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After Moving D.C. in the Right Direction, Mayor Fenty Rejected by Voters

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By George E. Curry, Special to NNPA –

(NNPA) After sweeping every ward four years ago en route to becoming the youngest person ever elected mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty was decisively ousted on Tuesday, largely by African-American voters who perceived him as arrogant and unconcerned about issues of greatest concern to them.

It was the second time in three months that black voters turned their backs on a high-profile black candidate thought to be placing the interest of whites over African Americans. In June, Alabama Rep. Arthur Davis lost his bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor by losing seven of the twelve counties that make up his district to a white candidate. He lost every predominantly black county in the state, some by margins as wide as 70 percent, and failed to carry his own polling place.

Fenty’s defeat came in the city’s Democratic primary which, given the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, is practically the same as the final result.

In Fenty’s case, he was booted out of office even though polls showed that most residents thought he was moving the city in the right direction. His aloofness and failure to do enough for blacks apparently trumped his efforts to improve public schools, lower the crime rate and create more recreational facilities in the city.

“Mayor Fenty’s inaccessibility, even to those who had helped him gain office, his reported vindictiveness and his callous disrespect for the people of the District, felt most acutely in the African American community, apparently amounted to gross disrespect resulted in his being rejected vehemently,” said Ramona Edelin, a longtime city resident.

Askia Muhammad, a newspaper columnist and local radio host, said African Americans deeply disliked the one-term mayor. “People hated him because he was a figment of his own creation. That is, he believed his own press releases,” Muhammad explained. “He seemed to believe that white people have colder ice than blacks… Nobody liked him but white people.”

In a city sharply divided by race and class, approximately 80 percent of voters in the white, affluent wards in northwest Washington voted for Fenty. For blacks living east of the Anacostia River, it was the opposite pattern, with 80 percent of them giving their vote to District Council President Vincent C. Gray.

Even in the most racially homogeneous parts of the city, there was a racial divide. Fenty carried the white wards by a 4-to-1 margin. Gray, on the other hand, carried the black wards by the same margin.

How did things change so drastically for the 39-year-old mayor, who had raised $4.9 million to his opponent’s $1.15 million?

The skepticism began almost immediately after Fenty took office. After he announced the launch of a national search for key cabinet officials, blacks saw the top administration of Chocolate City become increasingly, vanilla. Fenty’s choices for city administrator, police chief, fire chief, attorney general and school chancellor were all non-black. In fact, the Washington Post observed that among those who arguably hold the 10 most influential positions in city government, only one was black.

The most controversial cabinet member is Michelle Rhee, a hard-charging Korean-American engaged to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star. In order to reform the District’s failing school system, Rhee has insisted on performance-based teacher evaluations, ordered teacher layoffs, and closed nearly 30 schools as test scores and enrollment began inching upward. She has often been praised and condemned in the same breath.

A poll taken shortly before the election found that 54 percent of Democrats thought Rhee was sufficient reason to vote against Fenty. Vincent Gray, 67, has not said whether he plans to keep Rhee, who openly campaigned for Fenty.

Many residents complained that the mayor expended too much energy on things such as creating new bicycle lanes, a move popular in newly-gentrified sections of the city, and placed too little attention on building affordable housing and expanding jobs.

The mayor is under investigation by the City Council for allegedly steering construction contracts to his friends. He was also seen as petty when he withheld free baseball season tickets from council members. And it didn’t help that, in the eyes of many voters, he did not appear at enough community functions.

Even though pre-election polls showed Fenty trailing his challenger by double-digits, the mayor was reluctant to alter his public posture, saying in effect, that he had done a good job as mayor and the public shouldn’t be concerned about how he brought about change.

But the public was concerned, especially African Americans. Though the mayor was still heavily supported by whites, a Clarus poll showed black voters favoring Gray over Fenty by a margin of 62 percent to 17 percent.

Just five days before the election, Fenty became so desperate that he called the White House in hopes of getting an endorsement from President Barak Obama. That endorsement never came.

In a major shift, instead of proclaiming that he had done no wrong, a humbled Fenty unleashed a series of television commercials in which he acknowledged he had made some mistakes as mayor and that he was eager to correct them. His wife, Michelle, who grew up in London as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, rarely appears at political events with her husband. But, in an effort to humanize her spouse, the Howard University-trained lawyer met with reporters to fend off charges that her husband is remote or unconcerned about the plight of the poor. With her British accent, she made a tearful defense of her husband. By then, however, it was too late.

