People are People

I was riding in the car with my parents when a news story came on the radio about Stephon Clark, the 20-year old Black man who was shot and killed by two white police officers in Sacramento, California. According to the man on the radio, the police officers thought Stephon had a gun, but all he had was an iPhone.

I have an iPhone.

So I asked my parents why do white police officers keep killing Black males? I couldn’t understand because in my mind people are people. It shouldn’t matter what color you are.

I play basketball and on my team we have a white kid, a biracial kid, and Black kids. I have never looked at any of them and said I can’t be friends with you because you’re different than I am. Actually, I don’t see any difference. We’re all males who like basketball and enjoy learning in school. Just because we aren’t the same skin color does not mean that we are so different that we have to hate or kill each other does it? If so, I don’t want to be a part of a world that thinks like that. My parents say it’s important that my brother and I are friends with a diverse group of people; however, it’s also important that we understand our heritage and how hard people fought to ensure we have the opportunities that my brother and I have.

They remind us that our grandfather couldn’t play on a basketball team with white kids because he had to go to the all-Black high school where the school was raggedy and the conditions were poor. My grandfather told me about his younger brother who was hit by a car driven by a white woman when his brother was five years old. My uncle died and the white woman called my great-grandmother and said “I’m sorry to hear about your son, but at least that’s one less nigger we have to worry about.”

I overheard a kid calling himself nigger just the other day. I don’t know why that hasn’t changed.

My grandmother takes me and my brother to the movies all the time. She told me that when she was our age, they had to sit in the balcony of the movie theatre because that was the Blacks-only section. I don’t want to sit in the balcony. I think it would be hard to see from up there. I enjoy the movie theaters with the reclining seats and nachos to eat. I guess this is yet another thing that we should be thankful for.

I went to the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina recently. My mother wouldn’t let my brother stay for the part on lynchings because he’s only 7, but I stayed. And I saw. And I learned. Emmitt Till was my age when he was murdered. He was burned. I saw the picture. It made me angry. I was happy that the next section of the tour was about Brown v. the Board of Education. We learned about segregation of schools and how Black schools were far less than white schools. I saw my mom look at me while we were watching a film on it all. I knew what she was thinking. I should be thankful for the educational opportunities that I have. I am. Really I am. But I feel sorry for those who don’t have these opportunities. They are people too. Shouldn’t they have access to the same things I have access to?

I told my mom I want to go to Black Lives Matter march one day. I want to be a part of the change in this world. I believe that I was created to make a difference and I will. My mom tells me everyday “a bird doesn’t have to ask permission to fly. It flies because it can. You don’t have to ask for permission to be smart. Be smart because you are able.” I don’t want to have to ask for permission to be free or safe. I want to be because I can and I’m a person too.

It doesn’t matter what approach you take. If you’re Black and an activist, they might kill you.

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I wasn’t born when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but I must imagine that when he was killed on April 4, 1968, it wasn’t business as usual in Black homes especially, on April 5th of that same year. I must believe that there was some sort of mental anguish and fear that went into the traumatic experience of trying to process what happened to one of our nation’s most prolific leaders and why. I must believe that there was anger and the urge to throw up both hands and quit. The title of this blog sums up the culmination of responses that I have received over the years when I asked different people, a diverse group, what did the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X ultimately mean in this country?

I had the opportunity to sit down with my mother and stepmother separately and ask them what they remembered most about the day Dr. King was assassinated. My stepmother said she remembered watching the news on television in her 7th grade classroom and being afraid to walk home that afternoon. “I thought the white people were going to kill me because I was Black,” she said. “I was too young to understand that I shouldn’t be scared, but I was. I was too young to truly understand.”

She told me about arriving home and watching her parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, cry together and separately. They all had a look of despair on their faces, and an emptiness in their eyes. “It was almost as if they were asking, if they are okay with killing Martin, how am I safe?” she said. “None of us were the same.”

My mother was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. She was a junior in high school and her memories are starkly different. She was somewhat of a militant and supported the social justice movements of the 1960’s. She was, quite frankly, tired of being told where to go and what to do simply because of the color of her skin. She shared her memories with me.

She said, “I remember the city being on fire. I wanted to go downtown and over to U Street to march with my brothers and sisters, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to go. She was in tears. My brother and I were in tears. None of us knew what to do.

“Before we knew it, there were armored trucks filled with service men on our street. Standing on the corners with machine guns across their chests, ready to shoot anyone who dared to cause a disturbance or break the new curfew law. Some of my friends saw them as a threat. I saw them as protection. My friends and I would take them lemonade and sandwiches, but we were still mad…angry, actually.

“What’s funny is everyone had their own way of supporting the protests that did not include burning buildings. I remember getting ready to go to a resistance meeting. I was picking out my afro and my mother, who was a quiet woman, came into my room and put my dashiki on the bed. She had just ironed it for me. That was her way of showing me her love and support for my activism. It moved me in a way that inspired me to go to that meeting ready to make a difference. And we did.”

