Thoughts on the Children & Youth Fund on the birthday of Malcolm X.

Had he not been assassinated in 1965 Malcolm X would have turned 92 today.  As it happens today is also the day that I read the final version of  the Children and Youth Fund Grantmaking Criteria” that the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Task Force, under the leadership of City Council President Jack Young, intends to propose to the Baltimore City Council in the near future.  First my thoughts on the progress of the Task Force and then a word about Malcolm X.

I caught grief on twitter and elsewhere for my op ed published in the Baltimore Sun  expressing my concerns about the Task Force, which was formed to help implement what the Baltimore City Council website refers to as “Council President Young’s historic Baltimore’s Children and Youth Fund.  And make no mistake about it this is Council President’s Jack Young’s baby.  Is it a problem having a major city program so closely identified with a single politician, particularly one as proprietary in such matters as Mr. Young?  Of course it is, and that remains part of my concern.

The first thing that the city needs is a comprehensive strategy and plan for dealing with the social and economic problems that underlie the city’s violence.  The last thing that it needs are ego-driven politicians pulling in different directions.  Stay tuned for what happens when the recommendations of the Children and Youth Fund Task Force are presented to the City Council.

Most of the grief that I received came from Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle and co-chairman of the Task Force.  Fair enough; when you refer as I did to something someone says as being “stupid” you have to expect a counterattack.  His commentary on twitter resulted in a series of tweets by his supporters questioning both my knowledge and relevant experience – the terms “old man” and “white privilege” came up in the discussion.  The description “old man” is certainly accurate, although I can’t say I’m particularly proud or happy about it.

In any event, Mr. Jackson may never admit it but he and I agree on the core objective of dramatically improving the odds that the black children in Baltimore’s many disadvantaged neighborhoods will escape lives of poverty, drug abuse, imprisonment, and in violent death.  And I am not even going to disagree with him that institutional racism has played a role in creating the social and economic conditions that produce dysfunctional families and troubled children.  My point is that he, and others on the Task Force, are trying to take the Children and Youth Fund in the wrong direction.

Mr. Jackson wants to use the fund for the economic empowerment of the black community by investing in “black-led organizations.”  I think that is a great goal but it is not the purpose of the fund and does not address the most immediate needs of the city.  I have said in many contexts that I believe that the city and state have to focus like a laser on delivering services directly to at-risk children and their families and on making evidence-based decisions on what services and programs will be most effective in addressing the public-health crisis at hand:  The murder epidemic.

My own point of view undoubtedly is shaped in part by the fact that my first professional career was as a social worker trained at the University of Pittsburgh.  One of my internships was with the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole, assigned to help parolees successfully reintegrate into society.  I was a social worker, not an agent.  It was eye-opening and in some cases rewarding work.

The internship was during the height of a heroin epidemic and many of the problems today are depressingly similar to those that I saw back then, with the exception of the proliferation of handguns.  Most of my clients lived in the Hill District or in Homewood, two poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.  I walked through those neighborhoods alone and unarmed.  I wonder if today the University of Maryland School of Social Work sends social work students alone into Sandtown-Winchester or Ellwood Park.  I tend to doubt it.  The widespread availability of handguns has made bad situations a lot worse.

Later my social work career would include the duty to identify and try to prevent recurrences of child abuse and neglect.  After I became a lawyer and a prosecutor a stint screening and prosecuting cases in juvenile court gave me another opportunity to see the consequences of bad or indifferent parenting.  Combine poverty with bad parenting and the chances of a person emerging unscathed from childhood in urban America are not great.

Problems like joblessness and substandard housing and schools may lie at the root of what is ailing Baltimore but there is no doubt that the immediate cause of the city’s almost inexhaustible supply of young men and even boys willing to embark on lives of crime is ineffective or nonexistent parenting.  Yes of course children everywhere take wrong turns despite the best efforts of their parents – there are exceptions to all rules – but the problem of inadequate parenting is killing Baltimore, and the people doing social work and law enforcement down at street level know that to be true.

I believe that the Children and Youth Fund should be for direct services, and Mr. Jackson should look elsewhere for funds for longer-term problems like economic inequity and job creation.  There are programs with records of success going unfunded or underfunded including after-school programs and Safe Streets Baltimore.  Don’t skimp on them for the sake of pursuing a different agenda.