Donna Brazile, a political strategist, asked rhetorically: “On the last Sunday before the election, where was Fenty? Out running a marathon and not in church where most politicians go seeking last-minute converts. The message here is simple: Never lose contact with those who backed you in the first place.”

Virginia Governor Unveils Civil Rights Activist Portrait in State Capitol Ceremony

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By Christian K. Finkbeiner, Special To NNPA from The Richmond Free Press –

She was only 16, but her role in the Civil Rights Movement was one of great importance. And now the commonwealth of Virginia is again ready to honor Barbara R. Johns for heroically leading a school strike in 1951 that led to the abolition of segregated schools in the Old Dominion and across the country.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell recently unveil a portrait of this heroine at the State Capitol, once a ruling seat of white supremacy. Ms. Johns, who died in 1991, will join former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as the only African-Americans with portraits hanging in the historic Capitol that was built in part by slave labor. Her portrait will be displayed in the Capitol rotunda. The new honor for Ms. Johns contrasts with Gov. McDonnell’s controversial declaration of April as Confederate History Month , which saluted those who fought to keep Black people enslaved — a proclamation that attracted national criticism. However, in his January inaugural address, the governor twice cited Ms. Johns as an educational role model, saying at one point that she was “willing to risk everything for the simple opportunity of a good education.”

Her likeness is already displayed on a statue in the Civil Rights Monument that was erected in 2008 on Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion, in Richmond, Virginia, during the administration of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

Ms. Johns was a junior in high school when she took her bold action that shook the state and its segregationist regime. But, the teenager was fed up with the separate and unequal education treatment she and other students endured because of the vicious, government-backed bigotry in her hometown of Farmville, Virginia. She was angry that she and 450 other African-American students were being crammed into the aging and leaky Robert R. Moton High School that county officials built to accommodate 180 students.

With the backing of her family, Ms. Johns recruited other student leaders for a protest against the school’s inferior condition. On April 23, 1951, she led an unprecedented student walkout and strike to demand a new school. The two-week student protest drew the attention of a trio of legendary Richmond civil rights attorneys: Oliver W. Hill Sr., Spottswood W. Robinson III, and Martin E. Martin.

They filed suit in federal court against county officials –– a case that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became part of the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. The Supreme Court’s ruling in that landmark case threw out the doctrine of “separate but equal” in declaring enforced racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. In defiance of the court ruling, Prince Edward County later closed its public schools rather than integrate them as part of Massive Resistance promulgated by the Virginia Democratic Party. It took five years and another ruling to get the schools reopened.

Ms. Johns’ parents, who feared for her life after the strike, sent her to live with relatives in Montgomery, Ala. She later married the Rev. William Powell, raised five children and worked as a librarian until her death at age 56.

U.S. Education Chief Says NC School District is Worth Emulating

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By Michaela L. Duckett, Special to the NNPA by The Charlotte Post –

The nation’s education system is in crisis. A country that once outranked the world’s other industrialized nations, now trails significantly behind as school drop out rates continue to rise and proficiency scores in the core subjects of math, reading, and science are plummeting.

The problem is far worse for African American students, who continue to lag behind their White and Asian counterparts in achievement. As for black males, half are expected to drop out before completing high school.

Although statistics paint a dismal picture, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is optimistic about the future, and believes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is “on the cutting edge of innovation," setting an example for the nation to follow.

“I am a big fan of (CMS) Superintendent Peter Gorman and his leadership team here. I think the school district here is making real and sustained and meaningful progress. It’s great to see so many high performing schools,” said Duncan. “As a country, as we think about turning around chronically underperforming schools and schools that for too long haven’t worked for kids and haven’t worked for the community. This school district is trying to do it at a scale and in a systematic way that, I think, is going to shape the national conversation.”

Duncan made those remarks during a recent trip to Charlotte, when he visited Sterling Elementary School with N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue and State Board of Education Chair Bill Harrison to see innovation in action.

Sterling Elementary School was chosen because of its participation in the district’s Strategic Staffing Initiative, which provides a mix of financial and hiring incentives to place strong principals in underperforming schools. The principals make a three year commitment and are allowed to choose an assistant principal, academic facilitator, and as many as five teachers to join them on their new assignments.

First year program results at Sterling showed end of grade reading test scores increased from 34.6 percent to 58.9 percent. Math scores increased from 52.4 percent to 83.7 percent, during the same time.

