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A test: Are you an asset or a liability?

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 12, 2002

Communities, like corporations, have black ink and red ink, assets and liabilities.

When the red ink equals or surpasses the black, the community is said to be blighted, impoverished, disadvantaged. In recent years, the answer for communities so afflicted was to make them the targets of economic development, the younger brother of urban renewal.

For many, economic development means the infusion of businesses and jobs. But business and jobs are not all that's needed to change a community's red ink to black. A community's ledger is an accounting of factors that go much deeper than that. Stanching the buildup of red ink requires a symphony of efforts that would more accurately be described as community development, an effort that requires the personal involvement and commitment of individuals, the people who make up the community.

A community's bottom line is the sum of its people. Some are assets; some are liabilities. Some are black ink; others are red.

Before any of the programs thrown at it can work, a community has to take personally the development of the individuals within it. Every individual in the community is counted on one side of the ledger or the other. Turning your back on the cousin down the street who may be derelict doesn't mean he goes away. It just means that you're no longer dealing with his problems directly. But somebody else is. If he's no longer sleeping on your porch, he's sleeping somewhere. If he's no longer pawning your tools, he's pawning something.

Communities are connected that way. A problem transferred to someone else remains a problem, and it remains red ink for the community.

Sometimes it's easy to know where you stand in your community's accounting. If you're in jail, you're on the minus side. If you're tutoring kids and helping them stay in school, you're a plus.

Sometimes, though, denial and excuses make the issue a little cloudy. Here's a test to gauge where you fit, whether you're an asset or a liability to your community. Red ink or black.

If it's 10 p.m. on a school night and your sixth-grader is not at home and you don't know where he or she is, you may be red ink.

If it's 10 p.m. any night and your sixth-grader doesn't know where you are, you may be red ink. If neither of you cares where the other is, you are red ink.

If you say your children are wild because child welfare people won't let you discipline them, you may be red ink. If child welfare people had to intervene because your "discipline" broke bones or left disfiguring scars, you are red ink.

If you sell drugs, then you are red ink. If your neighbor sells drugs and you know it but don't turn him in, you may be red ink. If you don't turn him in because that would mean you'd have to find another place to do business, then you are red ink.

If you have trouble trying to remember the first names of all your children, then you may be red ink. If you have trouble trying to remember the first names of all their mothers, then you are red ink.

If you think going to jail is a normal part of growing up, you may be red ink.

If you think the way to win an argument is to shoot the other side, you may be red ink. If you've won such arguments, you are red ink.

If you think it's uncool to work for minimum wage, but okay to take the minimum wages somebody else worked for by mugging them or selling them drugs, you are red ink.

You may be red ink if school is the place you send your child so you can have some peace at home.

You may be red ink if you're too busy pursuing your career to help your child prepare for his. You may be red ink if you don't know any of your children's teachers. You are red ink if you don't know their schools.

You may be red ink if you think the way to make your business successful is to make your neighbor's fail.

You may be red ink if you don't stop and think once in a while and ask yourself: Am I where my ancestors would want me to be?

That is especially pertinent in poor communities where the margin for error is narrow, and opportunities are brittle. Often those communities are predominantly black.

I stopped observing Black History Month years ago because it outlived its usefulness. Black contributions to world history -- and especially American history -- are so significant that any competent study would have to include them. Setting aside a month for black history just offers a ready cover for those who choose to exclude it.

But Black History Month does provide the motivation some people need to assess where we are and rededicate themselves to getting where we need to be.

Black Future Month would be a more appropriate name. Community Development Month, even better.

There is urgency here. Opportunity is brittle, and the margin of error gets narrower by the day. We must return our communities to the black.

And that has little to do with businesses and jobs.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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