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The Difference: Where Fort Wayne Stands Now

Virginia Alvino

There's a wide achievement gap between black males in Fort Wayne and other men in the community. From academics to unemployment, black men in the city generally face more challenges to finding success than their peers.

Throughout 2014, WBOI hopes to shine a light on those challenges, and possible solutions, in a project we're calling "The Difference."

We begin by trying to understand some of the broad trends in Fort Wayne's African-American community, while meeting a few of the people trying to be difference-makers. We start by heading to church.

At the New Covenant Worship Center, there’s a diverse but predominantly black congregation, all here to worship with Pastor Luther Whitfield. The boisterous Fort Wayne native probably doesn’t need the microphone he's using to command the attention of the packed gymnasium. 

This ministry started in Whitfield’s own basement about six years ago, and now consists of hundreds of families. It recently relocated to a new multi-use complex on Paulding Street in southeast Fort Wayne.

According to Whitfield, that's no accident. As he puts it, "we believe in the southeast quadrant."

Whitfield knows the statistics – in the southeast there’s a higher concentration of poverty and crime, and generally fewer resources than in the rest of Fort Wayne. But he’s optimistic that can improve if the community steps up.

"You've got to raise the standard," Whitfield says, "you've got to raise the level of expectation, you've got to raise the level of vision, you've got to raise the level of possibilities that can become realities.”

Whitfield thinks there’s real potential here, even though he says it’s been underdeveloped for a long time.

You've got to raise the standard.

“That’s shame on us," Whitfield says. "I think the city has to step up its game, but yet also the community needs to step up its game. All of us own it.”

Fort Wayne is about 15 percent black, but in the southeast quadrant that number is nearly 50 percent. Across the board in the city, black men are generally achieving less than their peers, so it’s not just a southeast problem.

City officials are investigating the disparity – in 2013 Fort Wayne received a technical grant from the National League of Cities to focus on black male achievement, and last fall a group of community leaders presented at a special city council meeting on the topic.

Their findings paint a picture of inequity from education to income.

If you’re black in Allen County, you’re more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Over 50 percent of the incarcerated population in the County is black. In Indiana, the graduation gap between black male students and white male students is one of the widest in the country. And the list goes on.

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to this inequality, and it’s hard to pick apart one root cause.

Credit Virginia Alvino

One thing that can lead to underachievement is substance abuse - according to Rachele Dixie and Rashad Slate, addictions therapists for the Family Empowerment Program, an initiative that engages whole families in treatment.

“Most drugs are not hard to attain here in Fort Wayne, unfortunately,” Dixie says.

Of course, substance abuse is not just a black problem, but Dixie says a lot of the families they help are African-American. She says drug use and culture can easily lead to gang activity and violence, legal problems and incarceration – ultimately contributing to the cycle of underachievement for black men.

Rashad Slate says a lot of it comes down to income.

"We do know that people from a lower economic standpoint tend to abuse substances at a higher rate,” Slate said.

The median household income for a black family in Fort Wayne is about $22,000 a year lower than for a white family.

Many of these problems are multigenerational – poverty, lack of higher education, kids seeing people using drugs and following in their footsteps. And each of those cycles is hard to break.

Slate says another risk is living in a single parent home. That risk is amplified for the black community: 66 percent of local black households are supported by a single female, compared to just 17 percent for white households. Slate says a lot of those factors can add up. 

Credit Virginia Alvino
Rashad Slate and Rachele Dixie

That’s why Dixie and Slate believe family therapy is so important. To break the cycle, parents and environments have to become more positive.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be that there’s a drug or alcohol in the picture," Dixie says. "This family needs to recover from old habits and ways of thinking, and ways of doing.”

They say underachievement for black youth is not inevitable, when there are resources and people invested in them. 

“Those influences are just as powerful to bring about a different type and set of behaviors,” Dixie says.

“But," adds Slate,  "it takes someone who knows those resources, and has access to it. It also takes some money and some time to do all those things, but it is a big challenge, but I’ve seen people be successful.”

And both counselors say there are already a lot of resources for the black community in Fort Wayne, but Rachele Dixie says that's not the only factor. 

“For folks who you’re just trying to live day to day, you’re trying to make ends meet, you’re trying to stay out of trouble, out of the fray of the world, the dangers may be around your household, and you just do not know.”

Pastor Luther Whitfield says everyone, including government and non-profit organizations, are responsible for helping to close the achievement gap.

"Just because I'm over here on the southeast side of town doesn't mean that I can't still achieve or I can't be a great asset to this community, because I most certainly can."

But for him, a big part of the equation is personal responsibility.

“We as parents have to do our homework, finding out what’s out there," Whitfield says. "Ask the question. Ask your neighbor. Talk to the school.”

Collaboration and investment in one another is also critical.

“We are better together than just me by myself," Whitfield says. "And so that means I might have to mentor somebody else’s child. When we start realizing what we can accomplish together, we can change the complexity of this community.”

And he says when that changes, the city’s young black men can start turning their own visions into realities.

“Just because I’m over here on the southeast side of town doesn’t mean that I can’t still achieve or I can’t be a great asset to this community, because I most certainly can,” he says.

This is the first story in our week-long kickoff of "The Difference."

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