Cook: Call and response

Cook: Call and response

April 7th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It happened. Again.

This time, 500 people came. Black, white, young, old, rich, poor. In the rain. On a Thursday night.

Andy Berke's second forum -- first on crime, this about youth development and education -- was a powerful thing to witness.

As the panel discussion ended (Edna Varner stole the show), a civic collection of regular folk, underdogs, teachers, principals, street leaders, nonprofit people, students, community heroes and foundation heads pulled up chairs around two dozen tables to swap ways on righting the wrongs around them.

Around us.

This, I thought, is what democracy looks like.

This could be the best thing to happen to Chattanooga in a long time.

This may also be our greatest undoing.

"People are ready for this,'' one person said. "They're hungry.''

Parched. Starved. Suffering from some democracy disorder.

Before the election, Berke proclaimed he was running the most grass-roots campaign in the history of the city. I doubted him then; not so much anymore.

Of every problem our city faces, none can be solved without citizen input, action and power. None. It is the bedrock on which all positive society rests, and the trick -- perhaps the hardest trick of all -- is for elected leaders to recognize and honor that.

Second-hardest trick: for the people to stand up and grab the reins themselves.

My only fear from Thursday?

Citizen, interrupted. Hope, jilted.

There was so much hope in the room, even from the most hardened and battle-weary activists. If Berke can stay true to what he's begun -- which is a balance of power tilting downward -- then the revitalizations of yesteryear will pale in comparison to what's ahead.

If.

If not, if all of this is for show, for talk, then our cynicism and negativity will reach unbearable, irreparable levels.

We will be citizens scorned. Citizens with broken hearts.

"The most important question of all: What can you do to help renew youth development?" Berke asked the crowd.

I realized three things Thursday night:

The problems have already been solved.

All the talk about education and issues with our kids? We already know the solutions. All of them. Clear as the aquarium roof.

It's not magic, some Sherlockian mystery. People are already doing the work.

But ...

Not enough resources. Funding and money are sent in another direction.

"We turn away continuously families ...,'' Bea Lurie, of Girls Inc., told the crowd, "because we don't have the resources. Every single agency has that issue.''

"The foot soldiers are not equipped,'' said Malvin Grimes.

Grimes and Wendell Bryant started Ways of Life Teaching Center in Highland Park. They teach construction skills, youth development and cultural enrichment to whoever comes in.

"We reconcile kids to their parents,'' said Grimes.

Their program was one of dozens represented at the forum. All solutions, on the small scale. All, underfunded.

Grimes spoke about applying for this one grant that would have set them up for years. It required them to put down a match of just 10 percent.

About $6,000.

They didn't have the money.

"[The city] appropriated money for the new shooting range,'' Grimes said. "But if we're going to appropriate for after the kids become criminals ... "

Then why not before?

"They're not asking for someone else's money,'' said Perrin Lance of Chattanooga Organized for Action.

He's right. Budgets belong to the people. And people need the ability to prioritize on their own.

"If we can fund the Blue Rhino,'' he continued.

Enough said.

Berke is no dummy.

Thursday was not stand-up, or improv. If Berke is going to orchestrate such an event, then he already knows what it will lead to.

Like a call and response.

You don't ask people such important questions without being ready to respond to the answers.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.