- East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has the nation's highest level of income inequality
- John Sutter says the parish is woefully divided but not hopeless
- To fully understand the place, you need to meet 10 heroes from northern Louisiana
- They include a restaurant owner, an Irish Catholic nun and a Baptist missionary
It's impossible to miss My Dream Eatery as you drive into America's capital of income inequality from the south. It's the one with magenta walls and Big Bird-yellow trim, the one Andrea Davis-Lloyd had painted twice to be sure the colors were just right.
In an area of northeast Louisiana that's been labeled the "poorest place in America," one of the most corrupt and, now, the most economically divided place in the country, Davis-Lloyd's new restaurant is a much-needed splash of color and life.
And this summer, it was the only one on that road with a sign that said, "Help Wanted."
Davis-Lloyd, 41, is one of the many heroes of East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, the parish with the highest level of income inequality in the United States, according to data from the American Community Survey. The parish is the focus of my latest Change the List project, since readers of this column voted for me to tackle America's widening rich-poor gap in the place where it's most extreme.
A few families, many of them white, hold most of the land and the wealth. The top 5% makes more than $600,000 per year. Meanwhile, about 40% live in poverty. It's a place, like much of the country, where the economy is mostly serving the rich. The middle class is vanishing -- and many people are stuck in dire poverty. They're losing hope they'll ever be able to climb out of it.
But this place isn't hopeless. Far from it.
Davis-Lloyd and other Lake Providence heroes are proof of that.
They're creating jobs and trying to bring people from opposite ends of the economic spectrum together. I have to believe that if rich people and poor people here, and across America, really took time to understand each other, we could narrow the income gap. Part of the problem is that we're usually invisible to each other.
Meet these 11 heroes and you'll understand why I believe things eventually will change for the better in Lake Providence and in the United States as a whole.
They're the ones who will bump the parish off the bottom of the list.
1. Frededreia Willis, the young optimist
Frededreia Willis, an 18-year-old college freshman with a toothpaste-commercial smile and a transcendent air of optimism, wants to come back to Lake Providence after college, to build a bridge across the mile-wide oxbow lake.
That might give people an excuse to talk to each other, she said.
"You have to sit back and think, why is God keeping this town alive?" she said. "If we're the poorest and we have the highest unemployment and crime rate, why doesn't God just say 'I'm going to wipe this town off the map?' Because he knows that, in a couple years, something big is going to happen for Lake Providence.
"He's waiting for us to start to believe in ourselves."
I hate to sound 30, but ... just, wow. She's 18, people. Listen up.
2. "Sister Bernie," the Irish Catholic nun
Haiti or Lake Providence.
That was the choice facing the Catholic organization that supports Sister Bernadette Barrett's work in Lake Providence. A regional branch of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Barrett said, was planning to send nuns as missionaries to Haiti when leaders read a 1994 Time magazine article calling Lake Providence the "poorest place in America."
They decided the nuns would do more good here.
"Sister Bernie," as everyone calls her, is trying to rally the poorer community in Lake Providence based on the principles of labor rights organizer Saul Alinsky. She encourages people to attend local government meetings and make their voices heard.
Hers is never silent, either.
The unassuming woman, who has "Sound of Music" hair and librarian glasses, constantly pushes Lake Providence to expect more of itself. People here want to come together, but they don't often do anything about it, she said.
"If you look at Jesus, Jesus treated everybody with respect," she said. "We're all children of God, whether we have a BMW or whether we're walking."
3. Catherine Middlebrook, the jobs trainer
Perhaps more than anything, Lake Providence needs jobs.
Good jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage.
Most of the work used to be on cotton and corn farms. Enormous machines have taken over that industry, leaving many people unemployed. There aren't many other options. A couple of restaurants and banks. Pay-day loan centers. Dollar stores.
Catherine Middlebrook moved back to her hometown about a year ago from Seattle. She came for love and to help take care of her sick mother. But she has used the opportunity to try to give back to a community. She works for a group called the NOVA Workforce Institute of Northeast Louisiana, which provides job training and helps link potential employees with employers who need qualified workers.
This is a place she loves, but it's a tough love.
The jobs situation "is tied to segregation, slavery era," she said. "Very much so. It's still tied to that. Folks are trying to break through that.
"Despite what looks very gloomy," she added, "there are still people in town who are very hopeful and very optimistic and want to do something to change."
4. Bobbie Facen, the festival organizer