It felt good to be able to sit with both and hear about which memories they have lived with and which ones they have chosen to bury. It was fascinating to receive a first-person account of what they had to endure and how mentally they really didn’t know how to cope. Mental health has grown to become a leading topic of discussion in the Black community. There was a time when it was taboo to talk about such a thing. Now, we get it. We see the need to tackle the demons that continue to spook us – many of which are to no fault of our own. It has been killings like that of Martin and Malcolm back then and Trayvon and Phillip Castille of today. How much do we have to lose before we’re finally considered safe? Safe as a people. Safe as individuals. Safe to walk down the street in a black hoodie with a bag of Skittles. Safe to drive a car. When will we have an opportunity to stop collecting deposits of subconscious of mental anguish that come when we see another Black male killed for simply being or one killed for simply fighting?

My hope is that day will soon come. I’m not sure our mental health can take anything less.

That Moment You Realize You Were a Part of Integration

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It never really dawned on me that a portion of my life is contained in a history book somewhere. I just never considered myself old enough to have been a part of integration. But I was. I am a member of the first class of Black students that integrated Atwood McDonald Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas in 1979.

What I didn’t realize then was I and a group of my friends were a part of the “Cluster Plan” that was designed to desegregate schools in Fort Worth and to stop the phenomenon of white flight. The Cluster Plan included 27 of the 78 elementary schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District and focused on distributing white and Black students among the schools to the ratio of race within the district. According to a dissertation by Tina Nicole Cannon entitled “Cowtown and the Color Line: Desegregating Fort Worth’s Public Schools,” the plan called for an exchange program, where the district bused second graders who attended the twenty-seven predominantly white schools to six all-Black schools. Students of the all-Black schools’ rode buses to the white schools for third through fifth grades.

Atwood McDonald was a predominately white school in the East Cluster. Cannon said the Superintendent of the Fort Worth ISD, at the time, explained the Cluster Plan in part by saying “The second grade was chosen [for transfers to the predominantly Black schools in each cluster] because these younger children, yet to develop prejudices, accept each other for what they are, not the color of their skin.” He also believed that “Second graders will be easier to bus, in fact, they will enjoy the experience.”

I can guarantee you, I did not enjoy the experience.

In fact, it taught me that unequivocally Black children had less, were treated less, were thought of less, and were believed to be less than white children. The school that I was bused to in the second grade was dark and dingy. I remember the bathrooms always being dirty. I remember only seeing Black students in that class. As a matter of fact, there weren’t any white students who rode the bus with me from my predominantly white neighborhood to the black school since that’s what the Cluster Plan called for. Most of my white neighbors opted to attend a private school for second grade instead of going to “that Black school.”

We were all joined together in the third grade at Atwood McDonald when the Cluster Plan required the Black students from the predominantly Black neighborhood (affectionately called “Stop 6”) to be bused to our side of town. I was able to walk to school along with my white peers.

Here’s what I remember about that:

  • The white kids would walk to school with me and my brother but would break apart from us at the corner and walk the rest of the way by themselves. It was understood that they were not to be seen with us within the vicinity of their other friends. It never occurred to me or them that their friends could have seen us walking together through the neighborhood. I guess I thought it was THEIR norm so I didn’t care. I do remember being relieved when they would go off on their own because we never laughed at the same jokes anyway. It was weird.
  • The white kids did not believe that my brother and I were Black. They were convinced that we were Mexican-American. Coming from Washington, D.C. I had no idea what difference it made being Black or Mexican. I quickly found out that on the totem pole of race, Mexican-Americans were believed to be even lesser than Blacks. It was a fucked-up hierarchy system.

  • Black kids were not safe in these integrated schools. In fact, I remember the introduction of “safe houses” with the blue handprint logo decals in the windows of homes that you could go to if you felt like you were in danger or being threatened on your way home. I never stopped at one (my brother and I fought our battles), but I remember feeling relieved that they were there just in case we ever needed them.

  • Only a few of my Black friends were really able to do well in their newly integrated environment. Most of them, however, struggled. They hated the school. They hated getting on and off of the bus. They hated being across town from their homes. They couldn’t wait to go to middle school so they could be back on their home turf and have a choice of whether or not they had to put up with blatant racism and slurs they had to face every day in the name of integration. They look forward to the day when they were finally free.

I remember the white girls in my gymnastics class at the community YMCA refusing to tumble on the mat with me because my Black skin was “dirty” and as the teacher told them, they didn’t want me to “rub off on them.” I remember my mother coming to pick me up from the class, learning about what happened and completely losing her shit! She had had it with the racism. It was one thing for her to face it at work, but for me to have to deal with it in tumbling class was the straw that broke the racist camel’s back.

We were both DONE.

