When public officials turn silent about the widening economic chasm in American society, the public must take action, journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz said Thursday evening during the opening lecture of the UB Distinguished Speaker Series.
"Hurricane Katrina pulled the curtain back and exposed what many of us already knew -- that far too many are being left behind," the Chicago writer told 2,500 people in the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena. "Such neglect borders on the willful. How can we not know what our neighbors must bear?"
A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Kotlowitz has spent 15 years writing about the urban dispossessed. Half of his listeners were UB students who were required to read his book, "There Are No Children Here," during freshman orientation.
Recounting the story of two young brothers living in a public housing project in Chicago, it was named one of the 150 most important books of the century by the New York Public Library.
"My question is: Where are our civic and political leaders?" said Kotlowitz, noting that poverty has lost its place in public discourse and election campaigns. "In their absence, we have got to step up. We have got to immerse ourselves in lives other than our own."
After Hurricane Katrina subsided, Kotlowitz visited the Houston Astrodome, where 27,000 storm victims were housed.
"I was uplifted by their stories," he said. "We think they are poor because they lack luck, or lack perseverance, or lack fortitude, or lack heroism. Here they were with such dignity, calmness and fortitude. They had a sense of peace in that place."
Kotlowitz, who has won the George Polk Award and other journalism honors for his writings, said it is time for Americans to reflect on "what holds us together and what pushes us apart."
One of the keys, he said, is "the disappearance of work." He suggested "a temporary public works program" to re-introduce work to the poor sections of New Orleans and other cities.
"The culture of work gives a sense of identity and purpose and connection to the world around us," he said. "When that disappears from a neighborhood, so do the institutions" -- banks, movie houses, libraries, stores, even newspaper offices.
"The physical isolation and segregation -- I have found a community that has begun to unravel," Kotlowitz continued. "Lafayette, who was 12, told me: 'I don't have friends, I just have associates. Friends are people you trust.' "
Kotlowitz recalled taking five urban boys on a canoe outing under the Outward Bound program.
"All that was on their minds was the violence back in their neighborhood," he said. "They talked about it with such casualness, as if talking about going to the movies or to lunch. They have a strong foreboding that they might not make it to adulthood."
One day early in his research, when Lafayette -- one of the two brothers in the book -- was 9 years old, Kotlowitz asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.
"If I grow up," the boy replied, "I want to be a bus driver."