Every Tuesday, 10 or so high school girls meet in a second-floor South Side apartment.
Most attend Corcoran High School and like to share the ups and downs of their week and talk about their budding love lives through an activity called “Happy, Crappy, Sappy.” At one recent gathering, they discussed the logistics of getting to prom and what they would like to wear. Some sat cross-legged like pre-K students on two black futons and others stretched across the hardwood floor, wrapped in blankets. Their giggles and chatter over a movie faded as they broke for a meal of a large chicken tender, seasoned fries paired with just the right amount of ketchup, and a tangelo, all served with a lemonade-flavored drink to wash everything down.
These gatherings include a Bible discussion and more fellowship, then a ride home in a van with the young woman who is opening up her home to host these early-week routines.
Dominique Corley, 23, who likes to go by the nickname “Domi,” is the demure hostess who — with swept bangs, black-rimmed glasses and thin frame — blends right in with the high school students who are part of the urban Young Life chapter that she has been leading since last fall.
Young Life, a national and international Christian-based ministry, focuses on adolescents through mentorship, group activities and Bible studies. There are nearly 20 Young Life chapters and clubs in and around Syracuse, according to the organization’s national website. However, most of them are in suburban areas such as Manlius and DeWitt, Corley says.
Corley received a distinct education on just how segregated Syracuse can be — and how isolating and defining it can be — while trying to diversify Young Life. She moved all over, an experience immediately underlining for a newcomer what is a given in Syracuse, the country’s ninth-most-segregated city. It’s a characteristic that is detailed in a CNY Fair Housing fall 2014 report that shows racial divisions can be defining, if not damning, in terms of educational and economic opportunities and outcomes.
Since moving to the city last May after graduating magna cum laude from Cornell University with degrees in sociology and linguistics, Corley has lived in five different places.
When she first arrived in Syracuse, she worked at Brady Faith Center, where she created a faith-based curriculum for 6- through 12-year-olds. Then Young Life offered the opportunity to grow a new chapter, though at just a poverty-level wage.
“I’ve learned about each side of the city,” Corley said in an interview this spring. “Like, South Side is black, West Side is more Hispanics, North Side is like refugee, East Side is more like wealthier. … It’s been helpful to learn about the city. I definitely got a snapshot of Syracuse by moving around so much.”
Dominique Corley listens in on clues given in a game of Taboo. | Lateshia Beachum, staff photo
Disturbing notes in the conversation
Corley, a Michigan native, said talk about the racial divide in the city peppered disturbing conversations among the girls in her Bible study group in its nascent stages. She said the black girls in her group would make statements like, “We don’t like white people,” or “The only white people that we like are the ones that you introduce us to” — the fruits of tensions between the races at school, where the girls have told her the white students think they’re superior.
Corley traces Syracuse’s segregated status as the root of these disconcerting views that her girls have — not just about others, but also about themselves.
“Like black, they associate that with poor, and white, they associate that with wealthy,” she said. “And if you’re a black wealthy person, you’re not black, you’re white. I haven’t heard them say the opposite, but I’m guessing that if they had a poor white person, they would say, ‘You’re black.’ ”
Although these girls’ views may be rather insular, they are real to them and not without substantiation, particularly when it comes to school, which defines young lives.
Of the 48,852 black residents in Onondaga County, an overwhelming 84 percent of them live in areas of very low or low educational opportunity, the two lowest of five possible measures, most often in the city. Moreover, of the 18,879 Hispanic residents in Onondaga County, 59 percent of them live in similar areas. However, 55 percent of the county’s 466,179 white residents live in areas of high or very high educational opportunity, the highest of the five possible measures, most often in the suburbs.
One of the girls in Corley’s group, 17-year-old Corcoran junior Diamond West, has noticed how where you live affects experiences at school. The bubbly teenager — with a high ponytail and braces that shine as white as her teeth — smiles through a lot of the seeming disparity that she’s noticed all around her at school and in her life.
“I don’t want to say that most of the white people have more home-based things, but I mean, they kind of do. The white people in our school, too. They have better home bases than the usually regular black kid,” she said.