In fact, academic performance, as measured by proficiency on state tests, has risen at nearly every school participating in the Strategic Staffing initiative. More schools are being added each year.

“If we are serious about closing the achievement gap in our country, we have to close the opportunity gap,” said Duncan. That work, he said, begins with “figuring out how to get your hardest working, most committed teachers and principals in communities that need the most help.”

The problem, he said is that “there are far too many places where [people] in their heart don’t honestly believe that poor children or children of color can be very, very successful. And we need folks who are willing to challenge the status quo.”

Duncan believes initiatives such as CMS’ Strategic Staffing can be powerful in making a difference.

“We have to keep getting better year after year after year, and this district right now is doing that,” he said. “What I see happening here in Charlotte is pretty remarkable.”

Perdue said turning schools around is the responsibility of the entire community, not just that teachers and educators.

“America has one shot at changing the future,” she said. “It’s very incumbent upon all of us, as parents, as faith leaders, and as citizens to step up in a very powerful way for schools. We all have to be involved.”

Perdue said improving the quality of our schools will be to the benefit of all citizens because it is key in attracting the businesses that keep the region vital and make the nation as a whole more globally competitive.

“If we don’t make this happen now, it may never happen,” she said. “We are committed for the long haul. It’s not about more resources, but more courage.”

Duncan said it all begins with a child’s first and most important teachers – parents.

“The most important thing we can do is to be a good, full and equal partner with our children’s [school] teachers,” he said. “I think parents have to turn those TV’s off at night. They have to read to their children. They can’t just show up once a year at a parent-teacher conference to exchange home phone numbers with that teacher. They have to work through good times and bad.”

In the fiscal year 2011 budget, Duncan is asking that the amount allocated for parent communication be doubled to $340 million. “We think that it is just that important to invest in those places that are engaging parents in very creative ways,” he said.

After two consecutive years of deep budget cuts, CMS is expecting a larger shortfall next year when they will face a “funding cliff” as stimulus stabilization funding comes to an end. School board member Trent Merchant asked Duncan if he could provide any commitment, such as setting aside endowment type funds that are protected from the recession to help the district as they work on compensation reform.

Duncan replied: “The government is in this for the long haul, and our resources are helpful, but at the end of the day, I think that our resources are much less important than your courage, your commitment, and your capacity to deliver.”

Duncan said that although teacher compensation is a part of the equation, it is not the sole solution.

“If you pay teachers an extra $40,000 or $50,000 to go into a dysfunctional situation, they’re not going to do it. Great principals, great schools are hugely important in attracting and retaining great talent in tough communities.”

Duncan said that like CMS, the vast majority of school districts across the nation are being forced to do more with less. “These are just tough times… There are no easy answers. That’s reality, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. We can either cry about it or we can figure out how to use every single dollar wisely and how we can create innovative partnerships and bring in the philanthropic community, the business community, and how we engage parents in different ways,” he said.

Duncan believes the challenge will drive districts to be more productive and efficient. It will also force difficult conversations about programs and strategies that may look good on paper but do little in making a difference in improving the quality of education and changing lives.

“In education, we are very good at starting new programs, but we’re much less good at stopping things that aren’t working,” he said.

Federal Funds Target Ex-Offender Re-entry

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By La Risa Lynch, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –

As the name implies, A Safe Haven became a refuge for Chicago resident Daniel Soto.

At age 13, Soto joined a gang, became addicted to drugs and, subsequently, cycled in and of jail. Since age 18, he has served a total of 13 years behind bars. Now 41, Soto has a new lease of life thanks to A Safe Haven, a Chicago-based residential substance abuse treatment facility.

Soto is nearly one year sober. He has reunited with his twin 18-year-old daughters and works as a substance abuse counselor at the same agency that got him sober. Soto admits it was tough. He was mandated to the program in 2008.

“When the pressure comes, my first instinct is do what I know I have to do and that is doing the wrong stuff,” Soto said. “That is all I knew. [But] through Safe Haven, I know there is a better way.” More ex-offenders, like Soto, will get a second chance at redemption thanks to new appropriations for the Second Chance Act. This year, Congress appropriated $100 million for the act, which will fund 178 new grants nationwide.

The act provides federal funding for programs that helps ex-offenders with educational services, job training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling. The goal is to reduce recidivism.

Safe Haven was among several Illinois agencies to receive funding under the act. Illinois received more than $4 million. Last year, Congress allotted $25 million for the Act. It is expected that the Obama administration will allocate $200 million in 2011.

