Searching for solutions

A mass of people — adults and children, black and white — came together Jan. 20 at the St. James A.M.E. Church on Hildebrand Street in Asheville for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Peace March and Rally, wearing signs, waving posters, stomping feet and shouting. The sanctuary was filled to capacity, forcing many participants to gather on the front steps and in the churchyard.

Lamar Hylton, the director of UNCA’s Intercultural Center and multicultural student programs, spoke about King’s legacy and work to an audience that included many children displaying posters they’d made.

“When they go back to school, they will be telling their friends they saw tons of people,” said the Rev. James A. McDougald, a regular participant who was circulating through the crowd. “They’ll begin to understand what [the rally] is for. It will have an impact on all people, and that is what Martin Luther King stood for. This instills in them a sense of unity.”

McDougald lives in Charlotte but travels to Asheville annually for the march. “I first came to Asheville in 1986. It is one of the original places in North Carolina to march, and I see the turnout and effect and understanding of the fight of Martin Luther King,” he explained, adding, “It gives hope to the future.”

According to the NAACP, African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and 35 percent of African-American students are suspended or expelled from school during their middle- and high-school years. Economic and family circumstances are a huge factor, says Jazz Cathcart, executive director of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation of Asheville.

“The strongest deficiency in African-American communities, as far as excelling in school, academically and behaviorally, is from more than 75 percent of their family units [being] fatherless,” he asserts.

IHAD is a national organization providing educational support to underprivileged students. The Asheville affiliate, established in 2006, provides after-school activities, tutoring and personal support for African-American students in the Pisgah View Apartments. There are currently 33 active “Dreamers” in Asheville in grades six through 10.

Asheville’s first homicide this year resulted from a Jan. 3 assault in the Pisgah View public-housing complex.

“I have spent time developing my thoughts as to why kids do not take opportunities,” says Cathcart. “There are so many variables, and I am convinced that education is imperative. Everyone has the opportunity to be the next Barack Obama, and I believe it is rooted in their family experience.”

IHAD provides tutors at Asheville High School four days a week. Volunteers can become a mentor to a student for a year, serving as a support system beyond the classroom.

“We do not just tutor; we are here for the family units also,” notes Cathcart. “We are building strength in the family connection to the kids’ performance in school.”

Looking to the future

Lee Anne Mangone, a former domestic violence prosecutor, teaches a criminology course at UNCA that focuses on race and imprisonment.

“There is much evidence that race can determine whether you get arrested or sent on your way,” she reports. “Bias has potential to seep in. Juvenile delinquency, for example: Race is a big factor in whether the cops take children back home to their parents or not. Much depends on sociological factors, like where the kids were, where the neighborhood is.”

Mangone’s course teaches the social structure theory, which holds that those in disadvantaged social classes are at a higher risk of criminal behavior.

“Race and ethnicity play a role in potential criminality,” notes Mangone. “A modern construction of the idea of these biological factors is genetic markers that may affect criminality — all potentially; nothing is inevitable.”

In connection with their course work, some UNCA students choose to volunteer as tutors with IHAD and other organizations. UNCA and the Asheville City Schools are also partnering with the national AVID college readiness program.

“My job was not simply to give these children the answers,” former UNCA student tutor Drew Peeples explains. “Answers to problems come and go, yet it is the sole responsibility of the educator to direct these students in using their own minds and critical thinking.”

Peeples, who graduated last year with a degree in literature, is now a substitute teacher and tutor in Charlotte. “I was able to learn that my duty is inspiring these kids,” he reveals. “Because, regardless of examinations and notes, education should be the exploration of self and how that self can collaborate with society in bettering a future for humankind.”

These and other local groups are working to lower the dropout and imprisonment rates for African-American adolescents in Asheville. In August, Cathcart plans to expand his organization’s reach through a newly established Urban Mentoring Academy.

“We are helping parents and family members take steps in holding their kids accountable,” he says, adding, “That is a big value in my heart.”

— UNCA senior Tyler Sprinkle is majoring in mass communication.

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