In recent years, Nashville has been at the top of many lists: friendliest, best music life, growing food scene, and one of the best places to live and work. Yes, from the looks of it, Nashville is the place to be, the It City (another list); the kind of place big cities want to emulate and small towns want to become. Thanks to these lists Nashville’s welcome mat is worn to shreds from the 100 relocations per day.
But a stroll out to the margins and one is smacked with the reality of people and places in the shadows that fail to make it the glossy pages.
In early April, Metro Social Services released its annual Community Needs Evaluation to show people a city they might never see otherwise. The 200-page report is a shocking revelation of the underbelly of the Nashville we see on TV and in magazines. If a city is only as good as it’s weakest population, Nashville has serious work to do.
Nashville, the Beautiful
Entering the core of Nashville, one can’t help but take in the breathtaking skyline with the Batman Building at its peak surrounded by dozens of cranes signifying growth, hope. But below the cranes in the area immediately surrounding the core, the flags of poverty are impossible to avoid.
We know poverty does not discriminate, but people of color are suffering disproportionately and the city has been successful concealing these exemptions from prosperity.
The greatest barriers to Nashville’s promised land for too many of its residents are housing, mass incarceration, and failure to an excellent education to every child.
Nashville is the sixth-fastest gentrifying city in the nation and 12.9% of its families live in poverty, which is higher than both state and national averages. As a result, the city suffers under the weight of an affordable housing crisis (better known as a “shortage”) forcing families to pay higher rents or experience varying degrees of homelessness.
In the Grassroots Community Survey provided in the Metro Social Services report, nearly 60% of respondents believe the greatest gap between services offered and services needed was housing. This result is not surprising when the median gross rent is $924 attached to an ever-decreasing supply and burgeoning demand. Meanwhile, the vast majority of renters are people of color who also tend to earn significantly less.
The family that spends 30% or more of its income in housing expenses is cost burdened which includes nearly 45,000 households earning under $35,000. Not to mention approximately 25,000 of those families spend 50% or more on housing expenses. These families become nomadic, moving often in search of cheaper rent, sacrificing their children’s educational attainment, safety, and proximity to social services.
We’ve become comfortable with using “school-to-prison pipeline” to label our society’s fascination with throwing the book at black men and women for the smallest infractions. At the Metro Social Services report release, public defender Dawn Deaner aptly called it the “birth to prison” pipeline. It certainly looks that way. This culture of incarceration is not unique to Nashville but in no way is the “it city” exempt.
In Tennessee, 43% of the felony population is Black, a group that makes up 16% of the state’s population. Though unable to find actual data on Nashville’s incarceration stats, all one has to do is look to local media to get an idea of who is being locked up at an alarming rate.
Part of the problem of mass incarceration is that it negatively impacts other areas such as family strength, employment, earning potential, healthy communities, and children’s educational attainment.
Yes, education is the civil rights issue of our time, but there’s no time to wait for everyone to agree to disagree. While teachers fight for respect, unions strike for salaries, ed reformers battle for validation, and parent’s scrap to be heard, children’s educational possibilities are circling the drain.
In 2016, only 11 percent of Nashville’s students were college-ready and only 34 percent of 3rd graders could read at grade level. At an event announcing the launch of a new literacy initiative in March, Nashville’s Mayor Megan Barry said, “Reading at grade level is a major indicator for a child’s academic success, and a child’s academic success is a strong indicator for the future of Nashville.”
Unfortunately, literacy is not the worst of the issues within Nashville’s schools. Around the country, schools are plagued by the dysfunction of the communities around them. Education is the lone institution where every societal ill gathers under one roof, turning schools into social service centers while trying to be high-achieving places of learning.
Children take to school the situations in which they live. Metro Schools’ poverty rate is more than 70 percent and we’ve established a few of the issues within our disenfranchised populations. In addition to the lack of affordable housing and mass incarceration, our schools must also work with high student mobility, food insecurity, mental and physical illnesses, acculturating new Americans, and abused children—just to list a few.
The Great Paradox
Is it possible for Nashville to be one of the greatest cities in the United States when its marginalized citizens are not only becoming more vulnerable, but increasing in number? Our city is experiencing the largest apartment construction in America while our homelessness population spiked by 10 percent in 2016 – the 6th largest increase in the nation.
We have nationally ranked high performing magnet schools and schools where 85% of children struggle to read at grade level. The city is a virtual revolving door, welcoming new thousands of new residents per month while rolling out the undesirables to jails and other counties.
Don’t misunderstand me, these issues are not being completely ignored. For instance, the Barnes Housing Fund and literacy initiative created by Mayor Barry are valiant efforts to mitigate affordable housing and reading deficiencies. Schools are working more intentionally with discipline in an effort to dismantle to the school-to-prison pipeline and programs can be found around the county to help with recidivism and inmate education. Finally, Metro Schools’ openness to offering non-traditional options (charters, alternative graduation and curriculum programs) has been good for students.
Urgency. My frustration and impatience are at a tipping point because of my daily interaction with the other side of Nashville where many of my loved ones reside. The baby whose brilliance is scheduled to be extinguished by a list of odds experts are sure he can’t surmount. A close family member who fell on hard times and cannot find housing. The cousin who has spent his entire adult life caught up in the web of the criminal justice system creating a nearly impossible situation for his children and parents.
I wish I had the salve to quickly heal the ails of the marginalized and march them toward the middle. I wish Nashville’s greatness was felt by all of its citizens. I wish decisions were fueled by the same urgency and compassion when considering the fate of family member. I wish every school offered a nationally ranked education. I wish…