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South Bend and Notre Dame share a future

| Monday, March 2, 2020

Notre Dame does much good for our community. And South Bend, a city that is 26% African American and 15% Hispanic, has a future being quietly crushed.

South Bend has a lead poisoning epidemic that exceeds Flint, Michigan, by some metrics. The response by city, county and state has been poorly organized. We have thus far addressed few of the homes in which children are exposed to lead — homes predominantly in neighborhoods that are very diverse and low-income. Lead destroys lives, and destroys lives generationally.

South Bend’s violent crime has surged, with more murders and more shootings. The victims are disproportionately African-American — 60% of homicide victims are identified as such. The violence has spread; the Notre Dame community received reports of shootings near campus this academic year. Beyond the numbers, there is no accurate measurement of this trauma, how it wounds the present and the future.

Evictions and expulsions are on the rise. Local families are displaced in the endless search for decent and affordable housing. South Bend is in the top 20, nationally, in eviction rates. Expulsions drive African-American children from school at a percentage that has tripled since 2015. Some children move from school to school — sometimes multiple times in a single year — due to evictions and expulsions.

South Bend has lost roughly 25% of its public school students in the last decade. The student body of South Bend public schools is now a majority African-American or Hispanic. Of South Bend schools, 70% are rated by the federal government at the lowest level. For five years, local parents and children have endured a busing crisis that has delayed or canceled buses frequently, threatened job schedules and student performance, and placed children in unconscionably long commutes. One local leader called the financial future of public schools “dire”.

Local minority-owned businesses have suffered from neglect. The city board charged with promoting them did not meet for years.  The city of South Bend spent just $700 on African-American-owned business in 2017.  It spent just $5,000 on Hispanic owned business in 2018. These spending levels came from annual budgets between $70 to $100 million. A 2019 disparity report described accounts by minority business owners of bias, poor communication and low support from the city and community.

These are symptoms of a city strangling its future. What will happen to South Bend, and to Notre Dame?

Notre Dame could learn from Yale’s progress. When I was a student there over a decade ago, Yale fostered a bunker mentality. Yale was still reeling from violent acts against faculty and students, which impacted academic recruitment negatively. Public schools and city neighborhoods just blocks from the university were in visible disrepair. At orientation, we were warned of the dangers of living in a city with a high violent crime rate, were told which neighborhoods to avoid and were informed that we could summon university-paid vans and buses anywhere in the city, obviating public transportation.

Yet more recently and wisely, Yale has invested strongly in New Haven’s future. The University now provides free public college tuition, or substantial support for private colleges in the region, to any graduate of a New Haven public school with a B average or better. It provides vocational training to adult residents in economically challenged New Haven neighborhoods, partnering with local unions. Yale provides local college tuition support for job candidates from New Haven to gain needed skills. Violent crime in New Haven has nearly halved in 10 years’ time.

Over the last decade, Notre Dame paid South Bend, a city of 102,000 people, $3 million in direct contributions. In 2018 alone, Yale sent more than $12 million in direct contributions to New Haven, a city of 129,000 people.

The tales of these two cities and universities is undoubtedly more complicated. Yet, for all the good Notre Dame does for South Bend, the city is regressing in public safety, public health, public education and public support for minority-owned business.

I would like to challenge University leadership to consider what more Notre Dame can do. As Yale does with its hometown, Notre Dame could directly contribute much more to South Bend. It could partner with local colleges like Holy Cross and Saint Mary’s, and state universities like Indiana and Purdue, to make college attainable for many South Bend school graduates. It could amp up its diversity in purchasing efforts along with its diversity in faculty and staff recruitment initiatives. It could sponsor the mentoring of local students as a university priority.

I am a South Bend native and a longtime resident of the city’s West Side, the more diverse and lower-income part of town. In recent years, my neighborhood lost our only grocery store, saw a nearby industrial site razed without a clean-up of its debris, became publicized as an epicenter of lead poisoning, found our largest park adjacent to an illegal asbestos dumping site and witnessed the shuttering of many of our commercial corridor’s businesses. Violence has surged. Children live here, needing generous and provident action, for their future and for ours.

Ricky Klee

class of 2002

Feb. 27

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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