My make-believe family
Me and my dysfunctional family. From left to fight: Charlotte Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell; Jeff Conway, franchisee for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse; Qcitymetro editor Glenn H. Burkins; Rev. Sandra McDuffie of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church (Photo:

I got arrested last week for selling drugs.

I knew selling drugs was wrong, and I also knew I’d probably get caught. But I did it anyway, because I just couldn’t stand the constant confusion.

You see, I was living with my mom, dad and grandmother, and we were about to get evicted from our home because money was short. So selling drugs seemed like an easy way to raise some cash.

Ok, let’s pause here while I get you caught up.

I didn’t really get arrested for selling drugs, at least not in my real life. But I did get “detained” in a poverty-simulation exercise that was held for members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force and its invited guests, which included a smattering of business, civic and nonprofit leaders.

I’m not much for role playing, but this one struck me as a worthwhile endeavor.

In case you’ve forgotten, the task force was formed after a national study placed the Charlotte area last in a list of 50 communities ranked by economic mobility. In other words, the study found that a child born poor in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is least likely to climb the economic ladder than in most other cities.

The task force was appointed to come up with some possible solutions

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Novant physician who co-chairs the group, said the simulation exercise was designed to help task force members better understand the crippling effects of poverty, though several did, in fact, grow up poor, she said.

We arrived at Crisis Assistance Ministry, where the simulation was held, and were divided into small “families.”

I was assigned to be Katlin, a 15-year-old high school girl. Rounding out my family was dad (Debra Campbell, a Charlotte assistant city manager), mom (Jeff Conway, who owns the local franchise for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse) and grandmother (Rev. Sandra McDuffie of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church).

As with any family living in poverty, money was tight, and we had to abide by a set of pre-determined rules. We had to pay our bills, buy food and find transportation while coping with unexpected jolts, such as an appliance breaking down.

We had hardly settled in when someone came by flashing a roll of cash, asking if anyone wanted to make some fast, easy money. Yeah, right; who would fall for that?

Our financial troubles started almost immediately.

While in “school” I was told I’d need $5 the next day to go on a field trip, but when I got home, my parents said they didn’t have it. (Apparently, they had been dealing with their own financial issues while I was away.) So the next day, my dad headed to the pawn shop with our camera, instructing me to wait until he returned with the $5.

I don’t know what kept him so long, but by the time he returned to our “house” with the money, I was late getting to school, which earned me a firm and embarrassing reprimand from my teacher.

A day or two later, after my folks had successfully dodged several other financial bullets, I learned that we were being threatened with eviction, and we were just a few dollars short. That’s when I decided to sell the drugs (I think it came more from my real-life inclination as a man to get involved and help out).

Here’s some of what I learned from this brief exercise:

It didn’t take much: Although I’m not much for role playing, I was surprised by how quickly I was able to fall into character. It’s not easy being a child when your parents are constantly consumed with paying the bills.

Where was dad? Although in this case I had a father in the home, he wasn’t around very much. He seemed to always be away from home, trying to save us from financial disaster.

School sucked: I found myself distracted in our brief “classes,” knowing that my parents were back home facing money challenges that could impact me in some very real ways.

Morality became relative: While I can’t say whether I’d ever sell drugs in my real life, in this simulation of poverty, the decision became relative. With the family about to be evicted, it seemed the least I could do. (I gave all the cash I made to my grandmother, who turned it over to my parents. We lost our home anyway because, by the time my dad go to the lender with the money, we owned two months rent, which we clearly didn’t have.)

Who’s watching the kid? Although this was only a simulation, it surprised me how little attention I received from my financially distracted parents. They asked very few questions when I (their child) came home toting a wad of cash, and my grandmother bailed me out of jail with hardly a word of warning.

Gormon-Brown, who said she grew up in an “inner-city ghetto” in Detroit, said poverty is more than simply a lack of financial resources.

“It’s income, it’s mental, it’s emotional,” she said. “So going through the poverty simulation, we got to experience all of those things.”

In the past, I’ve been critical of the fact that the task force does not include any Charlotte residents who actually live in poverty. (Our city can be extremely generous, but it also can be extremely paternalistic, choosing to address inner-city problems from the outside in. Think Project L.I.F.T.) And while I still believe the effort would be better served if the group included people with a keener understanding of poverty in 2015, I’m delighted to see that task force members are at least making an effort to get a bit closer to the problem they are seeking to address.


On December 8, the task force will host a listening tour at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, 1600 Norris Avenue.  The public is invited.

“We wanted it to be on the west side, in Druid Hills,” Gormon-Brown said. “That’s our way of trying to be a part of the community we are trying to help.”

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.