A declaration of hope: building a stronger community foundation

This is William C. Bell’s keynote address at a forum of the regional community foundation New England Blacks in Philanthropy. The theme of the forum was “Block by Block: Supporting a Strong Community Foundation.”


Good evening.

As I was preparing my talk with you this evening and reflecting on the theme of building stronger communities, I couldn’t help but replay in my mind the recent high-visibility incidents that have thrust our communities, especially our nation’s black communities and the men and boys who live in those communities, onto the front pages of our newspapers, at the top of the evening and morning news broadcasts, at the center of dinner-table conversations, into the conversations in social gatherings, and into the focus of a national outcry demanding justice and declaring that black lives matter, that all lives matter.

My mind goes back to Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, John T. Williams, Trayvon Martin, (Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell), Miriam Carey, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Antonio Montes, Tony Robinson, Charley Robinet, James Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray – 22 lives and countless others.

Some of these names may have already been forgotten by some, and there are many more who never came to our attention. But their families and their communities have not forgotten them. Their children and loved ones that they were taken from have not forgotten them, nor will they ever forget. Our prayer is that they, like the Odom family in Boston, will turn pain into power.

According to the Washington Post’s count, approximately 385 people of all races nationwide have been shot and killed by police during the first five months of 2015. On average that’s more than 21 lives a day taken by those sworn to serve and protect us. Two-thirds of these 385 people were African American and Latino, adding to the longstanding sense of devastation in our communities.

And we can’t just look at the lives taken by police officers. Violence in our communities has reached an epidemic proportion. On average, every 24 hours in our communities across America, we lose 29 young people under the age of 25 to violence.

We lose 4 babies to child abuse and neglect (most of them before their 5th birthday). We lose 13 young people to homicide (most of them killed by someone who looks just like them). And even more devastating, we lose 12 young people to suicide. They take their own lives, making the statement that 1 more day of life as they know it is not a viable option to them. That’s 4,379 lives lost over the first five months of this year (2015).

The question that I feel compelled to ask this evening, as we once again focus our attention on a discussion about building stronger communities, is simply this: Are we serious this time?

I ask if we are serious this time because this is not a new conversation. We’ve been here before; many times before. This isn’t the first time America’s imperfections have boiled over or have risen to the top of the nation’s discussion agenda.

I ask are we serious this time, because to not be serious means that we as a nation and as a people will continue to stand in fundamental contradiction to the bedrock principles contained in our nation’s constitution.

If we are serious this time about addressing our nation’s vast levels of imperfection, inequality and injustice, then we must ensure that we create a pathway to hope and a pathway to opportunity for every child in America, regardless of where they live.

We have been here before

Yes, we have been here before.

Let’s consider, for a moment, another turbulent time in our not-too-distant past. Every summer from 1964 to 1967, there were riots in the streets of major cities in America.

In an attempt to understand and address the conditions that set off the riots, President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission. In 1968, the commission completed its analysis and concluded that the nation was headed toward the creation of two societies (two Americas), one black and one white, but both separate and unequal.

Shortly after the Kerner Commission issued its report, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about these two co-existing but contrasting Americas at an appearance in Michigan. He described one America as filled with immense opportunity and the other choking the life out of its residents with devastating poverty.

Days after Dr. King’s speech, Sen. Robert Kennedy spoke about the two Americas in a presidential campaign speech delivered at the University of Kansas. Senator Kennedy said, “We as a people are strong enough, we are brave enough to be told the truth of where we stand. I don’t want America to make the critical choice in presidential leadership…without confronting the truth…”

“I want all of us…to have a chance to build a better country and change the direction of the United States of America…America is deep in a malaise of spirit: discouraging initiative, paralyzing will and action, and dividing Americans by their age, their views, and by the color of their skin, and I don’t think we have to accept that here in the United States of America.”