We moved back to D.C. the summer of fifth grade. I was placed in the Talented and Gifted program and life began to equalize. And now when I am having to make decisions for my two children around their education and where we’re going to live, I do so with my past in mind. I understand that my frame of reference is set by my experiences and I welcome those lessons. I believe they make me a more cautious and aware parent. I know what safety is supposed to feel like and because of that, I can make my best decisions possible at the time, until I or my children learn or experience something new.

I also know what high-quality learning is supposed to look like and how the social aspects of a school are just as important as the academic. For example, both of my children have acquired admittance to some of the best traditional public, public charter, and private schools in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. However, we purposely chose our predominantly Black Catholic school (also one of the best) in our community in large part due to the relief my children feel when they walk through the school’s doors and see students who look like them, educators who look like and care about them, administrators who welcome them with open arms, and with extended family members who quickly take on the role of being their parent when my husband or I aren’t around to advocate for them. They know they have a village. They don’t have to worry about being separate and apart from their peers because of the color of their skin. They don’t have to worry about being a minority who is looked at with pity, disgust, or sometimes fear. They go to their high-performing school and receive their high-quality education with advanced academic rigor and do WELL.

We made the decision of where to live and where to place our children in school because when it was left up to the government body to determine the best situations for our family, many times the people making the decisions didn’t look like me or my husband - neither now nor when we were growing up. We were both shuffled along in public school systems because, at the time, that was all we had.

The key lesson that we have both learned is when the system you are a part of  is not set up to serve you, you must choose to either work within the system or find alternatives. EIther way, the decision is yours to make. My advice to you is to choose wisely.


 

I've Known Gun Violence

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I’ve known gun violence. Intimately. 

An in-law was gunned down at his front door by police responding to a “Black burglar.” He was fortunate to live. In college, my roommates were threatened by shotgun-toting White student. When my Black roommates complained to the Pennsylvania State Police, the police chose not to investigate. One of my favorite students ever was murdered by someone who had a gun and didn’t have control of his anger. The man I replaced in my first job as principal had actually been shot in the halls of one of our local high schools. 

Oh yeah, and months after graduating college, I was shot and left for dead.

So, yes, I want gun reform. In fact, I’m demanding it. But it’s more complicated than it seems.

This might surprise you, but I’m not wholly against guns. In fact, I own multiple guns. But I believe our current gun laws do not keep us safe and perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence that disproportionately affects our communities of color. I believe that politicians have been bought off by an overly powerful gun lobby and they’re selling us out.

IT GETS WORSE

Now the White House is moving ahead with an absurd and misguided plan to place guns in teachers’ hands—in close proximity of our students. 

If I even entertain this ridiculous plan for a minute, the first thing I think is that it will push our Black and Latino students into harm’s way. Meanwhile, these mass shootings are occurring in predominantly White schools.

You see, I already know how this movie plays out. Our communities have for too long endured the consequences of putting guns in the hands of those who purportedly are here to protect us. 

Sadly, as insidious as this plan is, Trump is not alone in thinking it’s a good idea.

Local police chief, Mike Chitwood, is also excited to have teachers add guns to their laptops, white boards and gradebooks. 

There’s a trend here. Chitwood was one of Philly’s former police chiefs under Rizzo. He has shown deep disdain about communities of color throughout his career. He continues today with his terrible idea about gun-toting teachers and staff. 

Chitwood envisions a voluntary program that would allow pre-selected teachers or other school personnel to carry concealed guns in school in order to fire back at an active shooter.

Pennsylvania law bars anyone from carrying guns in school or on school grounds. The ‘Save our Children’ initiative, as Chitwood calls it, would therefore require the state government to make an exception for teachers pre-selected by a school superintendent or the school board.

NO GUNS IN ANY SCHOOL

We are painfully aware that Black communities are over-policed. We recognize that many of our school “dropouts” are in fact students who’ve been pushed out by policies and people who have failed them. We are forced to acknowledge that race colors so many interactions between Black and Brown students and their predominantly White teachers. 

Worse, we know that White supremacist thinking and actions in our schoolsis a real thing. And so is teacher rage. 

So, no, I do not want teachers of any race carrying firearms in our school building.

But I will take it a step further: I don’t want a single person having a gun inside of our schools.

Years ago, our students were being assaulted on their way home from school. After much debate, we hired a security team to support “safe corridors” for kids on their way to and from school.

We were horrified when they showed up with holstered guns. We told them they misunderstood. 

Yes, we wanted support and safety, but not that way. 

We wanted a security team that would be present, build relationships with our students and other community members, and engage youth. Not look like cops. 

They insisted, using the very same rhetoric we’re hearing now from those who would arm teachers. It’s for the children’s protection, they said. They are trained to use firearms and have passed multiple tests, they assured us. 

But we insisted there would be no guns in our building. We severed the relationship. A conflict between kids or with an adult doesn’t need to have a potentially lethal outcome. 

First and foremost, we want our children and communities to be safe. Not sure I can say the same of Chitwood, Trump, and many others.

