Dr. William C. Bell: How are the children?
Dr. William C. Bell delivered the keynote address to the 30th Anniversary CASA for Children Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, in June 2007.
The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association supports and promotes court-appointed volunteer advocacy so every abused or neglected child in the United States can be safe, have a permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.
Dr. Bell shared the Maasai greeting, “Kasserian Ingera,” meaning “How are the children?” The traditional response, “Sapati Ingera,” means, “All the children are well.” He explained that this doesn’t mean there are no children in ill health or in poverty, but it was a commitment that, “As long as I live and breathe, I will ensure that all of our children are going to be well.”
He urged attendees to build stronger communities around our nation’s children, to build stronger individuals who are committed to changing the landscape for children and to build themselves to be stronger advocates for children.
Thank you, Michael.
Is it still morning or is it afternoon yet? Given my travels over the last few days, I’m not sure. Before coming here last night, I was in a time zone that was six hours behind this one, and, you know, as I stand here today, if my eyes shut, I’m not asleep. I’m just resting for a moment.
It’s a pleasure to be here with a group of distinguished people who hold this nation’s most vulnerable children in such high esteem. I thank CASA, Michael, and your staff. I thank all of you from around the country who give of yourselves to create something that without which none of us can really exist. That thing that you create for children is hope. I like to think of the word “hope” as being healthy optimism and persistent encouragement. Healthy optimism in that if we cannot see the possibility that where we are right now can be different at some point in the future, then we’re going to be overcome by the issues that are affecting us today. Persistent encouragement in the context that none of us can move forward consistently without having someone offering some words of encouragement and motivation.
I want to thank and offer my gratitude to Susan Taylor and Essence magazine for your work around bringing mentors into the lives of those who need them. When I think about me standing here before you today…. Without the presence of a number of mentors in my life from the time that I was a little five year old kid in rural Mississippi, I would not be standing here before you.
Someone asked me earlier today, “What do I think about being in this position,” and some say, “What is that position?” Well, I am the president and CEO of the largest operating foundation in the country that is focused solely on providing, improving, and ultimately eliminating the need for foster care.
If you had asked the person who looked at me in the third or fourth grade when I might have been struggling with history or math, whether or not that’s who I was going to become, they might have told you otherwise. If you had asked the person who was passing judgment on me as a little black kid in rural Mississippi growing up during the Civil Rights era if I would ever become anything of significance, they might have asked you what good can come out of a little black kid in rural Mississippi in the ’50s and the ’60s.
And so I say thank you not only to Susan and Essence and Michael, but I say thank you to each of you because what you represent is this notion that I believe America must come to represent with respect to vulnerable children, and that is something that we at Casey Family Programs have become comfortable referring to as the standard of our own. When I say the standard of our own, I’m simply referring to this notion that if it is not good enough for our own children, then it is not good enough for any vulnerable child in America.
And that is something that a tribe on the plains of Africa have so embodied that they have made it their tribal greeting. The Maasai tribe in Africa when they greet each other every single day, they great each other with “Kasserian Ingera,” and “Kasserian Ingera” is a greeting that bids a question, “How are the children?” and the tribal response to that question is “Sapati Ingera,” and “Sapati Ingera” responds enthusiastically that all the children are well. Now, that response is not one that necessarily means that there are no sick children in the tribe. That response is not one that necessarily means that there are no poor families in the tribe. That response is one that says, “As long as I live and breathe, I will ensure that all of our children are going to be well.” And so I beg us to begin to take a look within ourselves and ask ourselves in this great nation. In this wonderful nation where we have become so good at technology that we can give our kids a cell phone and know where they are even when they’re not in our presence. In this nation where we become so good that for more than three decades, we have been able to send men and women into outer space. And now we’re so great that we can allow them to live up there until someone says, “OK, it’s time to come back home.” But yet, in this great nation we allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into believing that we cannot take care of a half million children who are not from our bloodline. There’s something wrong in a nation that allows itself to say that that is OK.
What I have committed myself to doing in the short time that I have in front of me is going across this country and having a conversation with people that says it’s time that we change the public conversation. It’s time that we change our discourse about what it takes to give a sense of hope to those who, right now, might not believe that there’s a reason for hope.
You know, as I prepared this speech, I asked myself, what is this crowd going to see when they look at me? What will the people in this crowd see when they look at an African American man standing before them talking about changing the outcomes for African American children who are over-represented in a foster care system? I asked myself, what will you see when you look at me? Do you see, automatically, when you look at me, do you see strength? Or do you see weakness? When you think about African American men, what images come to your mind? Do you think about men who are great images of what a father should be, or do you think about men who are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to parenting? What do you see?