“Usually, the kids at Westhill, I want to say, have a mother and father at home and like a sister, or whatever the case may be. The kids at Corcoran usually come from one single parent and a whole bunch of brothers and sisters in one house.”
Indeed, of the 1,729 recorded households in the Westhill High School Census tract, only 175 are headed by single parents versus the 311 single-parent households among the 720 total in the Corcoran High School Census tract. Moreover, the minority population in the Census tract of Westhill is just 7 percent and has an average income of $60,563 while Corcoran’s minority population is 68 percent with an average income of $34,048, barely half of Westhill’s.
Yet, while Westhill and Corcoran high schools are just two miles apart, the data show that they may as well be in two very different worlds. Minorities made up only 8 percent of Westhill’s student population in the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the New York State Department of Education. It dwarfs Corcoran’s achievement by having a 92 percent graduation rate, compared to Corcoran’s 62 percent in the same year.
West lives in Valentine Gardens Apartments on the South Side with her aunt, uncle, two cousins and two sisters. Her parents passed away when she was a child. She’s counting down to her last year in her neighborhood and attending Corcoran. She’s banking on her education as her ticket out of seeing drug deals happen at school and near her home.
“The people there, like they fight all the time. They like are very loud and just obnoxious. They throw trash around the ground. It’s already dirty. So, why make it dirtier?” she said, truly puzzled, yet half-amused with a smile. “I’m like, ‘Oh, Jesus!’ That’s why I want to go to school, finish, get out of there (so) I don’t have to deal with that. I’ll live in the suburbs.”
West, an avid reader and fan of just-graduated Syracuse University basketball star Rakeem Christmas, wants to attend Herkimer College or Syracuse University so she can become a social worker. Although she wants to get out of Syracuse, she eventually would like to return and help mistreated children escape unsafe homes.
“I would like to help Syracuse out a lot after school,” she said.
Moving around town
Corley bounced around when she first moved to Syracuse last summer. It was a sometimes-unsettling and an immediate education.
Her first stop on the North Side was an apartment overrun by mice. “We had pulled out the oven, the little thing at the bottom, and it was just like mounds of feces.”
For the rest of last summer, she stayed with a friend involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in an East Side apartment. Next, she found herself in a house on Baldwin Avenue on the South Side with four guys for three months.
From there, she worked 12-hour shifts and lived at a local women’s shelter, also on the South Side. For three months, she was responsible for securing the property, making sure the rules were being followed and easing conflicts among the residents.
“I felt like I really saw what it was like to live where people always look down on you,” she says now.
“One thing was that we always got like expired food from Wegmans. That was our source of food. … (It) doesn’t help your self-esteem if everything you eat is expired,” she said, without her typical smile.
And there were bed bugs to deal with, too, before she eventually found her current place on Craigslist.
“It was hard to deal with,” she said. “I felt like I never got a break because I was living in like a crazy place.”
Corley now lives in a spacious three-bedroom apartment on the South Side. A new roommate has moved in, and she is expecting another one in July.
“This specific location is on the border of two communities,” she said.
Corley’s new Census tract indicates that she is in an area where 55 percent of adults over 25 years old have a college degree and where the average income is $62,077. Educational opportunity in her area is low, but the economic opportunity is high.
The juxtaposition might be as stark as her presence on the South Side.
Demographic patterns: Populations are concentrated by race and ethnicity
The Syracuse metropolitan statistical area is the ninth most racially segregated community in the country. As with other Rust Belt cities, suburban sprawl and white flight have left segregation in their wake here. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Syracuse has a segregation index of 71, which means that 71 percent of blacks in the community would have to move to a different neighborhood to be distributed similar to whites. Using a different index, the average Syracuse non-Hispanic white resident lives in a remarkably unmixed neighborhood that is 90 percent white, 4 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic compared to the average black person who lives in a neighborhood that is 47 percent white, 39 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. The report concludes that such segregation can create isolation and discrimination.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Race and geography: A striking imbalance
CNY Fair Housing found differences in poverty levels seen through geography and race. Geographically, the study found that in Syracuse and the surrounding areas, economic wealth is unevenly distributed. The city has large areas of concentrated poverty that is surrounded by more wealthy suburbs. Generally, in the city of Syracuse, Hispanic/Latino and Asian individuals are three times more likely to live in poverty, and black individuals are 2 1/2 times more likely to live in poverty compared to whites. Ethnic and racial minorities are almost exclusively found in the city, while the suburbs are more populated with whites.
