Many minds move mountains: To not repeat the failings of our past, we must understand where we’ve come from
Recognizing where we have come from and what it takes to continue moving forward was the central theme of President and CEO William C. Bell’s keynote address at the New York City Family Support Network Annual Conference: Many Minds Move Mountains. “You can only give what you have, but know that what you have is mighty, and what you have is powerful, and what you have when blended with what others have, can move mountains,” Bell said.
BERNADINE MEEKS: He walked in. He sat there. He listened to us. He never interrupted us. He let us vent as much as we wanted. He was so warm. He was so, you know, caring. He showed that, you know, I’m here to hear, to listen. I’m here to learn. I don’t know everything. I’m here for you. And when we started nagging, and they tried to set up the times, because we met at a conference a few years ago and he gave me his card and he wrote all of his information not knowing that I was going to keep him to his word. And we went through the calendar for about a year trying to make it work and here we are. I’m telling you, it’s like then he said this. When the word went out, the calls that I received. The people that wanted to talk to him, just wanted to be in his presence, just wanted to hear from him because of who he is – genuine. He was…. Mr. Bell, honest with you, half of these people didn’t come here because they wanted to come to the conference. They came because they respect you and you were there for them on many, many levels. I’ve heard many stories. Many people have spoken to me. So we want to welcome you. Anita, you want to read his bio for me please?
ANITA: Well, I was going to tell William earlier that when Bernadine first started talking about the conference, she knew that this conference was not going to happen unless William Bell was the keynote speaker and it was really organized around William’s availability to come to New York City and so I know of two special people that this made it for a very special event but so we’re really happy for you to be here.
William Bell is the President and CEO of the Casey Family Programs. He’s a respected leader with more than 30 years of experience – he also started when he was three – of experience in the Human Services field. Prior to leaving the foundation, he served as the agency’s Executive Vice President for Child and Family Services. He had previously served as Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children Services and ACS. Dr. Bell will be presenting on the history of the Family Movement and the potential that families have as a powerful force of the Family Movement.
He served as Deputy Commissioner of ACS’s Division of Child Protection, Deputy Commissioner of Field Services and Associate Executive Director of Miracle Makers, the largest minority-owned, not-for-profit Child and Family Service Organization in New York. He is on several boards including the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Marguerite Casey Foundation, and Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families. Dr. Bell is honored by New York City’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates for his contributions and lifelong commitment to improving the lives of children in foster care. Dr. Bell earned his Ph.D. in Social Welfare and his MSW at Hunter College. It’s my pleasure to welcome William.
WILLIAM C. BELL: Thank you. I found myself speechless sitting there listening to that introduction and, for me, who I am and who I have been throughout the years is consistent with what I think I gained from a woman named Alberta Williams, and that woman’s my mom who passed away in 2005. But one of the things this very religious woman taught me was you can only give what you have and you need to be true to what you have and recognize the power in what you have.
Sometimes we are prone to comparing ourselves and our capacities to those of others and we believe that we cannot do as much because someone else seems like they can do more. And I would say to you that if you take nothing with you from this day, take with you the seeds that say you can always give what you have and what you have is powerful and mighty if you believe.
And I come to you today as the CEO of Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation that is focused solely on safely reducing the number of children in foster care and building communities of hope for all children and families in this nation.
Since we were created and established by the late Jim Casey, who is the founder of UPS, United Parcel, who also created Annie E. Casey here on the East coast in Baltimore. Casey Family Programs has been about looking for the answer and influencing the answer to one critical question, and that question has been taken from a greeting of the Maasai people in Africa and that greeting which I became familiar with when I was still here as the Commissioner of ACS.
The greeting asks the question Kasserian Ingera. And Kasserian Ingera translated asks how are the children and we have sought to answer that question. How are the children who are impacted by the foster care system? How are the children who are impacted by the mental health system? How are the children impacted by the juvenile justice system? How are the children who are in our public education system? How are the children? And when will we be able to truthfully and with conviction respond in the language of the Maasai, Sapati Ingera – all the children are well. That is I think the most prevailing question for all of us who seek to uplift the family support movement. You see, Casey believes that in order for children to be well, families have to be well.