The Biggest Loser of Teacher Strikes – The Poor and Hungry

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I am completely fine with walkouts, sit-ins, strikes, marches, or any other sign of activism that is steeped in fighting for what you believe in. For example, teachers in West Virginia led a nine-day strike that closed public schools for all teachers and students because the teachers wanted a 5% raise. Now again, I’m all for activism to advocate for yourself and what you believe in. I’m not, however, in favor of personal gain while others suffer.

In West Virginia, of the 273,170 students who attended a traditional public school in 2016-2017, 191,533 received free or reduced-price meals (FARMS) including lunch and breakfast. Of that number, 80% were considered on the “low socioeconomic scale.” This means the majority of their students depended on the school nutrition program for at least two of their meals each day during the school year. However, when schools are closed because of a strike how do these children eat?

My guess is in most places they don’t. Or they do so very sparingly. I was happy to hear that some teachers in West Virginia did, in fact, ensure that a food distribution system was set up. That was great. However, my experiences as the Public Information Officer of a fairly large urban school system, taught me what something like a snowstorm that shut our schools down for 10 straight days can do to the poor and hungry.

On day one I asked the Superintendent about feeding the children and families who depended on us for food. “Let’s see how things progress,” a Deputy Superintendent told me. On the second day, schools were still closed and no meals were served. On the third day, I laced up my boots, dug out my car, and went looking for a solution. I called the head of our transportation department with the crazy idea of clearing parking lots in schools where our largest numbers of students on the school nutrition program lived and using our school buses as makeshift food delivery systems.

“Let’s feed the children,” I said. And we did.

Hungry children during a school closing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, National Public Radio reported on it in 2014 in a piece called “For Low-Income Students, Snow Days Can Be Hungry Days.” As the piece explains, typically when families hear about impending weather storms, they stock up on food to ensure they will have enough, but what happens when stocking up isn’t an option for you because of your limited available funds? What if it is near the end of the month and your SNAP benefits are depleted? Who feeds you then?

This same NPR report gave an example of one school that said they often see a higher participation in breakfast the day class resumes after a weather-related closure. Sixty-eight percent of this school’s student population is on free or reduced-price lunch. 

According to the USDA, in 2017 74% of all students on a school lunch program received free or reduced-price meals; while 85% of the same category of students received free or reduced-price breakfast at school.

I’m concerned about the other states that are looking at what happened in West Virginia as a catalyst for doing something similar in their state. For example, educators in Oklahoma, where of the 693,710 public school students, 442,818 are on FARMS, are considering a strike for higher wages. My hope is Oklahoma Education Association, the group organizing the possible upcoming strike, will consider the students and their families who need daily meals through the school nutrition program, instead of only considering the adults in this situation.

Activism is great, until the children suffer.

Seventeen Minutes

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A nationwide protest is planned for Wednesday, March 14th that is calling for students, educators, school leaders, staff, and parents to walk out of their schools in support of safe schools for students and in remembrance of the 17 lives that were tragically lost on February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. According to the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, the organizers of the March 14th demonstration, more 185,000 students are expected to participate in the walkout. According to the Washington Post, students without authorization from school officials to participate will be marked with an unexcused absence and their grades could be affected. However, local counties like Arlington and Montgomery are willingly participating in the day and will allow students to take part in the protest with no punishment.

I strongly feel schools should come up with a balance so that the students can show their concern for school shootings and support for safe schools. If my daughter decides to participate in the protest I will support her. It’s her right and she has a voice. I know these are turbulent times in our society right now. You can blame it on the left or the right if you want, but for me, when I take a microscopic look at how current events affect me and my family, I have to focus on what’s best for us. And I believe, as long as my child has the ability to be a part of the change she wants to see in the world, she absolutely should. As a matter of fact, I will help her lead the charge.

As a Black woman and during Women’s History Month, I want to send the message to my daughter to channel her inner - Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Kamala Harris and the countless other Black and brown women who have stood boldly against what they did not believe in. I want my daughter to know that she has that tenacity and grit to do the same thing and if participating, either collectively or alone, in solidarity with the thousands of other students who will be doing the same thing across the country is how she is choosing to take her bold stance, then I say Amen! Stand with pride and strength!

As I listen to the many children cry out with concern about violence in schools, it breaks my heart. I believe children and educators should only be worried about teaching and learning while in school. They should feel safe if they are outside playing at recess or walking to and from school. They shouldn’t be afraid or think that a gunman could be near or on school property. In my opinion, policy makers are not moving quick enough to come up with laws that will stop senseless killings; however, I do applaud the stores that are starting to make changes in their stores. For example, the Chief Executive from the Dicks Sporting Goods was very touched after hearing the children talking about the shooting he decided to take the assault rifles out of all stores. Walmart also announced they would not sell any guns to anyone under 21 years of age and would be taking anything that resembled an assault style rifle off the shelves including toy guns.