Median household income for Onondaga County, including the city of Syracuse, is nearly double the median income for Syracuse alone. The study broke down the median household income by race and family type. It found that white households in the city earn 50 percent more than African-American or Asian households. Female-headed households have a median income that is close to 50 percent less than male-headed household and three times lower than households with married couples. CNY Fair Housing identifies these disparities in household income as one of the factors that affect housing opportunities.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
City residents clustered by race, ethnicity and country of origin
There are distinct differences in racial and ethnic composition among various neighborhoods in Syracuse. African-American residents are most prevalent on the Southwest side, South Side and Brighton. Hispanic residents are largely concentrated on the Near Westside. A large number of Asian residents live on the city’s North Side, due in part to the resettlement of refugees there.
Syracuse is an official refugee resettlement site, boasting more than 12,000 refugees. Refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, South Sudan and Iraq are the largest concentrations of refugees in the area. The North Side attracts refugees because it has resettlement agencies and affordable housing. More than 27 percent of Onondaga Nation residents are foreign-born. Our region is expected to resettle refugees at an even higher rate in the coming years, which could present an issue going forward.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
A perplexing path
A Cornell graduate who has lived in a shelter and who currently lives in one of the least desirable parts of the city is quite odd, indeed.
Corley was not just a stellar student at Cornell who published research about how Ebonics (so-called “black English”) can lead to inequality in the justice system. She was also a record-making athlete. Corley is eighth all time in the women’s athletic pentathlon with 3,376 points in 2012.
Her younger sister and Michigan State University student, Chloe Corley, is aware of how confusing these contrasts can be to people.
“I think people are scared for her or don’t understand why she’s not going to get her doctorate or how she went to an Ivy League and then is now asking for money and lived at a homeless shelter at one point,” Chloe Corley said over the phone after taking a final exam.
“Dominique is capable of getting any job that she wanted, but that’s not what she’s called to do, and money is not Dominique’s main priority. I think justice is. I think showing love. I think helping people. I think advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. I think sharing the gospel. I think those come before money. So, I support what she’s doing.”
Corley did consider advancing her education before choosing her current path.
Before Brady Faith and Young Life entered the picture, Corley was an accepted student in the SU Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs’ graduate public administration program. Before confirming her spot, though, she reached out to both places in the community to ask if she could volunteer while she was in school. Because she received a “yes” from both places and later job offers, she said she decided not to go into the graduate program. She chose her role at Young Life over an offer made by Brady Faith Center.
Yet, her choice to be part of urban ministry isn’t as precipitous as it might seem. While in college, she participated in mission trips in Wilmington, Delaware, and Detroit. “My experiences with the people and the work that I was doing made me really like urban ministry and working in these kind of communities,” she said.
Corley and those who are helping her establish Young Life in the city have found that offering what suburban kids have been doing for years can be challenging. Corley’s chapter often relies on community members, whether it’s to offer vans to drive the students around or banana treats for Friday night coffee houses, with space offered by Bellevue Heights United Methodist Church on South Geddes Street.
Bradley Fleming, a Young Life committee member who assists Corley with anything she needs, said getting rides for the kids is one of the biggest challenges along with finding funding for a Young Life summer camp.
“A lot of times the parents in the suburbs don’t have any problems throwing down four or five hundred bucks to send their kid to camp. Whereas here, we’re asking for $150, and we’re applying for scholarships with the headquarters,” he said.