“I have seen these other Americans – I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future…I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change…”

Indeed, as I said earlier, we’ve been here before on the doorsteps faced with the undeniable revelation that talent may be universal in America but hope and opportunity are not…We’ve been here before faced with the question of what we are willing to do as a nation about the co-existence of enormous opportunity, access, and hope and the deeply rooted devastation of concentrated poverty.

Are we serious this time?

To correct this nation’s course and divert the country away from such an ill-fated destiny, in 1968 (47 years ago), the Kerner Commission stated it was “time to make good on the promises of American democracy to all citizens – urban and rural, white and black, Spanish surname, American Indian and every minority group.”

To that end, the commission made recommendations that could have resulted in long-term reductions in poverty, inequality, racial injustice and crime – recommending policies, programs and steps that would have promoted racial integration, created jobs, provided job training programs and increased the availability of decent and affordable housing.

But President Johnson said no. He was not willing to implement the recommendations of the Kerner Commission.

It’s not that the Kerner Commission’s recommendations weren’t serious and were doomed to fail. Quite the contrary. But America, as a nation, wasn’t serious enough about change 47 years ago to take the steps needed to make a difference.

President Johnson, who had already pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ignored the report and rejected most of the commission’s recommendations.

President Johnson ignored all recommendations except the three that called for:

  1. Increased police surveillance in Black communities

(You see, the Kerner Commission Report also noted that the rate of growth being experienced by black families in 1968 would have resulted in a black majority population by 1985).

  1. Increased use of police informants in Black communities, and
  2. Increased militarization of police tactics in Black communities.

Since the release of the Kerner Commission report, instead of moving forward to reduce the development of two Americas, we as a nation have doubled down on the policies that have ensured that the two Americas become a reality.

We have rolled back many of the policies, programs, recommendations and steps taken to redress the issues highlighted in the report.

In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs. He dramatically increased the size of the federal drug control agencies, pushed through measures for mandatory sentencing requirements, and pushed through invasive police tactics like no-knock warrants.

He elevated marijuana to the highest level for criminal prosecution (schedule 1) and appointed a commission to advise him on whether this was appropriate. When the commission reported that marijuana should be decriminalized for personal use…like President Johnson before him, President Nixon rejected his commission’s recommendations. By 1997 there were nearly 500,000 people in jail for non-violent drug offenses (most of them African American males).

In the 1980’s President Reagan began an economic policy agenda focused on reducing government spending, reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and reducing the amount of federal regulations on businesses, including those regulations that kept jobs in America.

Black communities now and then

The unemployment rate in many black communities today is well over 15 percent to 20 percent, while it is at 5.5 percent nationally.

In the 1990’s President Clinton signed the Violent Crimes and Law Enforcement Act, which banned assault weapons purchased after the date of the law, and increased the number of police officers by 100,000; added over $9 billion for prisons (including building new prisons), added over $6 billion for prevention efforts designed by police officers; and eliminated access to federally supported education services to people in federal or state prisons, which meant that after a 15-year prison sentence, a person’s level of education would still be unchanged. How could they be ready to deal with the world after they were released?

The national recidivism rate is 67 percent.

As a nation, we are failing to make good on the promises of American democracy to all citizens.

Are we serious this time?

Forty-seven years later, I’m still asking the question:  Are we serious this time?

Are we serious enough to begin to change the streets, block by block, in our communities – the streets that are raising our children?

Our children are crying out for someone to help them, for someone to rescue them from the streets that are raising them and consuming them.

Ja Rule and Mary J. Blige gave a voice to their cry:

These streets done raised me

Don’t turn me off because I am still your child…

This world done changed me…

I am standing here looking in the mirror trying to convince myself that my life is getting better,

But I know the outcome…

Nobody loves me…

Somebody please pray for me before I die in these streets…

These streets done raised me…

This world done changed me…

There ain’t nothing you can do about us…

Nobody loves me, Mary please pray for me before I die in these streets…

Are we serious enough to change these streets? Are we serious enough take the actions that would be required to build strong communities?