If your child is going to be a part of the protest on March 14th and you are able walking along with them or stand beside them, I encourage you to do so because at the end of the day, you want these shooting to stop just as much as they do.

Build it and they will come

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The Wayfinder Foundation was founded in the spring of 2017 with the mission to make direct investments into women who are leading change in their own communities. These women, particularly mothers, are working, often times alone and without significant resources, to be the change they wish to see in their communities and in the world. They are on the front line everyday but hardly ever make it to the front of the line for philanthropic dollars.

Wayfinder was created to change that.

Earlier this year we launched the Community Activist Fellowship Program in Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Here’s what we found: women activists are out there and they are mad as hell. But what’s more is they are doing something about it. They are finding solutions. They are creating ways to make a difference. We heard from women whose experienced trauma has fueled their fire and willingness to want to fight. They are concerned about access to quality educational options, about community trauma. They are promoting self-care and want to spread lessons of how to love yourself when it seems the world isn’t doing it. We heard from women who want environmental justice just like we heard from those seeking social justice through immigrant rights and affordable housing.

There is a take charge fever in the air that is calling people to action. Activists as young as teenagers are being born every day that we witness stories that are forever changing their lives. There’s an uprising afoot and we believe, that’s a good thing.

Wayfinder is here, leading the charge to ensure that these women are supported with resources to move their activism in the direction that we all need it to go – for freedom and justice for all.

Later this year we will launch the Program in D.C. and Memphis. If the response we received from our first two cities is any indication of what’s yet to come, we are excitingly awaiting to hear from and meet these women in action.  

Donald Trump is Proof That White Kids Need More Black History

Was it only just one year ago that we learned President Donald Trump didn’t really have any idea who Frederick Douglass was? After making comments at a Black History Month celebration, the contents of which suggested he thought Douglass might still be alive, the internet’s condemnation was swift. David A. Graham of The Atlantic was direct, if diplomatic, when he pointed out that, “Trump’s comments point to the superficiality of his engagement with African American culture.”

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, on the other hand, named the giant, white elephant in the room. “The most puzzling part of the entire non-sensical pseudo speech/rant,” Young said, “was that it seems entirely possible that Donald … doesn’t know that Frederick Douglass is, like, waaaaaay dead.”

Trump’s ignorance of basic black history, and our utter lack of surprise at that ignorance, is symptomatic of a broader void. That void lives because the average white person has little knowledge of any American narrative that does not place at its center the experiences of people whose ancestors came from Europe.

Because nature abhors a vacuum, something must fill that void. In the very best of cases, that void is filled with curiosity for cultures that are not one’s own. That version of void-filling comes with some baggage, though, as it is impossible to grapple with the actual history of this country without coming to the obvious conclusion that white people perpetrated some of history’s worst crimes in the pursuit of shaping the American dream. Several centuries of chattel slavery, coupled with the ruthless genocide of Native and First Nations peoples, are at the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the jagged edges of those most obvious examples are carefully constructed prejudices, created to justify all manner of oppression. Those prejudices, coupled with the power to enforce them, have ensured that racism persists well after the abolition of both slavery and Jim Crow.

Those same prejudices, coupled with the discomfort involved in learning about the terrible behavior of white people, means that the average white person’s void has been filled not with good-spirited curiosity, but with skepticism, denial, fear, and often hate. The actual history of this country is so painful – and the most heinous perpetrators of its crimes so obviously white – that avoiding the void altogether has been the choice du jour for generations of white Americans and their children.

And so, we arrive at February every year, when schools with large numbers of Black children and families will spend an entire month reveling in the joy, pain, and genius of their ancestors … and white children learn one or two safe Martin Luther King quotes and move on.

Is this always the case? No. As I’ve written before, I was lucky enough that my own predominantly white public elementary schools went above the call of duty. Our community was steeped in abolitionist history, and most of the faculty embraced a beyond-the-basics approach to teaching black history to white kids. We read texts by a diverse array of writers, wrestled with the ugliness of slavery, and learned about the international historical context of American racism. Did I learn enough? Absolutely not, and it will be a lifelong journey for me to understand the depth and breadth of a history that we all share, whether or not we acquiesce to participating in the perpetuation of oppression today.

On this Black History Month, we should do a lot of things, both important and joyful. We should read speeches by Sojourner Truth and see Black Panther on opening night. Spend money at Black businesses and give copies of your favorite Audre Lord essays to your friends.

Whether it feels comfortable or not to say, we also should spend more time teaching black history to white kids. In pursuit of this goal, we should prepare way ore of our white educators to do the heavy lifting on that work, as asking African-American educators to teach white children about black history is one of the most profoundly ironic requests for uncompensated labor one can imagine.

Education alone will not eradicate racism. A livelier Black History Month in his Queens elementary school probably would not have erased whatever prejudices Donald Trump learned at home. But hate thrives where ignorance festers, and the President’s ignorance is all the proof we need that too many of our children are ill-prepared to be compassionate citizens of the future. We all have work to do if that future is going to be brighter than current trends suggest. 