Safe Haven’s $500,000 grant will expand services and provide individualized case management. The funding also replaces state funding the agency lost due to Illinois’ $13 billion budget deficit. The agency serves 4,000 formerly incarcerated and homeless individuals annually.

“This money that Congressman Davis brought to Illinois is the best stimulus package that you can come to us with,” said Neli Vazquez-Rowland, president of Safe Haven.

For each dollar spent on treatment, the state saves $7 to $18, Vazquez-Rowland explained. That $500,000 grant, she added, saves the state $3.5 million.

Second Chance funding provides resources to address juvenile delinquency, violence and addictions behaviors that could lead to incarceration, said Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL). He introduced the legislation in 2007. He recalled getting support for the measure was a hard sell in Congress. It was signed into law a year later.

“Lots of people told us it would never happen; that we were whistling Dixie,” he said.

But support came from an unlikely source - Former President George W. Bush. The president lamented his own recovery from alcoholism and how faith-based organizations “helped me with my drinking,” Davis recalled President Bush as saying.

Ultimately, Davis added, Second Chance is about redemption for people who have made mistakes, paid their debt to society, and want to get their life back on track.

“A lot of times when you give a guy a second chance, they make good of it,” said Tio Hardiman, of CeaseFire. “I’ve turned my life around about 20 years ago, and it’s been non-stop.”

Hardiman has been clean and sober for 20 years. He now directs CeaseFire, a violence intervention group that addresses violence from a public health standpoint.

The group employees ex-gang members as violence interrupters to mediate gang conflicts before they escalate. Over the last 10 years, CeaseFire has hired over 300 ex-offenders.

Davis earmarked $750,000 for CeaseFire. That funding is not part of Second Chance. But the funds serve the same purpose. The money allow CeaseFire to fund additional staff for its work in Chicago’s 11th police district. The district has seen 64 shootings from January to June of this year. The group works with about 100 high-risk youth and has mediated 70 conflicts that could have turned deadly.

Hardiman contends that street outreach has contributed to the declining Chicago homicide rates. He noted that since 2004, Chicago has not been in the top 25 cities for the most homicides. “We are on pace this year to get homicides under 400,” he explained. “There were 458 homicides last year. Although you hear a lot about shootings, homicides are actually down.” The Digital Development Corporation and Oversight Committee (DDCOC) received a $250,000 grant. The five-year-old organization trains ex-offenders in computer repair. The money will allow the volunteer organization to hire a career coach and focus more on job placement.

“Because we are a grassroots group we are not used to operating with funds,” DDOC’s Lowry Taylor quipped.

Located on Chicago’s West side, the group has made strides. Over the last four years, the group has trained 217 ex-offenders of which 107 have found jobs. Some West Side communities have recidivism rates upwards 56 percent.

“Our focus is to get people lives turned around and it works,” Taylor said.

Some ex-offenders who have completed the program successful have found employment making upwards of $45,000, he noted.

Sickle Cell is No Barometer for Fullness

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By Sandra Jordan, Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Six years ago, St. Louis native Jacquelyn Whitney retired from KMOV TV Channel 4 after nearly 30 years of working in television production. Rather than flying south where retirees typically flock, Jackie headed west.

It was a day she thought she would never see, because she lives with sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell anemia is a serious inherited blood disorder of persons of color, in which oxygen-carrying red blood cells are stiff and “C” shaped rather than round, causing difficulty moving through blood vessels. Sickle cells clump together, causing severe pain episodes, blocking blood flow to limbs and organs. It can cause infections, organ damage and can be life-threatening.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 90,000- 100,000 cases of sickle cell. The disease occurs in one out of every 500 African American births.

“Indescribable joint pain” is how Whitney calls the sickle cell crises.

“Usually the pain would start in my arms or my legs and they were so extreme, that my father would take me over to the hospital, and of course, the doctors had no idea what was going on, but the usually treatment was they usually end up giving me a penicillin shot,” Whitney recalls. “Most of the time, while I was at the hospital, after about a few hours, the pains would subside.”

When Whitney was 8 years old, Dr. Helen Nash of St. Louis provided her and her parents with news that would shape the rest of her life.

“She explained to me that it was hereditary – that the only way you can get sickle cell disease is that someone in your family has to have either full-blown disease or they have the trait of it.

And, that I probably would still experience the same types of pain and episodes that I had been experiencing all of the early part of my life,” she said. “After taking a big breath she said, ‘I will tell you that most people who have this disease never live past their teens.’”

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