Lester Davis, chief of staff for Council President Young, also spoke with me after my op ed appeared in The Sun.  He was concerned that I did not have all of the relevant information, and I said that if proved wrong about the performance of the fund I would be glad to admit in writing that my criticism was misplaced.

I’ve been following the activities of the Task Force as best I can. I have not attended the meetings; I’ve attended thousands of meetings in my career and am more interested in outcomes than lengthy discussions.  I know that the members of the Task Force are well-intended; that is not the issue, and I don’t question their integrity.  This is about policy.

The Task Force recently published the final version of the proposed “Children and Youth Fund Grantmaking Criteria.”  I was not encouraged after reading the criteria.  In my opinion, the criteria are fuzzy and reflect the fact the Task Force was trying to satisfy a broad range of stakeholders interested in competing for the grant money.  The criteria make very clear that the Task Force wants a large share of the grant money to go to small, local organizations.  I found the last criteria to be fairly revealing about the Task Force’s approach.  The criteria are presented in a question-and-answer format.

“Question:  Does the organization need to show that there is a specific need for the program and services they are aiming to deliver. Should this be substantiated by research?

Answer:  While showing a specific need relating to young people in a specific community could be an important part of the organization’s plan, it should not be a requirement of obtaining Youth Fund dollars. Community members cited that qualitative data is as important as quantitative data in both showing need and potential impacts to be reached for young people in neighborhoods and communities, especially in Baltimore’s disenfranchised neighborhoods and communities.”

A specific need “could” be an important consideration?  Qualitative (in other words, subjective) data is as important as quantitative data?  In other words, there is a whole lot of room to maneuver in terms of deciding who would get the grants under these criteria, and not a great deal of emphasis during the decision-making process would be placed on whether a proposal offered evidence-based solutions to specific needs.

Now to Malcolm X.  Included in the feedback (polite term) that I got from Mr. Jackson and his supporters was a fair amount of Black Nationalist rhetoric accompanied by suggestions that I couldn’t possibly understand what that meant. Mr. Jackson identifies himself on his twitter page as a Black Nationalist.  Because I am, as alleged, a bit of dinosaur the Black Nationalist with whom I am most familiar is Malcolm X, whose 92nd birthday would have been today had he not died in 1965.

As part of the means of escaping oppression by white Americans Malcolm X implored his followers to restore the high standards of morality among black people that he believed had been destroyed by racism.  He broke away from the Nation of Islam in 1964, publicly castigating its leader, Elijah Muhammad, for his sexual indiscretions including fathering children out of wedlock.  Malcolm X converted to Sunni Islam and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  By 1965 he was dead, assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam.

It probably is some sort of sacrilege for a white man to invoke the name of Malcolm X but one can’t help but wondering what Malcolm X would think about Baltimore today.  Yes, he would see the lingering effects of racism but he couldn’t help also seeing the impact of single-parent families and fatherless children on the black community.

It is difficult enough to raise a child in many of Baltimore’s troubled neighborhoods but it is exponentially harder to do so as a single parent; if anyone tells you that the absence of fathers in the lives of too many black children in Baltimore isn’t a problem please stop listening to them because they have no idea what they are talking about.  Even if the broken families are symptoms of wider social and economic problems we have to treat the symptoms first because doing so is the only to bring down the rate of violence in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time.

Joe Jones founded the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore in 1999.  In a 2013 interview with CNN he stated that most men come in the door looking for help getting jobs.  But Jones believes that jobs are just the first step, and that the key to creating real change in Baltimore’s troubled communities is ending what he calls “the cycle of father absence.” CFUF runs a program called Responsible Fatherhood.   According to Jones, “If we don’t crack the code of men having babies for whom they’re not responsible for, all of our efforts to build a better Baltimore will be limited.”  It is a concept with which Malcolm X would have agreed.

I have no great ideas on how to stop the “cycle of father absence.”  I don’t know that Malcolm X would either, but I believe that he would try and he wouldn’t wait until all other vestiges of institutional racism were eliminated to do so.

May 19, 2017

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