For the Least of These

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Black History Month is more than just a reason for us to pause and celebrate those that have come before us. I believe it’s also a time for us to do a pulse check so we can understand where we are in the world, how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

And if we’re taking the pulse right now, I’d say the patient isn’t all that healthy.

It baffles me how some companies, okay a lot of companies, and organizations can still have very little diversity with their staffing. I’m bothered mostly by those groups who claim to work on issues of diversity and yet, that same diversity is not shown on the staffing page of their website. It baffles me how they think this lack is okay and they don’t see where this is offensive.

It infuriates me when I participate in “working groups” specifically around people of color and I am the only “of color” in the room. Sidebar - I’m also irritated that someone thought it was okay to call us colored people again. I sit in a lot of working groups, but I don’t see a lot of groups working to actually be more diverse.

I’m irritated that there isn’t a national outrage about how little our Black and brown children are learning in school systems. I’m even more irritated that issues have come to my native city of Washington, D.C. and no one really seems to give a damn. Where are the protests around students receiving unearned diplomas? Where is the movement to ensure that students from marginalized communities are put in successful situations to excel in school? Right now, less than 30% of all Black children who attend public schools in D.C. are proficient in math and reading according to a recent equity report. How is that okay?

I love the motto of Wayfinder – “For the Least of These.” I find myself using it all the time. I notice it in those same working group rooms when the least aren’t present. I see it when I work in low-income areas and the least somehow become the most - the most hoping for a new tomorrow, the most who are trying to do better, the most who are activists in their communities because they know this shit just ain’t right.

There was a time when white people refused to come to certain areas of any urban city and now they are coming in droves because someone told them that’s the “it” thing to do now. Someone told them that it’s completely fine to move out the most of those who owned the homes in these communities for years, and not bat an eye. They actually think they are doing the community a favor by moving themselves in and the others out. Talk about privilege.

I hate that I even have to explain this.

I know this piece may come across as me being angry and that’s okay because I am. My neighborhood has become gentrified. My community that once boasted residents of homes that have been in their families for generations have been sold, gutted, and removed of all traces of history...because gentrification is en-vogue now. Stealing history from the least of these seems to be the thing to do.

We recognize it in music where our culture is often robbed and raped for the sake of sampling a beat. We see it in copied hairstyles (Kim Kardashian was channeling Bo Derek and not the beautiful African queens where braids originated. Really Kim?). While our people are being sent home, shut out, fired, expelled, and ridiculed for wearing the tresses of our history. We see the robbery in justice when Black people are killed and yet their murderers aren’t held accountable. No justice. No peace. We recognize it in literally every area of our Black lives.

The Wayfinder Foundation exists for the least of these. We believe in investing in women activists who are doing the work in their communities to uplift and move them towards freedoms they have yet to experience. I have no doubt that our ability to do this work will prevail. I think Tupac Shakur may have summed it up best in his biopic movie “All Eyez on Me” when he said “You got to enter in somebody’s world in order to lead them out.” It can’t only be done from a board room or a working group. Sometimes you have to go out and be among the people.

And if you’re wondering what my definition of “for the least of these” is, it is being mindful of the decisions we make and how they will ultimately affect those with the least power.

So, for this Black History Month make it your appointed duty to do more than sharing a meme or creating a campaign that shows you’re “down”. To my activists in our communities, I know you’re tired but our work is not yet done. Dig in deeper and fight for our children and for our mothers. Activate those in your community who can help you galvanize those who are the recipients of the wrongdoings. Become their advocate while teaching them to advocate for themselves.

And for our friends - change your board rooms, your leadership teams, your staff members. Don’t just talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Equalize your power structure so that it includes more diverse people (and no, having a group of people of the same race and/or gender who have different ideologies is not the type of diversity I’m talking about here.) Get some Black and brown folks in your place of business so you can at least have one authentic voice of the people you seek to help.

My frustration may be my own. Standing on the Island of Personal Opinion is not a new trip for me. However, I do have to say this: I wouldn’t be so irritated if I could see the mentality that comes with working on behalf of the least of these in your actions.

My Offer to You is This: Nothing

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Justin C. Cohen’s Response to the President’s State of the Union Address

As I watched President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on January 29th, I couldn’t help remembering the famous Las Vegas scene from the second Godfather film. During that scene, a steely Al Pacino – playing a mafia boss cum gambling magnate – confronts a United States Senator who is holding up gambling licenses for a new casino. After the Senator not-so-subtly asks for a bribe, Pacino, consumed with the awareness of his own power, tells the man, “My offer is this: nothing.”

My recollection was triggered, in part, by the symmetry of the characters in the two set pieces. Trump, like the fictional Godfather, made his fortune through specious real estate deals and illicit gaming. Trump and Godfather alike seem unconcerned with any moral compass outside of that which points to their own personal enrichment. Both men express certitude about the deservedness of their power, while dismissing critique, even from their putative peers.

