Durham News: Opinion

Elizabeth Poindexter: The invisible Durham

By Elizabeth Poindexter

Elizabeth Poindexter
Elizabeth Poindexter

Last month, several colleagues and I went on a walking history tour of downtown. During each stop, we learned about Durham’s history, steeped in tobacco and train tracks.

From the third floor of a parking deck near Pettigrew Street, we learned how the freeway cut through the heart of Durham several decades ago. The highway and other developments decimated neighborhoods and livelihoods.

It struck me there’s an invisible Durham I know very little about, and there are few landmarks to show us how things used to be.

There’s a present-day invisible segment of Durham that, if ignored, could result in the city not reaching its full potential. Durham-based nonprofit MDC, the backbone behind the workforce initiative Made in Durham, cites a report that a disproportionate number minority youth in the South have left traditional schooling and are not considered competitive to employers.

The report raises several questions. How can Durham’s sidelined youth engage in the workforce, whether that’s through getting a job, heading to college, or joining the military? What options do students who lack a high school diploma, community support, and connections to the labor market have?

According to MDC’s research, youth unemployment is dramatically higher in Durham than in Raleigh. In 2005, the unemployment rate hovered at 31 percent in Durham, compared to 14 percent in Raleigh. Data like that underscores the difficulty that many young people face. That disparity, the report states, could result in continued unemployment among Durham’s youth and stunted regional prosperity.

During a racial equity training session I attended a couple of years ago, the workshop organizer compared disadvantages some minorities face to a game of Monopoly. She told us to imagine we had joined in the game two hours after it had started. The rules, game-play icons, and money distributed to players would stay the same. However, houses and hotels would already be purchased, thanks to several previous rounds before the new player joined in. The later you join the game, the harder it becomes to win.

The exercise showed how generations of people have benefited from inherited wealth, top universities, and Jim Crow laws. It hinted at larger systemic issues that inhibit minority populations from reaching their full potential. It left participants thinking that we should perhaps consider changing the rules and starting the game at the same time, instead of giving one team the advantage.

A handful of organizations in Durham are focused on developing a strong workforce. Several, including StepUp Ministry, the Durham Economic Resource Center, Dress for Success, and Made in Durham are working to tackle this issue and invest in Durham’s future by allotting time and attention to our youth. These organizations, and their volunteers, are trying to ensure that Durham’s youth complete a high school degree or its equivalency to ultimately secure living-wage work.

Pockets of Durham are thriving. For the past decade, investors have worked hard to transform downtown and to create a strong employer base. Companies have established themselves in Durham and continue to grow. Scores of startups have sold to larger conglomerates, leading to continued growth in employment, which MDC predicts will outstrip employment rates of surrounding cities by 2021. It’s exciting to watch Durham’s workforce transform and realize the role the city’s youth play in our future.

Toward the end of our walking tour, our group ended up outside of an old tobacco building I had never noticed before. Yet, as I learned, that building and its previous employees represented more than 100 years of employment opportunities, dedication, and grit. I had walked by the building scores of times without realizing its distinctive architecture or recognizing its historical importance to our city.

Each stop along the tour helped me realize that by ignoring someone or something’s value, we’re selling our city short when it comes to future prosperity. While we’re investing in property, our careers, or our education, we should remember to invest in our greatest asset our people.

Elizabeth Poindexter is a marketing consultant with DurhamCares. You can reach her at epoindexter@durhamcares.org.