How many more of our children have to die in these streets – at the hands of police, or at the hands of each other, or at the hands of our own vices – before we get serious?

If, as philanthropists and foundation leaders, we are serious this time, if we are serious about addressing what’s keeping us from being the America we envision (the America we all say that we want), then we have to engage with communities and government leaders to change these streets.

An old gospel song tells us that God gave Noah the rainbow sign and warned it won’t be more water, but the fire next time.

One month after the release of the Kerner Report, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and in an expression of anger and discontent, riots again ripped through the country. Rioting broke out in more than 100 cities in the space of a few days, with fire destroying countless numbers of buildings.

What is particularly disheartening about this time in our nation’s history is that 47 years later, many of the communities destroyed in the riots and fires of the sixties have never recovered. Very few serious attempts have been made to help them recover.

These communities have been ignored, forgotten and allowed to fester and rot in their own decay. How many blocks across America still have burned-out and boarded-up buildings from 47 years ago?

What happens to communities that are neglected like a dream deferred? Do they dry up and fester like a sore?  Do they sag, bend, and break from the heavy load? Or do they eventually lose all hope and explode?

I say to you this evening, it’s time for us to get serious. It’s time for us to get serious about engaging communities to build strong communities all across the country.

We have to start where the children, youth and families we seek to help live their everyday lives. We have to develop respectful working partnerships with those who live and work in our troubled communities. And together, we have to identify community-driven strategies. Together we have to develop community-driven solutions, not police-designed prevention.

We have to live the truth that all of our communities matter.

What geography and ZIP codes say about our communities

Our communities tell a story. Geography – where we live – says a lot about our well-being. It says a lot about the well-being of our society. And research has shown that where children live has a significant influence on the trajectory of their lives – their access to opportunity, their life outcomes, where they will end up in life, and their life expectancy.

The neighborhood or ZIP code a child is born in should not be one of the most determinant factors of that child’s quality of life or that child’s success or failure in life. We have two Americas because like prosperity, the disparities we see in society are not distributed evenly across the country, but are found in pockets across the country – concentrated in certain neighborhoods, communities and ZIP codes.

Of the approximately 33,000 residential ZIP codes across the country (zone improvement plans), about 20 percent (6,600 ZIP codes) contain the most devastating challenges in our nation.

About 80 percent of the nearly 16 million children who live in poverty in this country live in just 20 percent of the ZIP codes.

And about 76 percent of our nation’s 28 ½ million adults 25 years and older who do not have a high school diploma or GED reside in just 20 percent of the ZIP Codes in America.

We know where these communities are in our cities and counties. Many of these communities, like the children, youth and families living in them – are not doing well.


These communities produce a disproportionate number of children in foster care, a disproportionate number of inmates in prison and a disproportionate number of homicide and suicide victims.

These are the communities with limited choices and limited access to opportunities. These are the communities of the other America.

47 years ago the Kerner Commission identified several concerns voiced by African American citizens that led to the unrest and riots of that time:

  • Police practices
  • Unemployment and underemployment
  • Inadequate housing
  • Inadequate education
  • Poor recreation facilities and programs
  • Ineffective political structure and grievance mechanisms
  • Discriminatory administration of justice
  • Inadequate federal programs
  • Inadequate city services
  • Discriminatory consumer and credit practices, and
  • Inadequate welfare programs

These factors are still true today.

To build strong communities is to strengthen the people living in them. It’s creating viable opportunities. It’s showing vulnerable children, youth, families and other populations that they too have a reason to hope.

The importance of communities

If we want to secure the well-being of every woman, girl, boy and man in the United States, we have to secure the well-being of their communities.

We have to make sure that the communities they live in have the resources and environment that support their needs and their dreams for a better life.

And as philanthropists, foundation leaders, government leaders, private citizens and business leaders we are all part of their extended community.

