NCCD keynote: If we want bold change, we must set bold goals
Dr. William C. Bell delivered the keynote address at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Conference on Children, Youth, and Families on Oct. 5, 2016.
In his talk, Dr. Bell said that it’s not the actions of bad people that are destroying us, but rather the lack of action from good people that leave us hopeless. He challenged the audience to ask whether we are serious enough to address the root causes, rather than the symptoms, of violence and other issues, and to acknowledge that it’s not possible for one single program, agency or organization to create change alone.
Dr. Bell noted that we have made considerable progress over time in areas such as reducing the number of children in foster care and better understanding brain science and the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
He encouraged listeners to go back to their daily work with a renewed commitment to change: “If we want bold change, then we must be willing to set bold goals, make bold proclamations and take bold actions.”
You sound tired.
All right. That’s a lot better.
You know, so many of you here I’ve had the pleasure of meeting before, and some of you, I have not, but to each of you, I say good morning. But I also want to encourage you to never stop wrestling with yourself.
Never stop wrestling with the question of, “Am I where I need to be, and am I who I need to be in order to benefit others?”
It is easy, as so many times happens in this world, we get caught up in, “Am I where I need to be to benefit myself?” I always thought that I would be at this point by this time in my life and I’m not there, and so therefore, sometimes we feel that we are a failure.
But I would suggest to you that the greatest success in life is not what we are able to achieve for ourselves. The greatest success in life is what we’re able to do for others. If I could help somebody as I travel along, then my living is not in vain.
I am thrilled to be here with you this morning as you focus on creating solutions. But I am pained to be here with you this morning because our solutions will come too late for too many of our children.
I don’t know if you were listening to the music that was playing around you. Some of you, I could see you moving so I know you were listening. But the last song I think was Living in America. What’s that like from where you sit and what’s that like from where the kids and families that you work with sit?
The song before that I think was I Love You, This Old Heart of Mine Has Been Broke a Thousand Times. Anybody in this room hasn’t heard somebody say in the last three days to you, I love you? Imagine some of the children and the parents that we serve who haven’t heard that in three years. This Old Heart of Mine Been Broke a Thousand Times.
Over the past few years, no matter how I’ve tried, I’ve found it very hard to stop the voices that I hear crying out in my head. They’re like voices crying out in the wilderness — the wilderness of the isolation that far too many of our young people are growing up with; that far too many of the families that we deal with and the communities that we deal with are facing. The isolation of ZIP codes where nobody wants to go. The isolation of neighborhoods where not even a for-profit supermarket is willing to take a million-dollar city contribution in order to start a supermarket in that neighborhood. And I’ve visited many such neighborhoods where the city government was saying, “Here is a million dollars if you will put a supermarket in this neighborhood,” and they’ve said no.
But yet, we are here in the land of the free, the home of the brave; this place where we are told that this nation is the keeper of that dream; that we all allegedly have an opportunity to achieve.
In 1903, a plaque was placed inside the lower pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — the statue of freedom and hope. I don’t think anybody in this room was around in 1903, but I’m sure you’ve read some things about how the citizens of this United States of America were being treated in 1903. Or you’ve read something about how the native people of this land were being treated in 1903. But yet in 1903 — Kathy, when you talk about contradictions — in 1903, a plaque was placed inside one of our most recognizable monuments, and that plaque reads in part: “give me….” I have to take my glasses off because I’m at that age; I’m a man of a certain age now. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuge of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Think about that. Give me your homeless. I got a golden door and a lamp. I’m welcoming all of them to come and take refuge within me.
Anybody here from Seattle? What do you see when you’re coming off of I-90 coming out to Fourth, just to your left as you’re coming around the curve before you get to the stadiums? Tents. Tents. I knew they were here because they’re from Casey.
But yet, even with all of this invitation, we still — I keep hearing the voices of the children of this nation crying out and they’re saying, I’m here. I’m out here in these streets and these streets done raised me — the streets of Chicago, the streets of the Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, the streets of L.A., the streets of Compton, the streets of Anaheim.
