Failure is not an option: Dr. William C. Bell speaks to the Breakfast Group, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization of professional African American men

Established in 1976, the Breakfast Group is an organization of African American business and professional men focused on community service and providing economic empowerment through effective leadership. One of its many efforts is supporting youth in their educational objectives.


It’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning and to do something that I have grown accustomed to throughout my life – which is speaking to people about issues. Speaking to people about issues where failure is not an option. And this – more than anything for me – this issue of young people in foster care is an area where failure is not an option.

One of the things people have asked me is how could you be a Yankees fan given some of the history and some of the history with the Yankees and the Mets. It’s not necessarily a pleasant history as it relates to how they treated some of the African American players in the early days of their existence. But one of the things about the leadership of the Yankees has been something we’ve witnessed throughout the years where failure is simply not an option. And failure is anything short of winning the World Series, a pretty high bar to set in a League where no one should be expected to win the World Series every single year. But under the Steinbrenner regime, failure was simply not an option.

Growing up in rural Mississippi in the late 50s and experiencing the issues that were prevalent at that time and, from many respects, continue to be prevalent to this day. Brown vs. Board of Education was passed in 1954. I went to my first integrated school in Mississippi in 1972. With what was it? With all deliberate speed? We moved kind of slow.

And so I’m happy to be here with you today talking about this issue of foster care.

President Obama recently proclaimed that the month of May would be made National Foster Care Month. Foster care awareness, an opportunity to educate people about some of the challenges young people in foster care are experiencing. He didn’t create it; it was in existence prior to him becoming president. But we’re thankful he continued this tradition of saying, pay attention to this issue during the month of May. I would hope that as we have this conversation today, this will become something the Breakfast Group would pay attention to every month of the year, because failure for children in foster care should not be an option; but failure for them continues to be the most prevalent outcome, particularly when these young people age out of the foster care system.

It is interesting, as I was watching the local news program just the other day, I also learned that May is considered National Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I saw this lengthy program where one of the newscasters had a skin lesion. He was on location, I think in New York, and they were broadcasting the removal of that lesion from his arm and helping to raise awareness about what skin cancer can do to his cells. I found myself asking, where is the expose on what the cancer of broken families, the cancer of lost opportunities, the cancer that is eating away at the possibility for so many of our children. Where is the documentary on that cancer? Because it is eating up the cells of possibility in young people who most desperately need some sense of hope.

I’m thankful to be among the brothers here today because – and my sister, who, without her I probably wouldn’t even be standing here speaking so eloquently because she writes a great speech.

But when you think about the power and the influence of a committed black man in molding and shaping the life of a young person – that’s the essence of this room.

How many of you have children?

How many of you have cousins and nieces and nephews and friends who have children?

And how many of you have personally seen the power of the caring, committed, compassionate and determined influence of a black man in the lives of those young people?

Well, today, you have a number of young people who are waiting for that power. They’re waiting to be confronted with that commitment. They’re waiting to be pushed and shoved and nudged by someone with a vision for their future, because without a vision, the people perish.

We have young people today who do not have a vision yet of what they can be. They only have a vision of where they’ve come from. I’m pleased to have the two young men sitting here with us this morning because they represent somebody’s vision. I’m pretty sure that from the time they were born, somebody saw them sitting where they are sitting right now. I’m pretty sure that as they walked as young people, somebody looked at them and said, “hey, hey, hey, wait a second, you’re going to be a lawyer.” And you said, “no, I’m going to be a politician.” And somebody embraced that vision to walk with him.

When you are a young man who has lived for the first few years of your life in the home of someone who drinks a little bit too much; when you have lived for a major portion of your life in an environment where the man that you know within that environment, or the multiple men that you’ve seen come through that environment, if your vision of what a man does is that he puts his hand on the woman; if your vision of what a man does is he puts his hands on the children and he comes and goes as he pleases, and he only shows up sometimes when he knows that there’s a check waiting for him to exploit and use; then that’s the vision that you see when you don’t have a vision of possibility. You need someone who’s willing to step in and say, wait a minute, things can be different if you choose for it to be different.

So I’m happy to be here with you this morning because I believe I’m talking to men of vision. I believe that I’m talking to men who understand possibility. I believe I’m talking to men who know how to nurture potential and, if given a chance, to spark it.

