This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 9, 2016.
— James Baldwin
I grew up in the Park Hill housing projects, the second of seven siblings in a single parent household. I didn’t realize we were poor back then because life felt abundant. We had a strong and vibrant family. My aunt sewed our school uniforms, from the red knee socks to the twill skirts, so we looked like all the other children. My mother surrounded us with books and made it clear that she had high expectations for us when it came to academic achievement.
There was no WIC then to support child nutrition, but we were able to get PET milk and box cheese from our local food pantry, which made the best macaroni and cheese I have ever eaten to this day. The Cabbage Patch Settlement House was our safe haven – a place to go for help with homework, to socialize with friends, and to find assistance when needed.
Looking back, it’s clear I had the needed ingredients for a thriving childhood that would help shape me into the adult I am today. I had a stable family, strong values, and support from the community. It’s also clear that I was lucky.
The KIDS COUNT report tells us that the experiences of children in Kentucky are shaped by three factors: how much money their parents make, where they live, and their race or ethnic background. In many ways I am a success story – I had all 3 factors working against me as a poor black girl from the projects. Yet, I was able to graduate from high school, build a career and a family and achieve financial stability. I have spent much of my adult life trying to pay it forward through volunteering, mentoring, and philanthropy to ensure that my story is not an anomaly.
But this year’s KIDS COUNT report offers a sobering truth – we as a society haven’t done nearly enough. Until we fix the system, the odds are stacked against kids of color, poor kids, and children who grow up in concentrated poverty. For every year of inaction to fix these inequities, for every year of complacency to maintain the status quo, we see the inequities and accompanying challenges grow. They grow in the form of poor health, overcrowded prisons, a bifurcated community, and shortened lives.
For example, the data show that only 1 in 3 black fourth graders is proficient in reading compared to 60 percent of their white peers. This disparity holds even among low-income children, indicating that something else is going on. Indeed, research shows that unconsciously, teachers have different expectations of black children, as early as preschool, making them more likely to be disciplined and suspended and directly contributing to these gaps.
I saw this happen to my own son. Shaan was an exceptionally bright child. He was always number 1 or number 2 in his class at a local Catholic School, where he was also one of a handful of students of color. Despite earning A+’s on his report card in eighth grade, I was shocked to find an F for conduct. When I met with his teacher and asked how this could be, she told me that it was because his voice is lower and carriers louder than the others. There was something different about him that needed fixing, never mind his obvious talents.
Despite all of his advantages – growing up in a middle-class family in a prosperous neighborhood – he could not escape being labeled due to the color of his skin. I stood up for him that day, as any networked, connected and confident mother would. But how many of these cases slip by, with no one to call out the injustice, no matter whether it was intended or not? How many times do we refuse to acknowledge the truth in front of us? The data does not lie.
Whenever I mentor a young person, I tell them what I learned. You take what you are today, the resources that you have; you learn and keep learning and you make it the best.
We owe it to them to take what we have learned from this report – face the realities. We need to dig deeper – get involved – stay committed to the cause. Start the conversation, have the conversation, stay in the conversation. Many people do not get invited to the table. Let’s get rid of the table. Invite all to the circle.
Marita Willis is a major gifts officer for the American Red Cross and board member of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.