Opportunity-Led Service Projects
Rotary is, first and foremost, a service organization. It is international, non-political and non-denominational, keeping its focus on service projects in local communities via its network of diverse professionals.
Here in Charlotte, NC, there are sixteen Rotary Clubs, including ours. Each of them draws from a unique group of professionals in their neighborhoods, all who have a passion for fellowship and community service.
In planning and organizing each club’s community service projects, the Rotary Foundation offers each club the ability to apply for grants to help fund them. These grants come with a set of guidelines, like any other grant program. The first such guideline is something called a “community assessment”. This is a survey, of sorts, which seeks to discover and outline the real needs of the community. It makes sense to do this first, because the last thing a club wants to do is to engage its members in projects that have little or no impact on the needs of the community. You can’t find that out unless you ask, and thus, Rotary asks its member clubs to conduct these assessments to achieve focus and set goals that align with each community.
Here in Charlotte, just such a community assessment was conducted over an 18-month period. Its finding were made public in March 2017. While the assessment was not a Rotary-sponsored survey, its findings and recommendations perfectly align with Rotary’s community service approach. We at the Charlotte SouthPark Rotary Club recently found this assessment to be our club’s key source document for all future service projects. We intend to cite this assessment in all future service project plans and grant applications.
Which assessment are we talking about? We are talking about the Opportunity Task Force, an effort commissioned by Mecklenburg County and led by 20 select citizen-leaders in Charlotte, NC. The task force was launched in response to a 2013 Harvard-UC Berkeley study called, The Equality of Opportunity, which found that Charlotte ranked dead last, 50th of 50 US cities surveyed, when it came to various measures of economic mobility.
In this groundbreaking report, it was found that where a child is born has a dramatic effect on his or her chances of economic mobility. It focused on children in low-income families and measured economic mobility in two basic ways: how far these children moved up (or down) the income ladder as adults in comparison to their parents, on average, and the likelihood that these children would rise from the bottom fifth of the economic ladder to the top fifth by early adulthood. The study’s lead author, Raj Chetty of Harvard University, analyzed data from millions of de-identified tax records from parents of children born between 1980 through 1982 and then measured the income of those same children thirty years later. The study found that for children growing up in places like San Jose, the odds of moving from the bottom fifth of the national income distribution to the top fifth are 12.9 percent. Those are higher odds than the average in any other developed country in the world.
In contrast, in cities like Charlotte, Atlanta and Indianapolis, a child’s odds of moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth are less than 5 percent, less than the average any developed country for which the data was available. At 4.4 percent, Charlotte was at the very bottom of the 50 cities ranked in the study.
When this finding was made public in 2013, it created quite a stir in our city. Charlotte prides itself as a city of the New South, a place where businesses, immigrants and college graduates flock to in order to find jobs and opportunity. It was quite a shock to city leaders (from both the public and private sector) that such a study could so contradict the city’s self-image.
After much discussion, the Mecklenburg County Commissioners called for a task force on poverty and mobility. The 20 members who comprised this task force first met in May 2015, and then regularly met over the next 18 months, to formulate its own study and identify ways the city could improve economic opportunity. The resulting findings from this task force can be found at the LeadingOnOpportunity website.
The task force published its own maps of the city. It illustrated what everyone already knew. Charlotte’s neighborhoods are still segregated, both by race and by income.
The task force uncovered three determinants that most impact the persistence of this segregation and poverty:
- Early Care and Education
- College and Career Readiness
- Child and Family Stability
In the first determinant of Early Care and Education, the task force found that Charlotte is severely lacking in childcare facilities, especially in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of poverty. There are over 5,000 families on waiting lists for childcare services in Charlotte Mecklenburg. As a result, these families are unable to properly care and nurture their children in the pre-K age groups while simultaneously hold a job or jobs. This is critical because it is in the first five years of a child’s life when 90% of the brain is developed. Without proper attention and care, these children are already behind at the age of five.
The second determinant was College and Career Readiness. Here, the task force found that the majority of jobs in the USA, and the majority of job openings, required “middle skills”. These jobs require some formal education above a high school diploma, but do not require a four-year Bachelor’s degree.
The task force found these US job trends held true for the state of North Carolina.
To better align Charlotte’s students with these job market realities, the task force recommended that Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system offer more vocational and technical classes to its students. Internships and apprenticeships were also deemed to be an important and valuable option to Charlotte’s high school students. While the four-year college track was attractive to many high school students, alternative opportunities need to be explained and expanded for Charlotte’s youth. This requires social capital.
The task force surveyed many high school aged students in its study. The overwhelming survey request from these students was the desire to connect with business and civic professionals for mentoring and networking. These social capital contacts are beyond the reach of students from Charlotte’s poorest neighborhoods. Without adult mentors, these students simply have no where to turn for guidance, opportunity or inspiration.
The third determinant of poverty in Charlotte centered around family stability. The declining percentage of two-parent families in Charlotte and in the USA was deemed to be a contributing factor to the difficulties children and youth experience to finding opportunity and getting ahead. This area is enormously difficult to address from a policy or service project standpoint.
The concluding aspiration of the Task Force was that citizens and leaders would rally around “a vision of Charlotte-Mecklenburg as a community that cares about all our children and youth — regardless of income, race or zip code — and where all our children feel they belong, have big dreams, and find the opportunities to achieve those dreams.”
This is the vision our Rotary Club has adopted in its long-term service projects at Montclaire Elementary and Trips For Kids. See the tabs to each of these service projects on our club website for more information.
Our club seeks to echo the work of the Opportunity Task Force wherever we can, and to engage with like-minded clubs and churches and non-profit groups to adopt and support similar schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School (CMS) system. There are 71 Title 1 schools in CMS, 46 of which are elementary schools. Title 1 schools are those where at least 39% of the student body is eligible for Community Eligibility Guidelines, i.e. they are less than 200% above the official poverty level. These schools need our special attention. These are the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts to improve economic mobility within our community.
Here is the opportunity: There exist 16 Rotary Clubs, 550 churches and over 4,000 non-profits in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. What could be accomplished if these groups worked together to expand opportunity for children and youth? What kind of social capital links can these groups provide for all of Charlotte’s youth?