And in order for families to be well, the communities in which they live have to be well. And this is a very different vision than one that has historically driven the social response systems in this great nation. The systems of Child Welfare, Mental Health, Juvenile Justice, and others have started to consider clients as people who need to be rescued for change through some external effort. At times, these historical approaches have created conflict; conflict that sometimes had to look at weighing the balance between the rights of children and the rights of parents. At times, these approaches have created situations where parents were viewed more as part of the problem than they were as part of the solution. I think somebody knows that of which I speak.
But thankfully, we have come a long way from that mindset. But not far enough. The fact that we are here today is a testament for how far we have come, but it is also a testament of how far we need to go. And we are here not because the road has been easy. We’re here not because the challenges have been few. But we’re here because people would not stop. People like Bernadine Meeks who would not rest. People like many of you who are sitting in this audience today who said, it is not just for my child and my family, but it is for every other family who will ever go through what I have experienced – I will not rest until my change. You see, some of those people who refuse to quit are no longer with us like the late Bob Myers that Anita spoke about earlier. Bob was insistent, and persistent, because he knew that the way things were were not the way that things had to be and that the ability to change rests within each one of us. And so for me, we must remain vigilant because we cannot go back.
In order for us to ensure that we do not go back, in order for us to ensure that we don’t repeat the failings of our past, we must understand where we’ve come from. We must reflect on what it took to get us here and what it will take to keep us moving forward, because you see, when we understand that here in America, the history of family engagement is rooted in a history of family disengagement and that what we are seeking to overcome is a history that when it sought to address the needs of children who had come to the attention of society, they have come to the attention of society because society wanted to give them the tools and the training so that they could become profitable and productive members of society – so that they could be less like their parents. And in order to provide vulnerable children these tools, they were placed in asylums. They were indentured. They were apprenticed. They were bonded out to wealthy families. They were in essence rescued from their families.
I don’t know about you, but for me, if I didn’t have my family…. You see, we didn’t come from much. I didn’t always wear these. Matter of fact, for many years, I didn’t own one of these; and this was a clip-on. But what we had was a deeply rooted belief in who we were as a people and that is the essence of family engagement.
You see, you cannot create a social response program that seeks to prevent children from developing the bad habits of their parents. I am my father; my father who never lived in the same house with me; my father who never knew whether I liked black better than blue; my father who was able to provide financial assistance to another woman’s children, but who failed to have resources when I showed up. Baby, you know your daddy loves you but he ain’t got no money. But I am my father. I am my mother, who was the first social worker that I knew; who with her fifth grade education believed that education was important for her children; who instilled in her children the sense that you could be more if you choose to be more in spite of the obstacles that may be in front of you, if you just don’t give up.
And so when you take a child and you remove them from the influences of those from which they have come, you change the order of life. And we need to acknowledge that we have created systems that seek to change the order of life, and that in and of itself is unnatural.
But when we begin to look at where we’ve come from…. You know, in the late 1800’s, there was a movement in this country that began to take children – realizing that the institutions in which we placed our children were not doing what we needed them to do – and so we started to place them on trains called orphan trains and we sent them into rural America. Now, when I look at this, you can begin with well, why would you put them on a train to nowhere. But underneath that train to nowhere was a belief that institutions could not do what families could do. The only challenge I have with it is that it didn’t begin with the families of the children. They were sent to other families. But nonetheless, they were then moving toward family-oriented responses.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century in America that we began to move from this system of rescuing to this system of protecting. And, you know, in the White House conference on children in 1909 – Merry Christmas – one of the first recommendations to come out of that conference was a recommendation – I’m sorry – one of the recommendations to come out of that conference was this need to look at family preservation. And that was in the beginning of the 20th Century that we had started to slowly move down this path, and the leadership of the Children’s Bureau was heading the way.
And here we are some 100 years later with that leadership now grown up, so to speak. We’re now in the 21st Century and we’re just slowly moving toward a social response system that understands children need their families, and therefore serving children means serving their families, and serving families means working to improve the conditions in the community where those families live.