But perhaps the most striking similarity is in what both men offer to anyone who isn’t a powerful, wealthy, corrupt, well-connected, white man: Nothing.

What does Trump offer to America’s women, who are building an unprecedented political movement to confront centuries of political underrepresentation, workplace harassment, and economic marginalization? That movement – whether we call it #MeToo or an extension of historical feminism – seeks pay equity, a correction of the imbalance of power in the corridors of America’s legislatures, and consequences for men who engage in sexual misconduct, among many other noble aspirations.

What is Trump’s offer to American women?

Nothing.

How about America’s black communities, which are of course varied and heterogeneous, but at times united by challenges that are germane to our country’s ugly history of racism and white supremacy? The Movement for Black Lives has spent years organizing to end police brutality, reduce the use of incarceration as a tool of public safety, and diversify our country’s public and private institutions. Black political leaders in cities, suburbs, and rural America seek investments and opportunities that so often bypass the communities in this country that are not white.

Trump’s offer to black America?

Nothing. (Not to mention a callous dig at the peaceful protestors who kneel during the national anthem in opposition to police violence.)

Perhaps no community of Americans is more threatened by the Trump presidency than our immigrant brothers and sisters. Those families who have bravely moved to our shores in pursuit of the American dream live in fear of terror not from their immigrant peers, but from ICE agents of the state masquerading as guarantors of public safety. Many of the children of our immigrant families, who are American in every way except as represented on a piece of government paper, are being excluded from the American dream because of the most inhumane sorts of regulatory overreach.

It is no surprise that Trump is offering those families more of the same: Nothing.

In the course of dismissing the concerns of America’s majority, Trump made lots of other offers that we should view with vigilance. His plan for an infrastructure bill, while eyebrow raising in its size, will require the support of Congress. Not a single Democratic Congressperson or Senator should vote for that bill unless there are guarantees that those funds will be used to support America’s cities, the diversity and vibrancy of which drive our economy and prosperity. His immigration plan, while pitched as moderate, would expand the prison state while leaving millions of children and families in the lurch. His investments in expanding the military would double down on the disastrous foreign policy of his republican predecessors, who poured billions of dollars into unwinnable overseas conflicts, while ignoring the needs of our struggling American children and families at home.

I watched the State of the Union address with anger and frustration. The image of a man – who we have all seen on video graphically describing the sexual assault of women – was flanked by two other men, all three of whom seem gleefully ignorant of the concerns of anyone in this country who doesn’t look exactly like them. As a white man myself, I am ashamed that I could share in this ignorance if I choose. That, perhaps, is the ultimate white privilege.

But the other privilege I enjoy as a white man is to reject this President’s callousness and call out oppression where I see it. And so, my response to the President is simple.

As long as you are the chief executive of this county, I offer you this: Nothing. 

We've been fighting the War on Poverty for 54 years and still nothing's changed

After nearly 25 years working in and around communities dealing with intergenerational poverty, I'm pretty sure we don't need a new report telling us that child poverty is still a problem in America. President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in 1968 when the national poverty rate was around 19%. In 2015, the national poverty rate was roughly 14%; a 5% difference. However, if you disaggregate the data, and peel back a few layers, you would see that Black and Latino populations have not seen the economic growth as others have in this country.

I don’t need another research report, or any other data points to make me believe that we are not winning this poverty war…or at least some of us are not winning. In fact, we may well be losing the battle and the war.  

Over the years this country has spent trillions of dollars on efforts to eradicate poverty – a social phenomenon that affects all of us. Every race. Every city. Every region of this country. Poverty itself doesn’t know color, but those who are in charge of manning this war seem to know. Their color blindness is uniquely shown in the disproportionate numbers of those in dearth. Black and Brown communities are often leading the data tables when it comes to lack –  lack of money, lack of food, lack of high-quality educational options, lack of affordable housing, lack of livable wages, etc. Those in charge use these data points to inform the policies and funding they vote on and yet, Black and Brown children are still losing. Why is that?

But here again, I don’t need another research report to tell me what I have already seen in my lifetime – poor children are still finishing last. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the U.S. Census Bureau released data in 2015 that revealed there were 46.7 million poor people in America in 2014 and 1 in 3 are children. The fact is, children remain the poorest group in this country. Of the 15.5 million children in America, 21% are poor. Looking at subgroups 37% of Black children are poor and 32% of Latino children are as well. This is in contrast to 12% of White children. What is most startling to me is 1 in 5 Black children live in extreme poverty. In 2014, that was a 13% increase since the previous year.

And although I can appreciate these statistics and use them as needed, I don’t need reports to tell me that we’re losing ground. In fact, we are losing this war on poverty – especially in our neediest areas. I grew up in one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. And what was a reality then, is a reality today – it still has the highest poverty rates, highest rates of children on public assistance, and highest rates of unemployment in the city.   