Called to urban ministry
Corley’s financial hardship is not unlike that of some of her students and their parents. The $1,160 take-home pay per month that she receives from Young Life places her just $105 above the New York state eligibility requirements to receive SNAP benefits. Yet, it is also not enough to cover her monthly bills, which total over $1,200.
“I felt bad that I wasn’t able to make it work with just the Young Life money because I thought I was like a crazy spender,” she said. “Most of my money is just for bills. I’m not just shopping or something.”
To add to her income, Corley has taken on a minimum-wage job at a daycare in East Syracuse. She’s up by 5 a.m. to drive the almost 20 miles for the 20-22 hours that she works each week. The extra money, after taxes, gives her a little over $100 per week.
Fleming respects Corley’s path.
“This is a girl who graduated from Cornell University. (She) could go and do whatever she wants, but she felt called to do urban ministry,” he said. “I think she’s walking the walk. I think she’s living it out. I think her faith is solid.”
Corley’s faith is solid in her work because she sees what she’s doing as a calling that aligns with her faith. She teaches tolerance to her Tuesday Bible study group, promoting inclusion. She offers cheers and high jump pointers on Corcoran’s track to her girls who are a part of the Corcoran track team. She finds a way to get more students involved.
“I just think about Jesus. … Like he said himself that ‘I came for the sick. I came to heal the sick and be among them.’
“I’m definitely not trying to compare myself to Jesus or being like I’m just here for the sick. Like, you guys are all sick. I’m here for you. I am one of those sick people, too. I just see people as human beings that all deserve dignity and I’m not better than anyone and nobody else is better than anyone else.
“I feel like I just really see people as people and know that everyone deserves basics.”
Seventeen-year-old Aurora Pille joined the Young Life Bible study in Dominique Corley’s apartment a few months ago. After hearing some friends talk about it at school, she decided to go to a Tuesday meeting.
“Either I’ll be at work … or I’ll be home doing nothing,” she said dryly. “So, this is a better way to spend my Tuesdays.”
Aurora, the youngest of seven siblings, shares her South Side home with her mother, sister, brother and two nephews.
Her home is close to both Corcoran and Fowler for high school, but “I can’t get a bus to either of them,” she said.
She chose Corcoran, following others in her family there.
The high school senior walks to school in the mornings, cautious to stay off the main roads.
“I try to take certain routes (because) it’s kind of dangerous on the street.”
She feels safer on the side streets because most of her friends live on them.
She doesn’t appear to be fearful of much — although she has seen her share of seedy things on her morning walks, including drug deals involving schoolmates.
The marriage between high crime and low opportunity have influenced the decisions Aurora has made.
The educational opportunity in the Census tract where she lives is ranked as “low” and the economic opportunity is “very low,” according to measures created by Central New York Fair Housing in a fall 2014 analysis of housing, economic and educational opportunity in the area. According to 2012 Census data, the median household income for Aurora’s tract is just $27,589.
Aurora plans to surpass that by becoming a surgical tech. She anticipates going to Onondaga Community College for two years before transferring to Syracuse University. Surgical techs today earn a median income of $41,694, according to salary.com, with those on the higher range up to $50,000 and a little more.
“Without an education, you won’t go far,” she said. “You need an education to do most jobs that actually pay you good money. I plan to have my own car, my own house, be able to pay for food and cable at the same time. I want to have a decent-sized house. With all of that you need money, and with money you need a good education.”
Eighteen-year-old Sheniah McKenzie joined Dominique Corley’s Young Life chapter after Corley spoke at Corcoran High’s choir.
“Domi started talking to my sister, and my sister started talking to me, and that’s how this whole thing came to be,” Sheniah said.
The high school senior with the demeanor of an older aunt said the Bible study group is one of the few places where she doesn’t feel judged and where she can sometimes unburden herself.
Sheniah lives in a South Side home with her mother, father and five siblings.
Her father is a home habilitation worker and a preacher, and her mother was also a home habilitation worker until an illness with Sheniah’s brother required more attention.
