State of emergency for America’s young black males

April 29th, 2015 by

Ever since I read the news article, “Leaders seeking ways to save Savannah’s black young males” (12/27/14, Savannah Morning News, by Jan Skutch) I’ve been pondering some troubling questions about violence in our communities. What can I do to reduce the numbers of black male homicides, and the high rates of black male incarceration? And do these killings signal much deeper problems about a lack of empathy among the shooters and their victims; do they actually value life less?

As a Rochester native, I am all too familiar with homicide headlines and newscasts regularly featuring black men and boys killed on a daily basis. Rochester had 36 homicides in 2014 — that’s three per month on average. Nearly all of the homicides occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods. As a new resident of Savannah, I’m seeing the same stories–and media treatment– describing the violence and these are mirrored in numerous other cities throughout the country. Savannah is not alone in facing what feels like out-of-control violence among young black men.

Fortunately, Rochester and Savannah have some programs (preventive and rehabilitative) that seek to address some of the unique challenges faced by black boys and men. Here, we have the Chatham Apprentice Program, Young Men of Honor and Savannah Impact Program. Rochester has programs such as the Judicial Process Commission, the Safer Monroe Area Reentry Team and Vertus Charter School. These programs address post incarceration, limited and/or inadequate education, unemployment and behavioral change.

Clearly, our communities are trying but the crime numbers don’t seem to reflect our efforts. Unfortunately, there is a
disconnect between our efforts and effective solutions– or we’re not getting to enough young men in the most meaningful ways. Of course, we must remember statistics contain biases but still the numbers can be discouraging, to say the least. I am glad to know that communities are supporting programs and efforts to address the issue. I am anxious to help but still feel lost as to how I can be effective. In Rochester, I volunteered at a family shelter, helped host the Black History Month Celebration at the local museum, visited a youth shelter and cooked Christmas dinner at women’s shelter. I am always humbled to volunteer my time but I wonder if that really has an impact. I feel as if I am not doing enough. Perhaps it’s a question of quality vs. quantity. Is it more important to reach many or to have a deeper impact on fewer people? I am eager to find a niche to help address violent crime in the black community.

I repeatedly go back to the question, does violent crime reflect a lack of value for life? I cannot imagine killing someone other than as self-defense or in defense of loved one. However, my world view is vastly different than those of the young men who are perpetrators of violent crimes, particularly homicide. The ease with which it appears some are able to pull the trigger of a gun may speak to a lack of value placed on their own lives, or certainly on the lives of their victims. Is this a root cause of the gun violence we’re seeing of late? I don’t know but I believe violence is a learned behavior, and it can be reversed. The “live by the gun, die by the gun” mentality seems to have engulfed some youth in our cities. But still, as Mayor Pro-tem Van R. Johnson, said, “Black lives matter regardless of who takes their lives.”


“Ban the Box” Legislation in Georgia Leads the Way

February 25th, 2015 by

In January of 2014, Octavian left the Correctional Institute in Americus, having just served a 10-month sentence for aggravated assault. At 27 years old, his life lay ahead of him, yet he had no idea what to do with it.

“After my release I could not find a job anywhere and thought that I had ruined my chance of having a successful future or being able to take care of myself,” Octavian said, who moved back to his hometown of Savannah after his release.

Each month nearly 1,300 men and women just like Octavian return to their communities across Georgia to face the daunting task of reconstructing their lives.  One of the first orders of business is to find a job. However many returning citizens are unable to get past the application stage of the job search because of their criminal background. Nearly all applications for all levels of work have a box that requires an applicant to note any criminal history. When an applicant checks that box, it acts as a “scarlet letter,” affecting the employer’s perception of the applicant. The employer’s view of the applicant is tainted before ever examining their qualifications.