I have been fortunate enough to have spent nearly half of my life advocating for improved conditions for children, specifically poor children. I don’t need statistics to tell me our children are hungry and that they are being left behind. I see it when I work with schools and nonprofit organizations who are doing their best to help however they are able. I think this article entitled “Why it costs so much to be poor in America” published in the Washington Post summed up the realities of poverty correctly:

It has never been easy to be poor in America… It is not unusual for cash-strapped families to have to line up before dawn in the cold in front of a government office just to secure an appointment to apply for limited heating assistance at a later date. (Imagine if your dentist worked this way). Many people who need, and are eligible for, government assistance with various necessities simply do not receive it, either because it requires complicated paperwork they do not have the discretionary time to manage, requires travel to an office they cannot get to, or involves an appointment during the hours they work…More than 40 percent of Americans say they struggle even to make ends meet each month and would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense without real hardship. No amount is small if you cannot afford it.

I know the problems and the ills of this so-called War on Poverty. I’m sure we all do. What we need now are more solutions. This past July, I had the privilege of joining the team at the Wayfinder Foundation, a newly established charitable organization with an important mission of ending poverty by investing in women activists who have the potential for building power in their own communities. Last week we launched the Community Activist Fellowship Program, where we will be making direct investments in activists throughout the year in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. Our hope is to provide resources to women activists who are often overlooked by traditional philanthropy and who lack the resources to adequately do their work.  Our goal is through these investments we will begin to win the battles, and ultimately the war.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” So not only will I not be silent, I will continue move beyond my words into actions as I encourage others to do the same.

A Mother's Advocate - A New Title, A New Home

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There are so many occasions in a mother’s journey where she feels helpless, tired and fresh out of support systems. This is true for the average mother but when you add the burden of being poverty-stricken it becomes nightmarish. The times when she has no partner, no transportation, no way to pay the rent, not enough money to pay utilities, struggling to stretch a food budget. Add in the common bouts of depression that, even though millions suffer through it, few are willing to discuss it openly when it looms heavily. It can take only one catastrophe to bring an entire family and another generation to a cycle of despair.

Having been a single mother by way of divorce, I still remember the countless sleepless nights I had with what seemed to be never-ending hurdles, roadblocks and the challenges of each new day. At the end of my book, A Mother’s Manual – I give thanks to God first and then to an extensive list of the people I call My Village.  A village that I enlisted, many volunteered for and all without whom I do not think my children would have fared as well as they have. Seven years ago, my son helped to support us after he graduated from college before he turned 21.  This year I have 3 children in college. Two will graduate this May. One holds two crowns as campus queen and overall HBCU Queen.  One will graduate from Columbia University with more than a 4.0 GPA. My youngest will be interning in Washington, D.C. with her eyes on a future in politics.

It has been a long road for me and I know there are countless other single mothers, especially Black mothers, who are going through what I’ve gone through who are struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel. When I came across a Huffington Post article dated October 29th, 2017 I could feel my excitement as I read the title - To Stop The Cycle Of Poverty, We Need To Invest In Mothers. I was reading phrases that I had never read before when talking about helping women like me. Things like: Invest in mothers; keeping families afloat; the basic necessities of life…

When I read that the Wayfinder Foundation was founded on the principle that if we invest in women, we will change the world, I knew I had finally found an organization that shares my beliefs. Their mission is very close to the slogan on the back my own business card which reads MOTHERS HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THE WORLD! As a longtime advocate for mothers, parents, guardians and children, I have often felt like a lone soldier. Nonetheless, I have dedicated the rest of my life as an elder, I am 57, a mother of adult children and a survivor of multiple challenges, to doing whatever I can to empower, inform and encourage other mothers to stay the course and win. I know absolutely that I could not have raised children who have excelled and been outstanding in so many ways without the assistance I had. Public assistance is not enough. The quicksand of poverty is not easily escaped. In fact, I see people sinking every day.

As I read and researched more about the Wayfinder Foundation, I realized that I had found my people. Another village where I could belong to continue this fight for mothers’ sustenance and children’s wellbeing and futures.  I am an author and a parent mentor but as I write this piece, I am considering adding yet another title to the work I do – Mothers’ Advocate. ad·vo·ca·cy[ ad-v uh-k uh-see] NOUN [PLURAL AD·VO·CA·CIES.] 1.the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal: She was known for her advocacy of mothers’ needs.

I am most thankful that I tracked down the author of that important and possibly life-changing post by Chris Stewart, President and CEO of the Wayfinder Foundation. It was urgent that I let him know that there was at least one like-minded mother with boots on the ground and ready to enlist in his corps. As I continue this journey to find and harness all the MOTHERPOWER available to make the necessary changes in my community and in our world - it is so wonderful to have found my way into the village of the Wayfinder Foundation.