They live in an area where the median household income is $38, 333 and the average home value is $86,900, according to 2012 Census data. The educational opportunity is ranked as “very low” in the Census tract where they live, the lowest of five possible ratings. Economic opportunity is ranked as “moderate,” squarely in the middle. Some 23 percent of homes in her tract are headed by single mothers.
“I have the best of both worlds,” Sheniah said of her parents, who met when they were both teenagers and have been married for more than 20 years.
Sheniah credits her home with helping her stay focused in school and having an after-high school plan.
She will follow in the footsteps of her father by joining the military after graduating. But she wants to make her parents proud by attending college while serving active duty.
“They push me towards college, something that they wanted to do, which is something that would’ve made their whole life better,” she said.
Sheniah wants to make her own life better by living out her dream of helping wounded soldiers, a vision she’s had since she was 6 years old after watching movies and seeing most of the men in her family serve.
She craves structure in her busy life; she’s involved with track, choir and band at Corcoran. She also works part time at Hollister in the mall a few days a week in addition to assuming her home responsibilities and filling out college applications and requesting recommendations.
“I feel like a grown woman. I feel like I have grown-woman responsibilities,” she said with a resolve of someone much older. “When I go home, I got to clean up if my parents didn’t cook. Most of the time they don’t cook because when they get back from work, (they’re) so tired. Then I have to wash dishes, and I have to clean,” she said. “By the time I go to bed it’s like 12-something.”
She wishes her school had more structure like Baldwinsville, a school she visited as part of Community Dialogue. “Their teachers are strict,” she said. “I wish our teachers were like that.”
The discipline that Sheniah noticed at Baldwinsville can be seen in its 90 percent graduation rate and 5 percent suspension rate in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the New York State Department of Education. Meanwhile, Corcoran had a 62 percent graduation rate in the same year and 23 percent suspension rate.
Between school and home, Sheniah said she is ready to escape the pressures from each — as a private in boot camp.
But, she hasn’t forgotten why she wants to leave, join the Army and receive a college degree.
“My parents, they said they accomplished stuff, but they didn’t accomplish all that they wanted,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘I got you.’ ”
Aurora Pille is a mentee of Dominique Corley. | Lateshia Beachum, staff photo
Sheniah McKenzie is a mentee of Dominique Corley. | Lateshia Beachum, staff photo
Through illness, ‘I felt like God was really there with me’
Dominique Corley missed all her finals during the first semester of her freshman year at Cornell. And she wasn’t recovering from the typical shenanigans of a new college student recovering from partying.
She was hospitalized with Crohn’s disease complications from one hospital stay and a Crohn’s-related surgery in another.
Crohn’s disease is an incurable illness in which inflammation in the bowels and digestive tract can cause stomach pain, fatigue and weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
These were all symptoms that Corley was feeling before she was finally diagnosed after two hospital visits.
Corley was sleepy and lethargic and constantly in pain.
Her stomach had always bothered her, but the discomfort she was experiencing as a college freshman worsened. The Cornell track star had difficulty lifting weights and getting through team runs, but she couldn’t figure out why.
“Physical activity and eating are the worst for it,” Corley said. “Basically, my intestines got ulcers and then the ulcers turned into fistulas (abnormal growths) and then the whole thing just blocked. The whole thing just closed up.”
Corley had an ileocecectomy to correct the problem.
“I basically had my terminal ileum removed and a foot of my small intestine. Then they reconnected my colon to the small intestine.”
The terminal ileum is at the end of the large intestine. It contains a muscle sphincter that moves semi-digested food into the stomach.
Corley had to sit out her entire freshman year because of Crohn’s. She spent her second semester rebuilding her athletic abilities and deepening her Christian faith.
“Through my illness, I felt like God was really there with me. It became like a relationship, not just like following rules,” she said.
That faith propelled Corley to make Cornell track history, where she is ranked eighth all-time in the women’s pentathlon.
Corley has continued her athletic prowess after college. She competed in a triathlon last fall where she finished with a respectable time of 1:32:20.37.
She has also managed symptoms of her illness through a high-protein, low-fiber diet.
“I feel like God helped me because from where I was to where I was able to get to was beyond me,” she said.