You see the headlines about the Dunbar neighborhood in Fort Myers all too often. The shootings. The deaths. The gangs. The fear so many live with every day. News reporters go in to tell those stories, and then they leave … until the next outbreak of violence. We wanted to dig deeper, to be there for the realities of life day by day, to witness those struggling for a better life, to try to understand what’s so very wrong and where progress might come from.
We dispatched our award-winning senior writer, Jennifer Reed, to the neighborhood to bring her keen eye, sharp brain and big heart to a year’s relentless search for truth and answers. Her moving and compelling report starts with Part 1 this month. It will conclude with Part 2 in our February issue. As I did in my early morning debriefings with Jennifer over the past year, you will meet teenagers CJ and Meci and others and you will not soon forget them and their battles to make their way forward. When I asked Jennifer how this journey into Dunbar had impacted her, she responded with the following memo to me:
“The magnitude of Dunbar’s problems hit me at a Lehigh Acres church one afternoon last August. In a casket by the altar lay the body of Stef’An Strawder, an 18-year-old high school basketball star who should have been starting his senior year. Some gang reportedly decided to shoot up some other gang, and took out this gifted young man in the process. Another boy, Sean Archilles, had been buried that morning. He was 14, the same age as my daughter.
Before the shooting, I had spent months listening to young people talk about the circumstances of their childhoods and the ever-present threat of violence. The boys’ deaths made it real. I sat through that funeral in disbelief; Stef’An’s friends, however, are more inured. ‘We just expect it,’ one said. Their expressions felt intentionally blank. Practiced.
‘Inequality’—of income and otherwise—might be a popular buzzword, but for us in white suburbia, it’s an abstract concept until you see it up close. I had expected the financial disparities, and, yes, they are troubling. But what bothered me most was to see young people’s tremendous potential and know how easily it could go unrealized—or aborted entirely, like Stef’An’s. In my world, we seize on the slightest hint of talent in our children. In theirs, children are happy if a parent shows up in the stands.
I taught public high school in Lee County for three years. My English IV students were supposed to have been ‘on grade level,’ but many read and wrote like middle-schoolers. A good percentage came from Dunbar and similarly challenged neighborhoods.
I left the classroom for many reasons, but predominantly because of the apathy I encountered. I liked my students, but I couldn’t reconcile their attitudes toward learning with my reverence for it. Had I reported this story first, I might have understood the disconnect between my lessons and the streets. I wouldn’t have lowered my standards, but I would have approached my students and my curriculum much differently. There’s a lesson in that, I think, for professionals in many fields.
I had been nervous embarking on my reporting—worried that no one would trust a white, middle-class woman, concerned about potential collisions of race and class. In a different part of that community, I am certain I would have experienced rejection. But the circle of people I fell into was warm and welcoming and open. I am honored they trusted me with their stories.
We talk about how we can help Dunbar, and that’s a critical conversation. Crime and poverty in one corner of the community affect all of the community, whether we acknowledge it or not. But let’s not go into the neighborhood with the air of saviorhood; in truth, I’ve gained as much knowledge from Dunbar residents as I could ever share with them. There is tremendous wisdom to be gleaned from those who have lived a life different from yours.
Dunbar’s real hope lies in tapping into the potential of those who live there. It starts, I believe, with one adult taking an interest in one kid—and staying with him, religiously, even when your presence seems not to matter. Gangs won’t be dismantled overnight, failing students won’t top the honor roll, underemployed graduates won’t command top-dollar salaries. But each small shift can trigger another; every one kid who goes straight can sway a friend to do the same.
I think often about a conversation with CJ, who wants to pour into others the lessons that his mentors poured into him. He concluded it with this:
‘You just gotta grab them one by one by one.’”
To which I would add, amen. And hope all who read this will bring greater understanding to addressing a problem in serious need of smart and dedicated efforts to resolve.