Red Clay and the Challenge of Equality: To Be Mired In or Molded

georgiaredclayThe holiday season is drawing to a close, and soon the legislative session for the Georgia General Assembly will be upon us.  As the state closes out its year, we look to the future and what promise or plague our policy makers will bestow upon us.  I have spent an unhealthy amount of time this season pondering the fate of Georgia, as if I have any real means of addressing it.  I have not blogged in some time, as I have had little hope that the politics of the day are bearing anything other than strange fruit.  It is hard, even for an eternal optimist in these days of constant rain to see the silver lining.  Across the red hills, I see a lot of barriers that not only exist, but are perpetuated without real cognizance of their consequence.

Along with the temperature, I see the passion of Georgia’s people heating up like a kiln.  Many of us in the political sphere refer to this time as “the calm before the storm” of legislative session.  We spend time with our families, count our blessings, and prepare ourselves for the battle of will in government.  Under the surface though, there is something simmering here and in the nation that Presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement have accentuated and possibly exploited.

It is widely assumed that the upcoming session will be brief and not much policy other than education passed.  Incumbents need time to raise money and campaign in their districts.  This abbreviated session may be a mixed bag of course, addressing a big problem, yet not the only one the state faces.  I am grateful to see the QBE funding formula finally addressed (as the last time was almost before my birth), yet I cannot shake the very real feeling I have had for the last five years or so.

The General Assembly is thinking too small.

For whatever reason, Georgia has always historically drug her feet into major political change.  We were the last colony to declare Independence from the crown, bless our hearts.  Our slow trudge to embrace transparency and even an attempt at ethics reform is a continuation of the yawn-worthy speed with which our state moves, lest there is an election or someone mired in a scandal.  While I can agree with necessary caution to a certain extent, I cannot ignore the unrest that is simmering beneath the surface as a result of inaction.  While status quo may have maintained the individual legislator’s seat in the past, I would assert Georgia can not only no longer hold that line, but to do so will be to our own detriment.

Please do not misinterpret.  I am neither advocating for pitchforks nor am I criticizing for the sake of criticism.  I love my state as the finely sculpted model she is.  In my humble opinion, Georgia is the crowning jewel of the Southeast, with a diverse geography that promotes tourism and a business environment rivaling some other countries.  While many may see her sometimes sordid history of rights violations as a left-over red clay stain, I see it as a point that molded her to lead the country to a turning of the tides for recognition of racial equality.  While the foppish petticoats of our past were burned away, the phoenix rising from the ashes of Atlanta has long ago put us on a cosmopolitan international stage.

Yet despite all of this, the glaring challenge of inequality continues to loom before us.

For his part, I must give our governor credit.  I have not always been a fan of Governor Deal’s policy stances.  Yet the legacy of his administration should not go unnoticed.  He addressed each challenge of inequality- head on.  When many state legislators lack vision or tenacity to see large policy change through, Governor Deal has brought about changes in transportation, education, and most notably, juvenile justice.

Most Georgians probably would not classify these as equality challenges, but I would. 

Transportation certainly is one, when you consider one’s physical mobility is paramount to their social mobility.  Without adequate transportation one cannot work, without paved roads, more money for car maintenance is required, and without close access to highways and interstates, one’s time is quickly consumed by work and getting to work.  I know what it’s like to grow up on a rural road in a small town that didn’t get paved often.  I know how long it took from my family’s farm to get to the nearest hospital, to necessary doctors in Atlanta, and precisely how many miles it took me to drive from Monroe to Atlanta every day for my job and grad school (90).

But I am lucky.

I had parents that afforded me a car, private school tuition, and a place to live without being required to contribute to rent or the mortgage.  My upward mobility has been aided because, in the starkly unequal landscape of geography, race, and education, I was born on the more beneficial end of all of these.  For others in the state, there is little opportunity for upward mobility and that is a shame Georgia can address and rectify.  It is our moral responsibility to do so.

Now I’m not talking about income inequality, although that is largely a result.  Individuals determine income, yet Georgians can no longer ignore that a lack of certain infrastructure contributes to gaps in a myriad of ways.  There are realistic things our local and state government already provides, yet not very well, if I am honest.  Certain parts of the state (largely white, affluent Atlanta suburbs) refuse the expansion of MARTA, painting it with the grim colors of crime, rather than the bright colors of millennials looking for work.  It inherently creates a barrier for the upwardly mobile without a car to access.

It also can no longer be ignored that the cash poorest areas are also the greatest areas of academic failure in our state.  The reality of the children’s lives there is not that they lack good teachers, or they are deficient students, but that they lack food, shelter, and have experienced major traumatic events because of the cycle of poverty they have no ability or even concept of climbing out of without the help of counselors and role models to support them and show them the way.  It is my hope the Opportunity School District will bring about innovation and support to these schools.  Real support- in the sense of counselling, mental health services, and an honest look at what teachers need to succeed.  What we have tried before is not working.  It is our obligation to Georgia and her children to try harder.

Many times these challenges are tainted by the two Georgia image- the rural and the urban, but neither are truly specific to these settings.  There are poor schools and lack of transportation all over our state, and it is contributing to our overall lack of economic development.  These barriers aren’t specific to race either, although our region’s history of racial oppression has long stymied the upward mobility of individuals who are not WASPs.

At the risk of sounding slightly anarchist, the very systems that have helped Georgians in the past should be analyzed and reformed with a scalpel.  Those systems that were to empower and equalize Georgians in the past have become the very means that have tied the hands of innovators in school systems, justice reform, and transportation.  The justice system that was created originally for atonement and reform has instead formed more dependent and hardened young criminals.  Many of these criminals are those who really needed less a foster home and more a relative that could show them love.  It is my hope that the past few years will embolden legislators to have robust debate instead of kissing the rings of the big three and simply dismissing new ideas with the “that ain’t the way we do things” mantra that has been prevalent in the past.

Call me a dreamer, but I know the General Assembly also believes Georgia is better than that.

She sits and waits patiently for leaders with confidence to allow their ideas to be put to the test, for leaders who possess the patience to agree to disagree without getting personal, and for her future to rise above the ashes of past excuses that have been burned through.  Our citizens are ready: rural, urban, minority, majority, rich and poor.  Our leaders are equipped, even if they are not confident enough to stick their necks out.  And our future hangs in the balance.  This would be the time that newly restored Southern pride could triumph from the exercise of civil, pragmatic debate over the simple question of “why is it done this way?”

The red hills are merely clay for us to either mold or into which we may be mired.  Let us not forget in the months between January through April to form something more worthwhile.  Not another barrier, but a bridge to a brighter future.

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