NEW ORLEANS, April 30, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The nation's leading social justice and civil rights advocates pledged last Thursday at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's (WKKF) America Healing grantee conference to work together for racial healing and racial equity across the country. They were optimistic that as a united force they can help improve life outcomes for vulnerable children and communities across the country.
Leaders of diverse organizations representing African Americans, Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and all low-income communities across the U.S. acknowledged they face obstacles ranging from a conservative-leaning Supreme Court to new laws aimed at suppressing the minority vote. Speaking at a lunchtime plenary session at the gathering of nearly 500 scholars, advocates and community leaders, they declared it was time to look past the many impediments and focus on making progress together.
Benjamin Jealous, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), cited examples noting that the NAACP had worked with the Tea Party to get 12 progressive criminal justice reform bills signed by Texas Governor William Perry and that Connecticut had enacted a law abolishing the death penalty in the state. He said, "There are issues out there – and especially within criminal justice – where we can actually get consensus between the left and the right and get great things done in this moment that'll drive down the incarceration rate and reform draconian sentences."
In addition to Jealous, other panelists included Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League; Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza; Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of National Congress of American Indians; Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center; Kathleen Ko, president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project; Ralph Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; and Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
The group applauded WKKF's America Healing goal to provide equal opportunities for vulnerable children throughout this country, while promoting racial healing and addressing structural bias in health care, employment, education, housing, the environment and other factors. The grantee convening was part of the foundation's America Healing work that provides grants for organizations to promote racial healing and racial equity to improve the lives of vulnerable children in communities.
Murguia reminded participants of the enormous opportunity that has been building to bring people together around changing the current trajectory for all our children in this country.
"When we can come together in this modern era and understand that it's not just about our separate struggles, but it's about Dr. King's words - words that he wrote to Cesar Chavez at the height of his fast. He said our separate struggles are really one - the fight for justice, for humanity and for dignity," she said. "We've got to come together. We've got to stay together and understand that together we will move forward and conquer these difficult challenges."
She acknowledged, however, the severity and impact of the law that virtually legalizes racial profiling against Hispanics by allowing law enforcement to check their citizenship papers under various scenarios. She referenced a recent Washington Post article that quoted the architects of anti-immigrant bills as saying that in crafting the legislation they wanted to find the way to "create the most pain, make people the most uncomfortable and cause people to leave because they are so afraid, scared and it's so painful."
Murguia continued saying that people have a right to say what they believe, but that we have the right to engage ourselves and place a value filter on those assertions.
"Right now, we're under attack," she said. "I can't sugarcoat it…we held a rally in front of the Supreme Court when they heard the Arizona law, S.B.1070 – a law essentially requiring law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone they stop in Arizona. There've been other efforts across the country to mimic this law. We've seen pain and suffering in the lives of many families, particularly in Latino and immigrant families. And the civil rights nature of these laws is getting lost. That wasn't an immigration case they heard yesterday. That was a civil rights case."
Morial cited the Arizona law, as well as an array of obstacles to racial equity, calling it "the worst of times" for social justice in the U.S. But he quickly cited the unity of civil rights and social justice leaders, and shifted gears, saying, "But they're the best of times. And one of the reasons why they are the best of times is because I look at this stage, I look at all of you, and I see the seeds of the future."
Everett noted another sign of progress. In 1970, when the Joint Center opened, he said there were less than 1,500 black elected officials in the country. Today, there are more than 11,000.
"As part of our Place Matters program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are about to release a study that shows how your zip code determines how long you live. In fact, the release will show a 25 to 30 year difference in some cases," said Everett.
Tegeler, meanwhile, reconnected to the theme of working with vulnerable children. He reasoned that segregated communities were preventing integrated schools, which would have dire consequences if not addressed.
"As long as we're keeping white children and children of color apart, I think we're going to perpetuate the divisions in this country," Tegeler said. "You know, we've heard over and over again at this conference that racial and economic segregation is the driver of racial disparity – racial disparity in health, in education, in employment, in income, in incarceration. It's an underlying structure that feeds disparity and division."
He called for an effort to deal with the underlying problem of segregation and to bring children together into more integrated communities and schools. "To have a real multiracial democracy, we need to start to bring children together more intentionally to break down racial stereotypes, break down implicit bias and so on," he said.
Johnson Pata also looked to the future, saying she looked forward to removing many of the restrictions that the federal government places on what Native Americans can do with their land. Her goal would be to dismiss the "paternalistic feeling" from these restrictions.
"Policies of empowerment that really make self-determination work can counter paternalism," she said. "We can actually have our tribal leadership help make decisions about our school curriculum and not have the state government guide what cultural activities are acceptable for our communities; then we could actually have the governmental tools like other states and other communities – governments, so that we could have tax-exempt bond financing to stimulate our economic development."
Browne-Dianis steadfastly raised the need to save the children. She cited instances where young minority children were arrested as if they were adults. And she noted the vast differences in resources between her child's school in a predominantly black county in Prince George's County, Md. and the school where the child of a friend attends in a white community of Fairfax County, Va.
"We as a country cannot allow the mistreatment of our babies," she said. "We have got to reform our schools, but not in the way in which we're going. The trajectory of education reform in this country is wrongheaded. We are going down the road of privatization, which means that there will be sorting-out of our children, sorting that will disadvantage children of color for centuries. You may have heard in the past few days, in Philadelphia they have announced the dissolution of their public school system. How are we allowing this to happen?"
The panel concluded with a discussion of what can be done to continue to move the racial equity conversation forward.
Ko noted, "One of the conversations we were having this morning is about how we also try to do state-by-state strategies. We can push at the national level, but how do we start to bring coalitions together at the state level? I work in healthcare. But how do we do that in all the different areas that we're working, whether it be for voter suppression or any of the other issues?"
Meanwhile, Sen said, "I want to suggest that one way we can deal with a range of policies is to establish a pattern or practice in government that requires racial equity impact analysis to be done on any of the policies we are considering putting in place."
For more information about America Healing, visit www.AmericaHealing.org.
***W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create the conditions where vulnerable children can realize their full potential in school, work and life.
The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Mich., and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti.
New Orleans was chosen as the site of this second annual grantee meeting because the foundation considers New Orleans a priority place for investments and has several grantees in the city involved in the conference.
For more information, visit www.wkkf.org.
SOURCE W.K. Kellogg Foundation