A story of greater consciousness, of a longer social antenna, begins, rather morbidly, with an entombed pharaoh.
The credit for this haphazard beginning lies with Gwendolyn Payne, a 16-year-old junior at Durham’s Hillside High School. She interns at The Durham VOICE on behalf of Partners for Youth Opportunity, a nonprofit mentorship program that extends academic support and professional training to low-income students.
She holds court one October afternoon at the VOICE’s Golden Belt conference room, where she indoctrinates community journalism students from UNC-Chapel Hill — and the itinerant shepherds of the VOICE and The Carrboro Commons — in the value of an Egyptian “big dig.” Gwen details the shovel-in-dirt escapades of Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who unearthed King Tut’s tomb. The students, who double as quasi-mentors for the interns, express wonder. Many don’t know of Carter’s discovery.
Gwen’s fellow Hillside classmate and PYO intern Christian Frazier sits beside the throng. He chortles.
“You all go to college,” he says. “How do you not know this?”
This story of a wider gaze continues in a car ride with Jock Lauterer, a senior lecturer at UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The professor and five of his community journalism students head toward Chapel Hill after another afternoon of mentoring. Three writers from the Commons had tagged along. Jock seizes a conversational lull.
“How does our work in Durham,” he asks, “apply to our work in Carrboro?”
The query falls like an anvil. Thud. Nobody musters a response worth articulating. Can you take something from a place so distinct, bring it to another distinct place, and make them both whole?
The road separating Carrboro from Durham stretches 14.5 miles, but the facts of life forge a chasm between the two communities that seems oceanic. One locale is a city with 246,000 residents, the other a town with almost 21,000, according to recent census data.
One is 41-percent black, the other 71-percent white. They share similar median incomes — $48,000 in Durham, $45,000 in Carrboro — but diverge sharply in education. More than 90 percent of Carrboro residents have a high school degree, and nearly 65 percent have a college degree. Fewer than half of Durham’s residents have graduated from college. Anybody has a one-in-34 chance of falling victim to a crime in Carrboro. Those odds spike to one-in-21 in Durham.
The gulf, you see, is impossible to miss. But is it really that big? The number of Durham residents living in poverty in Durham rose to 47,622 — or a fifth of the city’s population — in 2013. More than 20,000 Bull City denizens remain out of work. Difficult, isn’t it, to compare a city to a town where the asphalt looks blacker, the sun shines brighter and the breeze whistles more opportunity?
But that’s the one-community-in-shambles, other-in-Pollyanna cop out. Because there’s duress in Carrboro, too. There’s pain. There are people, 1,359 of them, who don’t have a job, and 3,366 who live below the poverty line. The leaner numbers don’t diminish the bruises of a welfare check or skipped meal to the soul. This is a collective experience, this life, and it can’t be confined to a ZIP code.
Is there much difference between Elmo’s and Joe’s Diner? Between Friday Night Lights at Hillside and Carrboro High? Between the Durham Performing Arts Center and The ArtsCenter?
Is there much difference between our hearts, our capacity to care for each other? There was kindness bestowed upon a single mom from Durham last October, when a man in a Pizza Hut saw her grappling with her three rambunctious children, discreetly paid for their meal and threw in a gift card to buy more pizza. “Keep up the good work,” the man wrote in a note he left for the mother, “and when it starts to get tough, do not forget that others may be watching and will need the encouragement of seeing a good family being raised.”
There was kindness bestowed upon a beleaguered people Tuesday night in Carrboro, where the Board of Aldermen passed a unanimous resolution to fling open its town’s doors to children fleeing crime and poverty in Central America. There was empathy, too, a reminder of a shared experience.
“So I guess I’m descended from an illegal child immigrant,” said alderwoman Jacquie Gist, whose great-grandmother came to the U.S. on a boat from Ireland, “as many of us probably are.”
The chasm wilts under the glare of life’s biggest lottery. Nobody is ordained for health or prosperity. No one, as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says, is immune to the “accident of birth.”
“Think about it,” he told ESPN.com last week when asked how the Spurs turned an excruciating loss in the 2013 NBA Finals into a 2014 championship. “It all starts with the accident of birth. Because you were born to these parents or this area geographically, or this situation, you deserve more than somebody else? Put that notion away. That’s the most false notion one can imagine.
“But I think a lot of people forget that. They think that they’re entitled to what they have. They don’t understand the opportunity that they have compared to somebody else. And they don’t understand the other person’s lack of opportunity, why he or she is in a certain situation they’re in. So we talk about those things all the time. You have no excuse not to work your best. You have no reason not to be thankful every day that you have the opportunity to come back from a defeat, because some people never even have the opportunity. So it’s the measure of what you’re worth, what you’re made of.”
More than one town or city or family needs uplift. It’s not quarantined. And the hand that you extend over there reaches here and everywhere, from Wilmington to Charlotte, Hendersonville to Wilson — Durham to Carrboro.
It all traces back to a conscientious professor, and an inquisitive high-school mind, and a tale of mummified royalty, all reminders, in no small part, that we must keep our eyes and arms and hearts open. Because, as Christian would argue, we should all know this.
And he’s right: We should. We must.