As I sat in a packed room of the Dougherty County School System listening to the public debate over whether to authorize the commissioning of the system’s first College and Career Academy, I was struck by the larger issue at-hand and the obvious elephant in the room: Trust, or a lack thereof.
Dougherty County School Board member Anita Williams-Brown, who listened quietly as her colleagues struggled for a consensus to bring the charter school issue up for a discussion, summoned the courage to lay the real issue on the line when she said, “This is an issue of trust. We don’t trust who’s on the board.”
Brown was speaking, of course, of the composition of proposed board members for the charter initiative — four members of the business community that had been offered to come from the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce and the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission.
“This is an issue of trust,” Williams-Brown said. “We don’t trust who’s on the board.”
For many of the local businessmen and women (a diverse group of African Americans, whites and an Indian-born transplant) who had given so freely of their time and resources over the course of nearly a year, that succinct statement was hard to digest. Many had committed to attending monthly meetings, carpooling to Newnan and other College and Career Academy sites across the state, poured through piles of data and statistics and some even raised money from their colleagues to help fund the initiative.
While the group acknowledged the uphill battle of reversing a cycle of failure where only 54 percent of the county’s high school students had graduated in 2011, the words of “we don’t trust you” had simply never been considered. Sure, the challenge of introducing a new model of education — one based on incentivizing faculty to offer courses students would not only find relevant but rewarding in the sense of producing real-life employment skills — would be a daunting enough task. Change is never easy, but the danger of doing nothing is far worse. Trust is even harder to achieve when the parties hoping to accomplish the same ends - helping our children to be successful in life — simply don’t trust each other enough.
Although I have only been in Albany a year, I do understand the real and pervasive sense of disenfranchisement many locals feel after decades of real economic disparity, a lack of resources and a choked path of access to opportunities that have seemingly benefitted only a select few for so long. Deep South communities share a difficult history of Jim Crow segregation and separate but unequal opportunities. Anyone failing to acknowledge that is simply choosing to ignore the obvious, but we cannot allow ourselves to be mired in that history to the point of paralysis and infighting.
Trust takes time and effort. On a very basic human relations level, if trust is broken or doesn’t exist, it’s hard to go anywhere and impossible to build on. Trust is, after all, a basic element of the human relationship, but just as a couple struggling to save a failed marriage, the ability to restore and grow trust must begin with a common mission to fix the problem.
We have a serious problem in Dougherty County. Nearly half of our young people have given up on the traditional path of education as the key to economic prosperity. They have told us they don’t trust us either, and to prove it, they have decided to walk out on their futures. As I replay the events of the board meeting, I am left with one question: Will we do the same?
Deborah V. Bowie, IOM, is the senior director of Public Policy and Communications at the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the College and Career Academy Steering Committee.