I asked the question earlier about your children, but how many of you were raised by or touched by a grandparent or another relative in your young years?

You were asking me where I was from, and I was telling the story about my father. His mother was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and on the trek of his grandparents through Mississippi to eventually settle where they settled in Arkansas, my grandmother met my grandfather. As a result of that union, my father came into existence. My grandmother died shortly after my father was born and my grandfather, in his great wisdom, took my father to Arkansas and left him with his grandparents, who proceeded to raise him, which is what grandparents did. Because for them, failure was not an option.

As a result of him being raised by his grandparents, he eventually came back to Mississippi, where he met my mother in the 1930s and they became a pair. They went through having eight children and then at some point realized that they weren’t going to make it. So they split up. But on one of those evenings when my father came back to see if the relationship was going to work, it didn’t, but I did. So a ninth child came into existence. But as that ninth child, growing up in rural Mississippi kept moving through time without my father’s presence, without my stepfather’s input, there were men who stepped in who didn’t have to.

There were men who, like Willie Dean Smith, when I was too young to be a boy scout, not yet ready to be a cub scout – he came and convinced my mother that she should allow him to take me with him to a boy scout overnight outing and introduce me to what it meant to interact with young men and to be in a positive environment. But he didn’t have to do that.

There was Rev. J. Wright Price, who had made his life – this morning someone was talking to me about when people make it in life and they become comfortable, philanthropy can sometimes creep into the picture. Well, he had made his life in rural Mississippi. He had moved to be a politician. He had moved to become superintendent of the entire school system. And he said to my mother, “any of your children who want to make it, I’m going to help you.” He made it possible for me to get a loan when I left high school to go on to college, and he has followed me to this day, looking to see what the product of his investment looked like.

There are countless others that I can point to. One I can point to is the mayor of the town I lived in when I graduated from high school. He called a community meeting, and in that community meeting, he said if anybody from this town can be successful, William C. Bell can do it. Those words ring in my ears right now. So the challenge for me is, given that failure is not an option – and I want to tell you for a few seconds what it means if we allow failure to creep in.

If we allow failure to creep in, then 740 young people across this county will be in foster care before this time tomorrow.

If we allow failure to continue to be an option, 30 young people across this country will enter foster care from the time when the clock struck 7:30 this morning to a few minutes from now when it strikes 8:30. Thirty young people across this country will have entered foster care, if we allow the possibility of failure to continue to be an option in the lives of these young people.

I’m talking big numbers out here for the rest of the country. What about Washington? What about King County? Martin Luther King, Jr. County, Washington?

Between now and the year 2020, if we continue to allow this atmosphere where failure is a possibility because these young people are too hard; they don’t act like we used to act. They don’t listen to their parents. They do what their mothers and fathers tell them to do. Anybody ever had something like that said about them in this room? Do we have any people who, like me, was considered a rabble-rouser at some point in the past? Was there a moment when someone had the opportunity and the option to give up on you, but they chose not to?

I’m not asking you to call yourself out because I know we have some distinguished gentlemen in this room, but I’ll be the first one to say it. There is an opportunity, if people had chosen to, to say that I wouldn’t be here. As a matter of fact, when I left Mississippi at 23 years old and moved to New York City, my best friend for years said about me at that moment, “I will give him six months and he’ll be back, because he won’t make it because of who he is and because of what I know about him.”

What do you know about the young men and women in King County, Washington who are sitting in the midst of foster care this morning? What do we know about the 1,043 young people who came into foster care these past 12 months in King County, Washington? What do we know about the 87 young people who will be in foster care in King County, Washington before the end of National Foster Care Awareness Month this May? Every month in this county, 87 children are taken from their families and placed in foster care.

I was pleased as I was standing here earlier and listening to Brother Watts talk about a young man in his life. He talked about the young man in the context of today he’s a lawyer, his wife is a doctor, they have a child, and they’re going to church. But what I was moved by was what he said before that. He said that when he was a young man, he wanted to kill his mother. He wanted to kill his father. He wanted to kill himself. While we were driving in the car, he hit the gear shift and knocked it from drive into park – while we were moving. But I’m so proud today because this young man today communicates with me and tells me what is possible if we choose to believe that failure is not an option.

