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The Peter Paul Center Route Out of Poverty

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The east end of Richmond, Virginia is a community rich in people, but depressingly poor otherwise. It's like every other inner city in America. It is strikingly similar to the impoverished section of Jersey City, where I was born and raised. Just as in the days of Jim Crow, the racial and class segregation is real, amplified these days by the gentrification masked as "redevelopment," with whites re-taking chunks of the east end abandoned since the white flight of the 1960s.

Public schools here are woefully underfunded and run-down. There are multiple grammar schools but just one high school, which suggests most of these children have no real shot at college, let alone high school. Violence, crime, and bulging bags of garbage dominate this population, which has the densest concentration of public housing south of New York City.

Outside of Jackson, Mississippi, Richmond's east end also has the oldest public housing stock in America, with some families in their fifth generation in public housing. The average income of those living in public housing with names like Mosby Court is just over $8,000 per year. A community tour reveals the city jail, the courts building, and the juvenile jail bunched together at one entrance to the east end. Coming into this neighborhood from the other direction, you pass a graveyard and a landfill. Brutal reminders of what the children of the east end face if there is no empowerment plan for their lives.

There is only one grocery store, but an overabundance of corner stores, fast food chains, and liquor stores pushing their products. "Food desert" has been used to describe areas like Richmond's east end. Little wonder that diabetes, high blood pressure, and other diseases overpower this community, too.

On a weekday afternoon, there are residents on street corners, on their stoops, many unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable save the odd low-skilled job here or there. Drugs are rampant, and other criminal activities linked to economic desperation are the norm. Only 45% of adults over the age of 25 have earned a high-school diploma or equivalent degree and the east end's unemployment rate is 40%, four times the national average.

Since the Civil Rights era, it has often been stated that education is the great equalizer in America, the one way that poor people could advance their lives. My life is undoubtedly a testimony to that, in spite of my single mother's extreme poverty and limited educational background. Social programs had a great impact on my overcoming the worst aspects of ghetto life, of my going to college. But in Richmond's east end, only 20% of these students receive any kind of pre-school education. And on average, students in the east end make only 65% of the annual academic progress compared to their peers nationally. Finally, just 41% of students entering high school in the east end will graduate with a degree in four years.

So, it is simply not enough for politicians to suggest the poor in America have an unapologetic dependency on government assistance. Most people I know who are poor, or have been poor, including my own family, actually want to work, and work hard. But when you hail from generations of poverty, are stuck in environments that breed contempt from outsiders and mayhem from those within, it takes a monumental effort to free even a few from the deeply held belief that they have no future whatsoever.

That is why I greatly admire the Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond's east end. We hear the perpetual chatter about poverty, but Peter Paul is about solutions. I recently spent two days at Peter Paul, listening to the children, the workers, the staff, the board, and came away saying this is a model for what can be done to address poverty directly in America.

Run by a multicultural army of committed change agents, Peter Paul is the oldest continually operating community center in the east end.

I was struck by the integrity of the staff, board members, and donors, and by the fact that some of them are Democrats, some Republicans, some poor, some super-wealthy, some black and some white, united for a common cause here in Virginia, once a major outpost of the Confederacy. Peter Paul speaks to the best of who we are as Americans, and of what is possible if there were less talk and more action, if there were less finger-pointing and more problem-solving.

This center serves children, families, and seniors through a variety of holistic programs. I witnessed students receiving their daily meals and tutoring for various subjects. I witnessed a love and respect for these children often missing from glossier, more famous programs that have far larger budgets and the attention of President Obama. But many don't have what Peter Paul has, which is a soul and, I feel, a long-term commitment to our children -- with or without the revolving door of celebrity attention and big-money benefactors.

For sure, I witnessed expectations of excellence, something most poor American children do not experience consistently. But Peter Paul doesn't stop there. It has a twice-monthly food distribution that serves over 800 individuals in the east end. It hires people from the community and it listens to the voices of the people as its mission evolves. And Peter Paul's core purpose is an immersive after-school education. In other words, the nearly 80 children it helps are given a real shot at winning, and not merely surviving.

Obviously, we've been discussing the poor since the days of Dr. King and President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," but what is needed now, more than ever, is not just tough talk, but tough-minded people willing to commit huge chunks of their lives to rooting out this ugly stain in the American landscape, once and for all. In its very simple brick building in Richmond's east end, the good people of Peter Paul are showing us one way. We need to pay attention.

This piece was originally published on The Guardian.