Raising Bertie

By Monty Hagler
For the second year, RLF Communications had the honor to work with the Cucalorus Film Festival as a sponsor and public relations partner. The 21st annual festival was a huge hit, and our team had the opportunity to attend numerous screenings, interact with filmmakers and engage in countless conversations with creative thinkers.

One of the most reflective films screened this year is a work-in-progress documentary called Raising Bertie. Shot in eastern North Carolina’s Bertie County, it tracks the lives of three young African-American men as they seek to find their way in a community with limited job and educational opportunities. The film struck a particular chord with me because I recently spoke to a group of young men and women at an evening event in Bertie County called Mentoring in the Moment.
The workshop was organized by Patricia Ferguson, a community leader and former chair of the county commissioners. The drive to Bertie from Greensboro takes a solid three and a half hours, and I brought lunch so Patricia and I could talk before the meeting. The aim of the Mentoring in the Moment program is to expose young adults to a variety of paths their lives can take and identify resources they can tap into.
During my talk, I discussed three themes that I believe must come together in any community for young people to be successful. First, there must be a solid educational and training base. Second, there must be opportunity to achieve and advance. Third, there must be individual perseverance and courage to step out of what is comfortable or familiar. In Bertie County, and in so many communities around our country, these are tall requirements.
I know nothing about the school system in Bertie. But I do know that like all rural public school systems in this state, it faces enormous challenges securing the funding, resources, supplies and teachers to make a difference in the lives of students. More importantly, for even the best and brightest students, there are few opportunities in the local community for jobs and economic stability. The largest employers are processing plants, farms, prisons and the school system, and nearly 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
All that leaves is the third requirement of perseverance and courage. And while it sounds noble, it is a tall order. Two of the young men I talked with would love to find a career working with their hands, fixing things and harnessing a trade skill. I know that hundreds of good paying jobs for aviation mechanics are going unfilled in Greensboro because we don’t have enough skilled technicians. There is nothing simple about having these two young men leave their homes and families, move 175 miles away, pay money to go to school to get the education and training they need and then apply for jobs. My goal is to find a way to help just one of the young people I met during my talk find a successful path forward. But even with all my resources, contacts, connections and insights, it is a challenge that I hope does not defeat me.