To build sustainable community support networks, all sectors of the community have to work together. What is required is a cooperative and collaborative effort that involves all five sectors that comprise a community:

  • The public sector that is the government
  • The non-profit sector, which includes civic and faith organizations
  • The philanthropic sector
  • The business sector
  • And the fifth sector, the public sector that is our citizens and community leaders

This isn’t about any one of us (fixing things ourselves in our self-defined ways). This about all of us. The entire community – all five sectors – having shared ownership of the issues, shared responsibility for the solutions, and shared destinies that we are unable to see as being disconnected or separate from one another.

We all have a collective responsibility to create and nurture comprehensive community support networks that offer vulnerable populations effective alternatives and hope.

We must engage targeted populations and communities, expecting and encouraging them to participate and lead in identifying their own solutions. They need to know that they play a key role in their own destiny, that they own their destiny, and that their voices will be heard and respected.

It also means that we all will have to examine our approaches and practices to accommodate this integrated, community-driven perspective.

As grant-making foundations we will have to move away from a giving philosophy and set of practices that attempt to solve life cycle issues with a grant cycle mentality.

As government leaders we must finally recognize that we can’t overcome life cycle challenges as long as we operate on an election-cycle mind set.

How philanthropy can help

Our philanthropic giving and our government social investments have to become more aligned with the results and outcomes that we say we want for vulnerable populations and communities – that they want for themselves.

Scale, impact, closing the gap and change are all words and ideals that can be found in our organizations’ mission statements, vision statements, purpose statements, goals, objectives, value statements and speeches. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. All of us have a vision of a changed world. Let’s make that vision real.

But the question is, are we serious this time?

Are we willing to change the streets of America?

  • Are we willing to change the opportunity pathways?
  • Change the boarded-up and burned-out buildings.
  • Change the community leadership structure; let’s stop abdicating leadership to those who run the violence factories in our communities.
  • Change how we acknowledge and address the historic and accumulated trauma in our streets.
  • Change the problem-solving models that we allow to go unchecked in our streets – an eye for an eye; keep your mouth shut.
  • Change the quality of our educational institutions.
  • Change the level of fear and lack of safety in our streets.
  • Change the joblessness that plagues our communities.
  • Restore true rehabilitation to our criminal justice system.

Are we serious enough to commit to making sure that on every street in America, hope, education and economic opportunity all live together for every child in America?

Are we serious enough to ensure that freedom from harassment, freedom from school expulsion and unnecessary incarceration, and freedom from the constant exposure to mind-numbing, hope-and-expectation-stealing violence is real for all children in America?

People know when they matter less than others by the language we use; by our inaction; by the worsening of conditions for certain populations in America.

How can we use the language of love and hope when our minds and our thoughts are clouded with the language of labels like:

  • Poor
  • Thugs
  • Fatherless
  • Convicts
  • The hood
  • The under-served
  • The under-privileged
  • The disconnected

As though people did these things to themselves.

I ask you again – June 25, 2015, 47 years after the Kerner Commission’s report was first released – are we serious this time?

In that same gospel song warning Noah of the fire next time, a later verse goes on to say that if something doesn’t happen to the hearts of men, the same thing is going to happen again.

We can take down a flag, as we should, and we can elect a black man president, but if something doesn’t happen to the hearts of men, the same old concentrated poverty things are going to happen again.

Senator Robert Kennedy said, “I have seen these other Americans – I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future…I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change…”

Are we serious this time?

These streets done raised me

Don’t turn me off because I am still your child…

This world done changed me…

I am standing here looking in the mirror trying to convince myself that my life is getting better,

But I know the outcome…

Nobody loves me…

Somebody please pray for me before I die in these streets…

These streets done raised me…

This world done change me…

There ain’t nothing you can do about us…

Nobody loves me, Mary please pray for me before I die in these streets…

Thank you and God bless.