I asked myself, do you see a leader when you look at me? Or do you see someone who has dedicated their life to following? What do you see? Do you see somebody who represents where 25 percent of young men are affected by the criminal justice system or incarcerated or on parole or probation somehow, or do you see a man who represents a group where 75 percent of its young men have not been involved with the criminal justice system? What do you see?
I ask you – I asked myself – will they look at me and see that little boy in rural Mississippi walking barefoot, not because he chose to, but because he had no shoes? Will they see that little boy in Mississippi whose mother at the time of his birth had an eighth grade education and was working in the cotton fields in Mississippi, or will you see the CEO of Casey Family Programs – because they’re one and the same – but what do you see? Because what you see will determine the judgment that you make, and the judgments that we make about somebody else’s child in this county will determine that child’s future.
In 2005, somebody made a judgment about 300,000 children, and their judgment was their families can’t take care of them so they have to come into the foster care system. I wonder if that was the right judgment. But whether it was right or not, 300,000 of our children came into the system. And that means that every day in the year 2005, approximately 822 children came into the out-of-home care system in this rich nation, in this wonderful place where so many people want to come and be and exist. That means that in the hour that it’ll take me to get through this speech — no, I’m watching the red light, I’m sorry —
— that 34 children would have come into the foster care system every single hour.
In 2005, somebody made a judgment that changed the lives of 34 children. In the next hour, across this country, 34 more children will have their lives changed. But my question to myself, my question to each one of us, is how will we spend the hours that we have remaining in front of us?
When I think about my career, given my young age right now, there may be 15 to 20 –20 if I’m going to work into my 70s – active years left. And my question is, what am I going to do with those years? And that’s a question that I would like for you to ponder for yourself. What are you going to do with your years?
I would say that there are three things that we each need to concentrate on. One is we need to build stronger communities around our children. The second thing is we need to build stronger individuals who are committed to changing the landscape for our children. And the third thing is we need to build ourselves. We need to look down inside and ask ourselves, What am I doing? What am I doing with each minute that I have laying in front of me? Am I building my reputation? Am I lifting myself up, or am I changing tomorrow for a child that I may never know?” Someone once said that wisdom is building trees, the shade of which you may never sit.
I ask myself daily is what I’m doing having any impact on making sure that a young child right now in rural Mississippi will have the same opportunity that I have had to walk in these shoes, to walk in these footsteps. And if the answer to my question is that it will have no impact, then I need to stop. I need to stop.
I am convinced that this issue that we are dealing with right now that has a half million of our children trapped in a system, not sure where they’re going, is more of an issue of leadership and commitment than it is an issue of knowing what to do. We spend a lot of time looking for the next great program, the next great silver bullet that is going to solve this issue but it has been three decades of watching the number get higher and higher, and yes, if we look back a few years, we can say the number has gotten lower. But that means that several years ago, there were 540,000 kids in care, and today there are 513,000. That’s not a whole lot lower.
The solution is how do we build a community that says “Kasserian Ingera,” how are the children? And that that community uses that as its standard of measuring itself, because the only answer that we can tolerate is one that says “Sapati Ingera,” all the children are well.
I don’t want to bore you this morning, and the red light didn’t go off, but you know if you give a preacher a microphone and a stage and an audience, that we’re going to be passing a hat real soon.
But what I want you to do… I want you to commit to doing something. I want you to commit to living that spirit that Susan talked about. I want you to commit to living that spirit that says not only will I be committed to this change that we’re talking about, this change that we’re seeking, but I will bring at least one more with me. I will bring at least one more into the fold.
And the way that we can begin to build this community that we’re talking about is go into your house of worship, and whether that house of worship is in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or even – what I tell my children they go to “Bedside Baptist” – wherever that house is, commit to going into that house and encouraging that house to look six blocks around itself. Just look six blocks and make a commitment that says I will change the conditions for children in these six blocks if it takes the rest of my life to do it. Because it is that commitment that will give us, give our children, this sense of hope. It will give us this sense of “Sapati Ingera,” all the children are well.
But I ask you, every time ask yourself, what am I seeing when I look at the face of this child? Am I seeing someone who needs to be in foster care or am I seeing someone who simply needs to be encouraged, to be loved, and to be lifted up?
I lift you up because of your commitment as CASAs. I lift you up because of your commitment as people. But until we change the way this country looks at its vulnerable children, and particularly children of color. I’ve talked about African American children, but I was in Hawaii where about 30 percent of the population is Native Hawaiian but more of than 50 percent of the foster care system is Native Hawaiian. I was in Alaska where a very small percent of the children in Alaska are Native Alaskans, but more than 60 percent of the foster care system is Native Alaskan. I was in South Dakota where Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population – I think it may be less than five percent of the population – but they make up more than 60 percent of the kids in foster care.
Something is wrong. Something is wrong. But I simply ask you a question, how are the children?