The tragic death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray while in police custody focused a lot of attention on the bleak prospects for young people in the neighborhood where he lived. Called Sandtown-Winchester, it is a place where more than half of adults are unemployed, where 49 percent of high school students are "chronically absent," and where a third of the houses stand vacant.
That places like Sandtown-Winchester exist 50 years after the launch of the War on Poverty is a travesty and a stain on our country. Over the course of those five decades, we have invested in a patchwork of programs and initiatives aimed at turning things around for children and families living in the nation's most economically distressed communities. Some of these efforts have succeeded; many have not, and most were never capitalized at the scale necessary to have widespread impact as evidenced by the fact that 14.7 million children -- about one in five American kids -- live in poverty today.
The failure of many of these efforts has prompted many in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to embrace small-scale solutions which are more likely to get results, albeit limited ones -- for example, programs that help 100 children get to a place where they can succeed. These are wonderful efforts, and we should applaud their sponsors and organizers for getting into the fight and trying to make a difference. At the same time, we need to set our sights higher and support entire communities like Sandtown-Winchester to create comprehensive, lasting change. In short, we need solutions that are commensurate with the scale of the problems.
More than anything else, this means embracing an evidence-based approach that invests in children from the very start of their lives and follows them through college and into their careers. This is the "cradle-to-career" approach at the center of the often heralded Harlem Children's Zone, which set out to simultaneously address many of the challenges that were limiting the life chances of children and families in Harlem, New York, from crumbling apartments to rampant drug use to failing schools and violent crime.
In 2014, the Harlem Children's Zone served nearly 27,000 youth and adults; 70 percent of children in the Zone are engaged in its cradle-to-career pipeline of programs for children and families. As of 2014, nearly 900 Harlem Children's Zone students were in college, and many more were on their way.
This cradle-to-career approach isn't just working in Harlem. In rural and urban communities across the country, people and organizations, such as Promise Neighborhoods, are using a cradle-to-career strategy to provide children and families with comprehensive, coordinated support to improve results and reverse the cycle of generational poverty.
Promise Neighborhoods isn't about imposing yet another program on low-income communities. Rather, it is about leaders of large institutions making a conscious choice to step into their power and change the way they work. The fact is, leaders across government, education, health, public safety, philanthropy and other systems have the ability -- right now -- to use their power, existing resources and political clout to squeeze inequity out of their institutions and to reverse the policies that are systemically removing opportunity from poor neighborhoods and communities of color like Sandtown-Winchester.
Here are just a few examples of steps that leaders can take immediately:
- Consider using a collective impact approach to building cradle-to-career continua of solutions in low-income areas. (Source: Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink)
- Increase access to healthy foods for low-income residents with low vehicle/low internet access by providing an opportunity to order and receive grocery orders at local libraries, elementary schools or senior/disabled housing sites without paying a delivery fee. (Source: Baltimore Food Policy Initiative)
- Share power in government and grantmaking by structuring grant award processes that allow residents living in low-income areas to play a leadership role in contributing to and being paid to implement solutions and selecting their service providers. (Source: PolicyLink)
- Partner with residents and community leaders to eliminate toxic stress exposures for local children: such as frequent, and/or prolonged physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship -- without adequate adult support. (Source: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University)
- Youth Employment: Use public and private resources to provide jobs to youth in areas of low income. (Source: Houston Mayor's Office).
Freddie Gray's death is a tragedy, and unfortunately a tragedy that is being repeated in low-income communities across the country. But maybe it will force us to face up to our mistakes and embrace common-sense, large-scale solutions to support more children, young people and their families to succeed.
I know we can do this. What it takes is leaders leaning in and doing their part to help build communities of opportunity all across America. As I travel across the country, I'm seeing leaders like those in Berea, KY; Chula Vista, CA; Indianola, MS; Los Angeles, CA; Minneapolis, MN: Orlando, FL; San Antonio, TX and many other places, accept this call to action. Access to opportunity must not be a privilege. It is the American ideal. Let's get to work making this ideal a reality for all.
Dr. Michael McAfee is Vice President for Programs at PolicyLink and Director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink. For more information on advocating for and/or implementing policies that design opportunity back into communities, see PolicyLink and the Center for American Progress's book: All-In Nation--An America That Works For All.