The Reid Report   |  March 12, 2014

New hope for Choctaw youth

Joy Reid talks with MSNBC.com reporter Trymaine Lee about President Obama’s ‘Promise Zones’ initiative to address the social, economic, and educational needs of children, and how it’s impacting the Choctaw Nation.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> a year of action. that's what the president has been promising on a number of fronts as he chris crosses the country. chief among those promises is extending opportunities for the middle class with a particular focus on areas where the uphill climb is nearly impossible. the president first mentioned the idea during last year's state of the union .

>> this year my administration will begin to partner with 2069 hardest hit towns in america to get these communities back on their feet. what will work with local leaders to target resources and public safety and education and housing, do more to encourage fatherhood, because what makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child, it's having the courage to raise one.

>> in january the white house named the first five zones, san antonio , texas, los angeles , california, philadelphia, pennsylvania, southeastern kentucky and the choctaw nation of oklahoma . the goal is to improve job training, invest in infrastructure and partner with schools and parents to improve literacy. the choctaw nation in particular is an area with a troubled history because of the federal government . the tribe, along with four others, was driven out of what are now the states of alabama, louisiana and mississippi into so-called indian territory starting in the 1830s . that exodus became known as the trail of tears because nearly 2,500 choctaw died along the way. today the area suffers disproportionately from poverty, teen pregnancy and learning disabilities , and a growing number of young people can't see their way out, but as msnbc.com reports there is hope. joining me now is msnbc.com national reporter tremain lee. thanks for being here.

>> thanks for having me.

>> you went in and spoke to people in the choctaw nation including people on the advocacy side. tell me with jesse pecheko.

>> every month he travels to the choctaw nation , 11,000 square miles , area is huge, they go out and meet with at-risk youth, he likes to say at potential youth. but jessie is a small army of workers on the front lines to go deliver that tough love some of these young people need, to go in and help young mothers bolster their skills around parenting, really amazing what they are able to do with a small handful of outreach workers.

>> to punctuate the difficulty in that community. 23% of those living in the choctaw nation live below the poverty line , seven points above the national average and in some communities the rate is above 50%. an area of extreme need obviously.

>> right.

>> so what is the promise zone program designed to do specifically for the choctaw nation .

>> what the promise zone doesn't do is deliver a boat load of cash. it's about strengthening federal partnerships with the tribe and local communities so the hope is with greater access to the grants they will be able to fund their programs, their outreach programs that are critical. they make a lot of money off casinos. in the last decade they made a lot of money but a lot goes to the homeless services and elderly so a lot of grant money goes to at-risk youth. there's not any jobs, nothing out there, very rural stretches where there's nothing to do but get into trouble in a lot of cases.

>> you say cynics would look at this and say these are agencies that are already there, in the community and getting additional grant. it's up until now they haven't been able to make a significant change in the lives of these young people . what would additional grant money, how would that change anything?

>> think about the entire wrap-around approach here but it's not about money. it's broken homes and systematic failures in education and incarceration. we talk about all the historically oppressed groups but in this situation it's about giving these kids an opportunity through outreach, right. people think somehow these folks are living high on the hog and getting free government money. some of these people are living in homes without running water , so, i mean, so it's not about necessarily shipping money in.

>> the president in his 2015 budget proposal asked for money, right?

>> right.

>> though the white house has billed this as something they want to do in partnership and not make it about congress having to act, they have asked congress for $100 million to support this program and another $200 million to expand it. the problem is that's not getting through. no hope that that will happen.

>> mo knows whether it will or not. the infrastructure is real, don't have adequate pipes to get water to homes, you don't have jobs and much of what these people to survive so whether it happens or not, at least the president has followed through on the good faith action saying i'm going to take executive action even if congress won't work with me.

>> sort of man on the street, the people living in those community, are they starting to feel this already, are they hopeful about the outcome?

>> already have been doing good work in the community. unfortunately, in communities like this there's a lot of hope on the folks that are working and believe they can help everyone you can but when you're talking to the average person who doesn't have a job, is barely making it and can barely feed their kids, dealing with alcoholism and grandparents raising a generation of kids and they are getting older and trying to introduce their traditions and language to connect these people back to who they really are, not who they are because of all the despair, it's a tough way between hope and hopelessness. that's the eternal battle.

>> this is the discussion people are used to seeing within the african-american community. this is zeroing in on a different community. trying to continue a culture that was really displaced by the united states .

>> the choctaw is one of the first five tribes with the chick saw and seminole, actually a slave-holding tribe. they held and enslaved africans and sided with the confederacy in the civil war . a lot of these kids, this is southeastern oklahoma , not far from the border with texas and the red river . they identified in a lot of cases more with the rural right culture than the choctaw culture so a whole generation of older choctaw forced into these boarding schools and barred from speaking their languages and practicing their traditions so they are a dying generation so they are trying to instill the stick ball game is the predecessor of lacrosse. they invented that. languages being beamed to dozens of schools, trying to do all they can to ground these young people because they don't have much.

>> that's fascinating. is that folded into this promise zone program?

>> once they get the grant money they can figure out what's going on. it's not like they are saying here's the money to do this. it's infrastructure, it's employment, outreach work so they are still working out details of how best to allocate the funds.

>> the promise zone program which i think people mistake it for the enterprise program, that happened during the clinton administration . the rollout to the choctaw nation , how is that going because there's other communities getting the program implemented?

>> when you speak to the choctaw nation , those who secured the grant, they haven't got the official white papers . the hope is they can use this to already -- to help folks with what they are already doing and that was part of the deal, saying we'll identify best practices f.kentucky is doing something well, philadelphia doing something well, why don't we give you the resources you need to grow it to scale.

>> and hopefully measure it and maybe even convince congress, who knows one day, to try to fund it. thanks so much. appreciate it.

>>> and be sure to head over to thereidreport. msnbc.com to check out the full report.