Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Joke on Main Street

There must be something in the water. I’m not sure what has stirred the pot of frustration that has people wearing their feelings on their sleeve, but it has been interesting witnessing the unveiling of those monsters within.

I’m not talking about Serena Williams threatening to stuff a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge or Kanye West proving once again that he is the jerk of the century for his antics at the VMA Awards. No, I’m not referring to Michael Jordan’s arrogance exposed during his acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame. There’s enough in Durham to entertain those consumed with insanity.

This year’s election should be entitled the Joke on Main Street. It’s not enough for those craving a seat on the glorious city council to talk about critical issues facing this community. I would love to hear more about each candidate’s economic development theory or their views on Durham improving image. Sadly, the public suffers due to the Mickey Mouse game played by Durham’s endorsement process and the need of a few to find cause to attack incumbents below the belt.

Darius Little began the chase for the big seat with a letter sent to incumbent Howard Clement requesting old dude give up the battle. “I have observed you and you have reached an age where it is rather difficult for you to even stand. Also, you don't drive, so you have to rely on others, in order to get where you're going, each and every day,” Little wrote. “You are a good man - I know it and believe it. By the same token, you deserve to now move to another level of benevolence in our community. The rigors of City Council should no longer be your battle -- after 26 years, it is time that you move to another plateau, to help citizens, not to mention your new wife, who deserves more attention than she can receive while you're still engaged in City Business each day. To an extent, being on the Council restricts the many talents that you have.”

Little’s words reflected the sentiments of some critical of Clements work as a councilman, but is it the responsibility of an opponent to get in the middle of a deeply personal decision? I would rather allow the voters force Clement into retirement, when the time is right, versus having some young sucker throwing low blows at a man who has given great service to the community.

Following that fiasco was email gate. Deborah Giles, a city department director, got her hand caught in the cookie jar for using a work computer to send out an invite to City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden’s re-election campaign kickoff. The email reached Donald Hughes, her challenger, who complained to City Manager Tom Bonfield.

It all felt like children going to daddy to complain. Giles made a major mistake in violating city policy, but going to pops showed a lack discipline around focusing on the issues versus getting stuck on the small stuff.

Next up, the good Reverend, Sylvester Williams, who is also running against Howard Clement, lashed out at the People’s Alliance for failing to endorse him. He chided the PAC for citing his lack of community involvement. “The PA, enhanced the perception that they are out of touch or either ignores the facts. On my website,www.newfacenewdurham.org, it is listed that I am a member of the East End Connector Ad-Hoc Committee and I served on the Youth Services Advisory Board for Durham County. Both positions were appointed by our local officials.” He wrote in his Sept. 13th email.

After stating his credentials as a pastor of a church, Williams shifts the discussion. “Christ Jesus, the Son of the Living God, commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies,” Do you hear a sermon coming? “It is an insult to me as a Pastor to say that I have not reached out to others through civic duties, regardless of race.”

Then comes the good stuff. “Would you consider the PA inclusive? I think elitist would be a better fit.” The preacher attacked them in the name of Jesus. The failure is not just Williams; it belongs to PA for tip toeing around the real issue.

The problem with Williams is his faith. The PA should not endorse a candidate so adamant against the rights of gays and lesbians in our city. His antiquated bent on religion is the last thing Durham’s City Council needs. The PA should tell him he’s too homophobic to represent the citizens of Durham.

I suppose that’s my problem with the lack of honesty around this election. So, let me make it simple. People have problems with Clement because he is getting old. They have problems with Little because he has a few legal issues in his past. Many like Hughes but have problems with his mother-Jackie Wagstaff- and remember his antics before the school board when he was a student at Hillside High School. The issue with Williams is he’s too much a conservative Christian in a city that is too progressive for his old time religion.

Now that we have all of that in the open, maybe we can talk about real issues. Don’t hold your breath. We shouldn’t assume they know the issues.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hillside High Steps it Up

I sat in anguish as Hans Lassiter made his pitch for more discipline at Hillside High School. The deep despair of the mother sitting next to me left me reflecting on the words I wrote late last year. I wrote about a culture at Hillside that made it difficult for the school to break free from the quicksand like spirit that kept some students stuck in a cycle of defeat.

The mother next to me begged for answers after getting word her son would not graduate this school year. Why didn’t she know, before now, that he lacked the credits to matriculate past his sophomore year? How did she not know that there were problems that required intervention? The shake of her leg and the tone of her voice exposed the angst of a mother who had trusted the school to do its part. She recognized her own failures. All of us did. I sat startled by the revelation and questioned my role in the process.

We needed solutions. Anger stirred within me as the truth of the past few years became even more apparent. I marveled at the serious lack of communication between guidance counselors and students. I was shocked to learn that no system was in place to prevent youth from falling between the cracks. I fought back tears as I listened to the uncovering of how it got to this point. Anger came close to exploding as I considered the potential of the student who had been left to fend for himself.

My ripening temper was calmed by the presence of the man sitting across from us. He talked of change at Hillside. He mentioned the stack of issues facing the school and vowed to make a difference. I had heard it all before. This felt like poles apart from the neat PR message coming from former leaders. Lassiter spoke of the need for discipline. He talked about ways of supporting students and parents. The despondency that walked into his office slowly faded as I began to see change coming. Not over night. Maybe it would take a few years, but I felt it-something was different.

It’s time to change the culture-he said. I’m trying to teach them not to accept low performance-he told us. It’s time for the school to rise past being on the bottom. I didn’t hear excuses. I didn’t hear a speech about how people on the outside have tainted the image of the school. Lassiter told the truth. The school is a mess. It needs to be fixed. The problem isn’t public perception, its academic performance rooted in a culture that has embraced mediocrity.

He had a plan. We both listened. Then something magical happened. Faith returned. Faith not only in the school, but faith in the student who had, for a season, gotten off track. This was not the end of the world. This too would pass, and, with the help of a large village, success was glaring us in the face. I shifted the focus away from the things that hurt. I was able to do that because of the strength of Lassiter. He brought a new focus, a new message and a determination to make a difference.

“What can I do,” I asked. I wanted to share the load. The difference was in what each of us would bring. It would take all of us admitting that part of the problem, when it comes to low performance, is related to our failure to connect to change. So, I vowed to be difference in the life of that student. One day at a time, every day. I vowed to connect like a member of the family, watching and supporting in a way that will prevent that fall through the cracks.

Change demands accountability. All of us must take a look at ourselves. The student, the parent, the school administration, the teachers involved and people like you and me. One student at a time, one day at a time, Lord please change this mess.