So why is this a problem? Georgia is one of the hardest states to get a job when the box is checked. Even individuals re-entering with high-level hard skills are considered unemployable, and all too often, the conviction is irrelevant to the demands of the job. Those returning citizens lucky enough to find a job typically have to settle for the lowest-wage positions regardless of their skills, which leaves them stuck in a cycle of poverty. Evidence has shown that stable employment is the best way to prevent recidivism. With nearly 3.8 million, or one in three Georgians, with some kind of criminal background the state needs to step up and assist returning citizens in getting their fair shot.

Governor Nathan Deal agrees. Through executive order  on February 23, 2015, Georgia joined thirteen states to enact the fair hiring policy commonly called “Ban the Box.” And Georgia is the first Southern state to sign. The new policy means returning citizens will be considered first on merit and qualifications on state employment applications. Rather than disclose their criminal history on the application, the candidate is able disclose their criminal history in a face-to-face interview. This should allow candidates to provide a better understanding of their history and how it impacts their ability to perform the work. In addition, only a relevant conviction may be used as the basis for disqualification.

Step Up Savannah applauds this move because a significant percentage of our Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) graduates have some form of criminal background. We help them develop the job-readiness skills necessary for employment. We partner with Georgia Legal Services to assist our participants learn how to better articulate their criminal history  during interviews.

Still, the pool of employers who will hire individuals with a criminal background remains limited.  The Governor’s order to “Ban the Box” on state applications should go a long way to reduce a barrier many of our graduates face and potentially open some doors to interview for higher-wage positions.

Octavian found employment after completing CAP and continued to take classes at Savannah Tech. His experience—and many others like him—show it’s possible to rebuild after incarceration.  Now because of “Ban the Box,” thousands more Georgians with criminal backgrounds have more hope of finding employment; at least they’ll get a foot in the door.

If your business is interested in partnering with CAP to help our graduates find employment, email


The ATM Revolution

January 5th, 2015 by

I recently came across an article in the Savannah Herald, The ATM Revolution by Alicia Scott, owner of Introspect Consulting Group, about the “ATM Revolution”. It was the first time I’d heard this term and found myself drawn to it.

The article provides a brief overview of what is considered the ATM revolution. This term refers to the emphasis and vast popularity of virtual spending and online banking. The Revolution includes the influx of Automated Teller Machines and the increase of credit cards and debit cards to make purchases. She offered cautionary advice about one aspect of the Revolution—spending your money through virtual channels—that resonated strongly with my own experience.

In particular, Scott discusses the dangers of the ATM revolution. The act of spending is virtual without money ever being exchanged physically. This phenomenon caters to convenience and fosters complacency. As a result, people are less likely to manually balance their checkbooks, therefore the skill is lost and forgotten. Online banking and check registers should co-exist and the best practice is to incorporate both tools.

Scott’s statement “The ATM revolution has erected a veil between our money and our eyes by enabling us to spend money without physically seeing it leave our hands” resonates with me because I am guilty of plastic spending. I rarely have cash on hand and I am familiar with and frightened by the veil Scott speaks of. I have long stopped manually balancing my checkbook and primarily track spending via online banking. I agree that manual check register balancing and online banking tracking should be combined for the most comprehensive financial outlook. I guess I should add manually balancing my checkbook to my New Year’s resolution list!

In the article Scott encourages parents, guardians, mentors and the like to teach and encourage tracking spending and creating a physical budget. In line with Scott’s message, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FDIC promote financial literacy for children. The initiative consists of resources and tools for children Pre-K through college. Please visit for more information.

Shared Prosperity

December 9th, 2014 by


Step Up Savannah focuses on finding solutions and forging partnerships to reduce poverty in our community but the work is not without its challenges. For starters, the data paint a picture for us that can feel overwhelming.

Savannah has struggled for more than 30 years with deep pockets of poverty. The five-year census data shows our city with a poverty rate of 26.6%.  That’s about 31,118 people, more than live in many cities in Georgia.  We know too that there are neighborhoods in the county where 40 and 50 percent of families are living in poverty.

