Years ago, I sat in a gymnasium in rural southern Missouri and gave a commencement speech to graduates of a local community college. In giving my remarks that day, I was the first African American to speak at the school’s graduation. I was both honored and challenged.
This wasn’t my first trip to West Plains, Missouri. I was a member of the board of trustees of Missouri State University, our state’s second largest public university, and the president often encouraged trustees to visit school facilities and locations throughout the state to understand the breadth and impact of all programs. I had an affinity for West Plains and made a number of trips because I saw the same remarkable quality in the people that I saw in my north St. Louis neighborhood. Starved for resources yet determined to succeed despite the odds, many of the people in West Plains were doing exactly what happens in typical communities: wake up every day and go to work or school. Much like in north city, the jobs were sparse but people made do. As it was in my former neighborhood, addiction was no stranger, with meth and heroin being wildly popular in this area. West Plains, at the time, was considered the 17th poorest congressional district in America. By and large, people were poor and they made do no different than what I witnessed growing up in north St. Louis.
There were several speakers who preceded me, but one in particular kept my attention as I silently rehearsed my own remarks. She was fiery and well-spoken. In her remarks she spoke pejoratively about the “big bad city” and emphasized the distinction between rural and urban communities. I was disappointed, having seen such similarities between West Plains and North St. Louis city, but realized this was a connection some did not care to make. My mind drifted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he and others tried, although unsuccessfully, to unify poor whites and blacks to demand changes to complex systems that are not constructed for all to succeed. You succeed in spite of the systems.
At no point in our recent history have we seen social mobility so low.
Social mobility is the likelihood that a child will grow into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social well being than his or her family. Many of the problems that we face as a region, as a state and as a nation are symptoms of our station in life.
If you look across any social issue like life expectancy, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teenage pregnancy or mental illness, there is a correlation to income and one’s station in life. And while there is a disproportionate impact to blacks and other minorities, whites are increasingly impacted. In fact, not too long ago the Missouri Foundation for Health released a report titled “Why Are Death Rates Rising Among Whites in Missouri?” Since the year 2000, 79 of 114 Missouri counties have seen a rise in white mortality rates for those aged 25-59, or what are considered prime working ages. The report concludes that these deaths have a variety of causes, but all speak to a feeling of hopelessness and a lack of opportunity.
Sitting in that gymnasium many years ago, I was honored for my affiliation with Missouri State University that afforded me the opportunity to speak words of compassion and hope to people who needed to hear it. I was challenged with the knowledge that the chasm between white and black, poor and rich, rural and urban, was growing wider. It takes real and courageous leadership to hold the line and weave a coalition among people who seem at odds with each other. For our state to be competitive, we will need greater cohesion. Let’s fight to remove barriers that prevent our youth from graduating high school, from choosing two- or four-year degrees, trade or military careers, and from learning the skills that will position them to compete for jobs and prepare for their future.