Today, we have practices such as Family Support Services and Family Team Meetings that are designed to do just that. And as we have moved over the course of time, not only here in New York City, but across this nation when we started the conversation with the nation that Casey Family Programs in 2005 about the need to change what we were doing without home care by the year 2020.
In 2002, there were 523,000 children in foster care in America today at that time, separated from their families. Today, there are just over 390,000 children in foster care across this country, because people believed that we could do something different. But as we look closely at the system, we still find some of those same connections that families are not yet in the driver’s seat as it comes to decision-making for their children. And as a result, we still see some decisions that are being made for families as opposed to with and by families. And far too often, we see that the families that are most affected by this are families who live in poor communities – families of color – African American families, Latino families, Native American families, and other minority families. And we still sometimes as a system believe that they need to be rescued from those who brought them into this world.
And the disproportionate impact of our policies and decision-making show that for black youth, they are almost five times as likely as white youth to be detained for drug offenses despite similar usage. For Latino youth, they are twice as likely to be detained as their white peers, and similarly, black children still make up – even with that introduction – still make up 34 percent of the children in foster care in this country; although they only make up 14 percent of the number of children.
I believe that some of this has to do with the residue of our past; with the way that we see people who are not like us. And that is true for how black people see people who are not like them. Or Latino people who see people who are not like them. Just as true it is for white people who see people who do not look like them. We have to begin to continue this change. But we still need to embrace the fact that intervention strategies for families will only be successful when they are rooted in a belief that families can raise their children.
When they are rooted in a system where you have to go through one door if you have a mental health situation; you have to go through a different door if you have a juvenile justice situation; you have to go through a different door if you are income deficient. You see, I’d like to change the labels that people throw on us. I don’t call people poor because poor has a connotation of the mind about how you see yourself, and see, as I said, we didn’t have much, but we were not poor. We simply did not have the income necessary to meet our financial obligations.
Imagine what the system would look like if I could get help for my behavior-challenged child before he committed a crime. Imagine what the system would look like if I could come into a room and sit down at a table and say I have five children. One is hanging out with gangs. One is having challenges at school. One, like my great-aunt, seems to have some mental challenges. Can I get some help for all of those issues at this one table? Imagine what our system would look like.
And see, I’m not suggesting that there’s not a need to focus on individual actions or individual needs. Absolutely, we cannot solve mental health challenges with a child welfare package of services. We can’t deal with the educational needs of kids in foster care by putting everything on the back of child welfare. We’ve got to have educational expertise integrated into the conversation. But we’ve got to think differently. And I’m thankful that we are moving in that direction because you see, we will only get there when we see children in the context of families. When we see families in the context of communities, and when we see any external intervention in the context of a family and community support network, that’s the way we move.
And I’m convinced that when we do this, we – there are no changes and challenges that would be too great for us. When we do this, there’s no family that would be seen as being beyond hope. When we do this, it would be truly as your motto says: many minds will move mountains.
You see, I’m reminded of words of Dr. King in his “I Have a Dream” speech when he said this is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discourse of our nation.
And when we think about being able to transform the jangling discourse – the things that separate us in this effort to change people’s lives in America…. I won’t even get into the political landscape that we’re dealing with right now. But when we seek to bring about real change, it is coming together that makes that change possible. And concluding that what Dr. King said, with this faith, we will be able to work together, to struggle together and to stand for freedom together, to stand for justice together. But it will only happen when leadership accepts the responsibility; and I like what Bernadine said, leadership is best exemplified when one decides I can’t do everything myself. I must bring others into the discussion. I must elevate the voices of parents into the discussion.
Leadership says – and this is not as complicated as it looks – it simply says that we start with the child, the family and that we then decide how do we integrate each of our social response systems in the same conversation. That mental health is no longer having a separate conversation. Child welfare is no longer having a separate conversation.
Education is no longer having a separate conversation. Juvenile justice is no longer having a separate conversation. Because what this acknowledges is that while we may have a variety of different issues, when my child goes into a juvenile justice facility, he does not leave my family. He does not somehow get magically removed from my reality. He does not somehow get disconnected from his grandmother’s needs. And somehow we have to move to a place where we have a collective unsiloed conversation with families who are in need. Not just here in New York City but across this country. Somehow we need to move to a place where we are no longer blaming people for their social condition. But we’re engaging them in creating solutions and not having them to be dependent on government or not-for-profit organizations.
