Commentary: We must keep doing things that work

The Miami HeraldMarch 10, 2010 

NEW ORLEANS — Warren Buffett leads a troop of officials, reporters, and a guy with a boom mike into the just-finished new apartment.

Five years ago, after the levees failed, this area was ten feet underwater. Now, on this bitterly cold morning early in March, it is a construction zone ringed by chainlink fences, and one of the richest men in America wanders around what will eventually be some family's home. Model furnishings have been placed just so. The smell of new is still in the rooms.

This is part of the inaugural meeting of the Purpose Built Communities network, to which civic leaders from around the country have come. And, it is an attempt to export "What Works."

As in my 2007-2008 series of columns by that name, about programs that have shown success saving young people in crisis. One of the most ambitious of them was the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta, founded in 1995 by developer Tom Cousins.

Cousins achieved near miracles -- violent crime down 96 percent, 78 percent of kids passing the state math test when only 5 percent could do it before -- in what had been one of the worst and most dangerous public housing projects in the country. There were many elements to that success: offering better schools, creating an early learning center, building a YMCA, evicting felons.

But the centerpiece was that in the airy new apartment complex Cousins built to replace the housing project, half the units are held for middle-income families, the other half for poor, government subsidized families. The idea being that middle-income people would, just in their daily doings, model for their neighbors the habits and behaviors of a successful life.

It worked, spectacularly.

And Purpose Built Communities is the outgrowth. Founded by Cousins, Buffett and philanthropist Julian Robertson, it offers expertise, guidance and partnerships to those seeking to replicate East Lake's success in their own blighted communities. Its member network includes projects in Rome, Ga., Jackson, Miss., Indianapolis and Memphis. There is no charge for its services.

Vice-president Carol Naughton says community leaders in other cities who want to learn more should visit www.purposebuiltcommunities.org. Or, she says: "Give me a call. It's that simple. Give me a call (404-591-1400) and we'll start the conversation. We can kind of coach you about how to build this initial organization, about who your partners can be, who can bring resources to the community and advocate for the community. And who those resources are within the community, too."

It is not easy and it is not magic. It takes time, tears, toil and setback to grow hope in places where it has not grown before. But do it, says Cousins, and "you will see the children that would've been lost in the normal process become stars, become bright."

"There is," says PBC President Chuck Knapp, "a difference between a project and a movement."

They want this to be a movement.

"Whenever you have something happen like East Lake," says Buffett, "people say, 'That's just because one guy had a passion for it, wouldn't stop and went through a brick wall, made it happen.' But the real test is whether it's replicable. Once you do it beyond where the founders started it, it becomes evident to other communities: if the community cares enough about getting it done, it will get done."

And this, he says, needs to get done in dozens of communities. Not just one or two, not just five or six.

"When you've got East Lake with 95 percent of the kids now meeting grade level or above when five percent were doing it before...you're turning out human beings who are going to get a chance to live up to their potential. And you can't ask for more than that."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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