A Savvy Peacemaker Building across Missouri's Race Lines
On his weekly "Straight Talk" radio show in Columbia, Missouri, Lorenzo Lawson isn't afraid to ask tough questions. This time, Lawson and his co-host have the superintendent of Columbia Public Schools on the air at KOPN 89.5 FM.
"What are we doing about the high-school dropouts, especially when it comes to African American males?" Lawson says on the January show. "What's the plan for that?"
It's an issue close to Lawson's heart. A black community activist, he attended Columbia Public Schools during and after segregation before dropping out of high school himself. Now, the criminal-turned-preacher can be found at city council and school board meetings, helping to ensure the voice of the African American poor is heard.
Lawson can empathize because he knows what it's like to live in poverty in Columbia. With a rough past marked by violence, drugs, and pimping, Lawson came to Christ in prison and returned to Columbia in 2000 to bless the city he had once damaged. He started an inner-city church and founded a nonprofit to help African-American youth find jobs. When disaster struck, he organized a center for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"I believe my calling is to champion the calls of people of poverty and enlighten them, to uplift them so they can be part of the solution and not the problem," Lawson says.
To newcomers, Columbia appears to be a typical college town with a trendy downtown area. But census data show 23 percent of residents live in poverty, much higher than the nationwide rate of 14 percent. Walk a few blocks north of University of Missouri campus, past the nice shops, and you run into public housing projects.
Moreover, while Columbia is 11 percent African American and 79 percent white, about 67 percent of public-housing residents at family sites are black, according to Columbia Housing Authority statistics from 2011.
The divide has resulted in tension between the African American community and the predominantly white authorities and social service agencies. Lawson sees his calling as bridging that gap.