This requires change at two levels: the practitioner level as well as the system level. And at the practitioner level, there are three underlying principles that we need to make sure we’re in agreement in everything we do. If there are any practitioners in the audience, I suggest to you that service and support relationships must be based on equality and mutual respect. When I walk into a room with a family…. and I’ve moved away from using the term, client. When I walk into the room with a family or a family member who’s representing their family, I must see an equal.
Principle No. 2: external efforts must be directed toward answering a family’s capacity to support the growth and development of all family members. And then thirdly, families must be viewed as a resource to themselves, to other family members, to program developers as well as to their own communities – together.
The other area where we have to see the differences and move toward these changes is at a systems level and at the systems level, programs for families must affirm and strengthen families with cultural, racial and linguistic identities.
At the Casey Family Programs, we do work in Indian country and so we work with tribes, which I think in this country are still struggling with the definition of sovereign nation. But there are over 500 sovereign nations that reside on the soil of the United States of America. And the other day, something occurred with a tribe in North Dakota, and Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs decided that it had to go into that sovereign nation and take over its child welfare services.
Now I asked myself when would we presume, that because some child welfare atrocities occurred in Russia, that we would go into Russia and take over their child welfare services. There’s something about what we see when we approach challenges that draws a distinction between family support and government takeover. We need government support, but government needs to support the maturation of parents’ capacities to take care of their kids and to make decisions for their families, and to support that decision-making capacity.
Programs must be available and accessible in the communities where the families live. There are two overarching pieces. The first one is the primary responsibility of decision-making regarding successful family lies with the family and not government or a not-for-profit agency. And the second is the ultimate measure for any society is how well it succeeds at ensuring the well-being and success of all of its families, especially its most vulnerable.
And as I close again…. We’re moving in the right direction and I would say to Bernadine and others in this room, your work has not been in vain. You have achieved more than you know, but as we move forward, it is also time for us to start building the bench strength for those who will come after us; who will keep this conversation going. The investments that Bob made were not just so that they could end when he left.
The investments that my family’s made in me…. I’m here today because I have older brothers and sisters in the state of Mississippi in the 40s and 50s who were committed to working in the fields of Mississippi; not going to school, but working the fields of Mississippi so that their younger five sisters and brothers would be able to have an educational opportunity that they didn’t have. I’m here today because a group of my brothers and sisters who had to split their time between working in the fields and going to school – who didn’t get the same educational opportunity as I did – did so because they were committed to ensure that their younger five brothers and sisters had educational opportunities that they didn’t have.
And of that younger five brothers and sisters, because of those sacrifices, we had four college graduates. (Applause) We have two PhDs. My sister who passed away last year was working on her PhD. She had a full scholarship to Meharry Medical School because of the investment that people made in our lives and not just our families but people in our communities.
People…. And that’s what this represents – every vulnerable family in any community sits in that green box with all of this potential support sitting around here. The question is how do we use that support. How do we integrate those responses in a way that most effectively enhances the capacity of those in that green box to lead their own charge. That’s where we move many mountains. That’s where we build the structure that will carry us forward. That’s where we can focus on building communities of hope.
You see, Communities of Hope represents an opportunity where every child can achieve, not just some. Communities of Hope represents an opportunity where every family can look forward to getting a job, and not just some. Communities of Hope represents a situation where before a child gets abused and has to be removed, somebody steps in. Communities of Hope represents a willingness to say to someone who may even be embarrassed – because there’s a mental health need in their family – to say it’s OK, baby. Communities of Hope is a place where every child can feel safe. Communities of Hope is a place that recognizes that I’m not separate from you.
And it recognizes the words that Dr. King penned in his letter from a Birmingham jail when he said, moreover, I am caught on the interrelatedness of all communities and states. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. For what affects one directly affects us all indirectly.
You can only give what you have, but know that what you have is mighty, and what you have is powerful, and what you have when blended with what others have, can move mountains.