educational opportunities available, “stitch” systems together, offer skill retraining and on and on with promising actions. That boy in the garden will not be revived until his attitude moves to a much more positive place than “Life is messed up.” Doing so requires hearing from people like Pete McEachern, Mizella McEachern, and Chris Wallace who understand “attitude determines altitude.”