Every eight hours in King County, Washington, one child steps into that space. Every eight hours. Think about your work shift. If you do a double, two kids went in. If you pull an all-nighter like I’ve done recently because of finishing up this dissertation, three kids go in while I spend my all-nighter. What do we have to do to change it?

There is something inherently wrong about a nation that prides itself on the fact that it can send people to and from space; that it can allow people to live in space for extended periods of time and actually send a refueler to space. I’ve seen people have problems refueling their cars at a gas station. But we’ve become so efficient and effective, that we can actually send refuelers to outer space. We can send food. We can send whatever they need to keep them in outer space. But we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that we don’t know what to do for half a million children who are in foster care in this country.

I believe we’ve simply allowed ourselves to be deceived. Self deception is one of the greatest tragedies. Jesus said to his disciples as they were about to turn away a group of kids who were trying to get to him. He said to them, “suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me for such is the kingdom of heaven.”

My challenge to you today, my call to you today is if you remember but two numbers as you proceed from this conversation – as you proceed throughout the rest of your life, remember two numbers. One number is the ratio 1:10. And that ratio of 1:10 is the number that could be if everyone of us in this room decided that for each of the next 10 years between now and 2020 – that we are going to recruit one additional person – ourselves starting and one additional person to step up and say failure is not an option for this population.

The other number that I want you to remember is one. One. Because that’s all that it takes for somebody’s life to be changed for a lifetime. Because the this one man said, “I’m not going to give up on you no matter what you have done.” And I’m sure there were moments – countless moments – where you could have. And everybody who knows you would have said he’s justified in doing that. But one person is all it takes.

This morning somebody talked about Jim Casey. Jim Casey – one man – who made some money going from a bicycle distribution company to an international company, using planes, trucks, buses, whatever is needed to move cargo. That one man seeded two foundations. One in Baltimore – Annie E. Casey Foundation, named for his mother. One, here, Casey Family Programs, designed to be an operating foundation.

As a result of that seeding, first in 1948, then in 1966, when he started Casey Family programs, there are now five organizations with the name Casey attached to them. There’s Casey Family Programs; the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Marguerite Casey Foundation, also based here in Seattle that was started by Casey Family Programs; Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in St. Louis; and Casey Family Services in the Northeast.

Between those five organizations, there is more than $7 billion of funds that is being invested in changing this world, because one man had a vision some many years ago that said I can make a difference. I don’t believe he had a clue that the meager amount of money that he set aside then – because he didn’t set aside $7 billion. I doubt that in the earliest stages there was $10 million in this venture, but today, there is more than $7 billion because one man had a vision that something needed to change; that he had a responsibility to do something about it; and that he could do something about it. So that one is what I would want you to take from here.

What’s your commitment? There’s a blue pin that’s sitting on your desks. Many of you may have it on already. I would ask you to take an extra blue pin and commit to wearing the one you have every single day for the rest of this month, thinking about what that symbolizes. And the second one – I would ask that you find one other person, before the end of this month, that you can have a conversation with about failure for this population is not an option. Because, you see when young people reach the age of 18, even if the state of Washington took them and put them in foster care at age two and kept them in foster care until the age of 18 – at that point the state says, you’re no longer my responsibility; you are grown and you have to go out and fend for yourself.

I have a 25-year-old and a 23-year-old, and if yours are anything like mine, sometimes I’m walking down the street and I have to go like this (grasps pockets). I’m holding my pockets because they’re still in there. But I allow them to be in there because they’re mine.

What if you adopted a standard of your own for this population? What if we said to ourselves that for as long as we can breathe, if it is not good enough for my own children, then it will never be good enough for any child in King County, Washington. What if we said that? And what if we made it our life commitment to hold true to that – whether it’s the dropout rate that we’re dealing with; whether it’s the fact that more than 25 percent of every adult inmate incarcerated in America today was in foster care at some point; whether it’s the fact that 30 percent of every homeless person in America today was at some point in foster care? What if we said failure will no longer be an option? Then I think we can live the essence of one of Dr. King’s favorite songs.

If I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living shall not be in vain.
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song, then my living shall not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a good man ought,
if I can bring beauty to a world up wrought,
if I can spread love’s message as the Master taught;
then my living shall not be in vain.”

My question is simple. What are you going to do?

God bless you and thank you for letting me take up your time this morning.