And then there are other data that tell a dramatically different story.  According to Conde Nast Traveler, Savannah has “got it all.” For the sixth straight year, it was named one of the top 10 U.S. cities and a “world class destination” for tourists with its history, shopping, nightlife and restaurants.

We read that the port of Savannah is the fastest growing in the country and some 30 Fortune-500 companies now have a presence in the area. Gulfstream, the area’s leading employer with more than 10,000 workers, is the midst of a $500 million expansion.

This is positive because, most people agree, a key ingredient to addressing poverty is a growing economy and Savannah seems to have that.  Yet all this fame and prosperity and growth doesn’t always trickle down to the everyday lives of the poor among us.  (OR:  doesn’t… translate??)

That one small city can contain such contradictions speaks volumes about the complexity of our work.

This is not an issue one organization can “solve.” Our organization takes a leadership role but even Step Up Savannah– which was well constructed to represent various segments of our community– cannot, on its own, reduce poverty.

This is our community’s issue to work on together, to find common goals and a way in for everyone to make a difference. But it starts with us asking ourselves some hard questions. What do we want to look like, Savannah?

Our median income is just $34,888 while the median income nationally is just over $53,000.  And remember those census tracts where 40 or more percent of residents are living below the poverty level?  That’s $23,850 a year for a family of four.

While we can claim some lower costs of living in the south, housing costs in Savannah remain high– so high, in fact, that more than 60 percent of our low-income renters are paying well over 30 percent of their incomes just on housing. We have 17,000 people on waiting lists for our public housing neighborhoods and Section 8 properties.

And while the local economy is apparently growing, unemployment and under-employment remain unacceptably high and we imagine what a culture of shared prosperity looks and acts like?

Poverty Perspectives

September 23rd, 2014 by

Poverty is perceived and understood in many ways in the U.S. and more often than not those views are shaped by personal values, beliefs and of course experiences. Even so, in general ideas about poverty in our country can be divided into two broad categories: as an individual problem or the result of structural and institutional barriers.

To those who see poverty as an individual problem, poverty is blamed on the behavior, attitudes, and values of individuals. People that blame the individual for living in poverty tend to not recognize or acknowledge external factors and some go further, believing that those living in poverty don’t share in the cultural ‘norms’ of society. Historically, many national policies have been shaped by the idea that poverty is the result of individual circumstances and look at ways that society can strengthen the human capital of poor people, such as mentoring programs.  The idea is that by addressing individual needs or even deficiencies we have a chance of bringing them out of poverty. It is true that an individual who lacks motivation and drive to seek better opportunities for themselves will always fall short.

Another broad perspective is based on the idea that institutional barriers and systems perpetuate poverty. The most common cited are racism, economic inequality and patriarchal society. Massey and Denton argued in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Under-class that racism is a critical foundational cause of severe poverty, especially in the black community. Patriarchal society has been the foundation of our nation and may help to explain the disproportionately high rate of poverty among women. Women across racial lines experience a higher rate of poverty than men and many families headed by single mothers are living under the poverty line. Rising economic inequality has “produced a geographic concentration of affluence and poverty” as Philip Young Hong, professor of social work at Loyola University of Chicago, wrote about in his paper Glocalizing Structural Poverty: Reclaiming Hope for Children and Families. This is one explanation for the highly concentrated poverty rates in Savannah. This institutional perspective views poverty as the result of policy and business or market decisions and choices about how to allocate goods and resources.

These two schools of thought seem to exist mutually exclusively. However, Step Up seeks to combine these approaches when addressing poverty. Poverty is not simply the fault of the individual or the structure. Poor people do not exist outside what is ‘normal’ behavior as we saw during our nation’s economic recession. Many hard-working people’s lives were changed dramatically. Nonetheless, each person does play a significant role in helping themselves and working towards a life of self-sufficiency. Even when individuals are helping themselves out of poverty the structural causes of poverty still need to be addressed. Identifying institutions that sustain poverty while simultaneously motivating poverty-stricken individuals is the most holistic way to address this issue buy it’s also more complex and requires a greater commitment of time.