Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Obama: Carlos Lowe is an American hero

Eleven years ago, I was sent as a newspaper columnist into a public housing project in the most impoverished Census tract in Nashville to find out why residents of Sam Levy Homes had watched while a Dollar General Store on site was burned to the ground.

Some residents were even suspected of being involved in the crime.

How does an outsider from the news media learn the truth from what society has purposely made through public policy into a closed world?

Earlier in that decade, The Tennessean newspaper -- my employer when I was a columnist -- had sent two reporters into a public housing project undercover to report on what it was like to live in an environment of gunshots, crime and other social disturbances. They posed as new residents, took pictures of other residents and asked questions without indentifying themselves as reporters.

The reporters fled the housing project after one of the journalists hastily and dangerously tried to buy a gun.

The resulting series was a purient view of what was wrong with the people there, not what was wrong with public policy. And white reporters perpetrated this wrong on mostly African-American residents helped fuel the public outrage and discredited the reporting.

Still, the editor and reporters involved claimed they did no wrong. And during a session of journalists at the Freedom Forum attended by the late great David Halberstam, one of the reporters said their way of going undercover was the only manner to get truthful answers from "those people".

So I had a measure by which a journalist should NOT go into a community. And that's how I met Carlos Lowe, the Barack Obama of hope in east Nashville.

The Metro school teacher had left his job at the age of 28 to re-open a community center -- dusty and dirty -- to do something lasting for the children of Sam Levy Homes and the most impoverished Census tract in Nashville.

And I walked into the center as Lowe was pushing around a mop and pail-on-wheels to clean. It was that tortuous way for the entire first year of the Salvation Army center's new lease on life. And I worked with Lowe in fielding the first neighborhood football team of 11 and 12 years olds. I took pictures. I met parents. I cheered on the sidelines for the Bobcats.

Most of all, I let everyone know I was an outsider. And I was there to earn their trust, and later comments for my series by first being a part of their lives honestly and openly.

Lowe now heads the children's part of the center taken over when the Boys and Girls Club left earlier in the fall. This once-bachelor now is married with two beautiful children, thanks to the youngsters he championed. They introduced him to his future wife, who was their teacher.

There is a lot more help at the center now. The Junior League and the Tennessee Titans came in to provide volunteer and financial support. Staff was hired, and the Salvation Army was able to take a more active role in the center by providing daycare for working mothers, after-school tutoring for children and a safe place for teens. A computer center offers connection to the Internet and the 21st Century.

And it is all because one man was moved to act for those who had been left out of the American Dream.

I'll be there to support Lowe on his next venture of hope: establishing a sports foundation for athletic teams at the center. He is holding a banquet Nov. 13 to recruit donors and help raise $40,000. I'll post in the near future on how you can get involved.

One of the best days of my career and life was when I walked into that center as Lowe was wielding the mop 11 years ago. And better days are to come for the children he loves because he answered the call to help his fellow man and woman and provide hope in every young life.

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