When we think Anaheim, we think Disney, but there is a part of Anaheim that is not an amusement park, where children are crying out. And just think about the city, and the streets that I’m talking about are there as well. It is a cry that is asking us to consider the possibility that the programs that we’ve created, no matter how well intended they may have been, they just may not be enough to dismantle this historical institution that has been stealing our children’s minds and their futures and their hope for generations.
It is a cry that is calling out to each one of us in this room today.
It is a cry that is calling out to all of the good people of this great nation because, you see, I’ve heard that it’s not the actions of the bad people that are destroying us, it is the lack of action from the good people that leaves us hopeless.
Let me say that again because we’ve gotten to a place where we like to point out bad people. It is not the actions of the bad people that is destroying us. It is the lack of action of the good people that leave us hopeless.
When we talk about police shootings, it is not the action of the bad people that is destroying us. It is the lack of action of the good people that leave us hopeless. When we talk about black boys shooting other black boys, when we talk about Latino boys shooting other Latino boys, when we talk about Asian boys shooting other Asian boys, when we talk about Japanese boys shooting other Japanese boys, when we talk about Native American boys shooting other Native American boys. It is not the action of the bad people that is destroying us. It is the lack of action from the good people that leave us hopeless.
Our children are crying out. Our children in juvenile justice. Our children in foster care. Our children in the 2,000 schools in this nation that we know them so well, we have called them the dropout factories. And when we can name what something is, we have an obligation to do something about it.
The children who are in the hospitals right now because they were victims of the drive-by shootings in their neighborhoods last night, they are crying out to us.
Our children who are sitting in their rooms right now all across this country in these same neighborhoods, these same communities — our children who are sitting there contemplating whether this day is the day that they end it all.
You see, on average every 24 hours in this great nation, this wonderful place that we call home, 12 young people under the age of 25 take their own life through suicide. Twelve every 24 hours on average, making a statement that one more day in this place is just not an option for me. Not yet 25. Many of them teenagers. I can’t do this anymore. Somebody see me.
And the challenge is that there’s so many other children who are waiting in the pipeline to walk that same pathway unless we are willing to answer their question. And the question that they are asking us is, Are we serious this time?
Are we serious enough to move beyond focusing on the symptoms of what’s happening in their lives, and move to the place of beginning to call out and address the root causes of those symptoms that are staring us in the face? Because I don’t think that we are ignorant to the root causes. Now, some people see ignorant as a bad word. I just see it as a lack of knowledge, lack of awareness. I don’t think that we are unaware of the challenges that are causing these symptoms. Are we serious enough to begin to change the streets that are raising our children?
Are we serious enough to even acknowledge that these issues didn’t begin with Sanford, Florida?
These issues didn’t begin with Ferguson, Missouri.
These issues didn’t begin with Baltimore, Maryland.
These issues didn’t begin with Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
These issues didn’t begin when the police officers were shot in Dallas, Texas.
These issues didn’t begin …. We’ve been here before.
How many of you lived in this great nation in the 1950s? I know some of you don’t want to raise your hand, but I can look at you and tell you were there.
How many of you were here in the 1960s? How many of you were here in the 1970s? How many of you were here in the 1980s? And I know you were here in the ’90s. We’ve been here before and our children’s voices are crying out, and some can only cry from that place of eternal pain that is the life that they’ve only known.
Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred. I ask, what happens to the dreamer who is so caught up with existing and surviving that they don’t have the opportunity to dream?
Those great poets, Ja Rule and Mary J. Blige, wrote a song about this, and it’s called These Streets Done Raised Me. These Streets Done Raised Me. I have to take my glasses off again.
These Streets Done Raised Me.
Don’t turn me off because I’m still your child.
This world done changed me.
I’m out here 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 on these streets.
These streets done raised me.
This world done changed me.
This world made me what I am, a 26-year-old kid with two kids.
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 this time?
Are we serious enough to change the streets that are stealing our children’s future and their minds?
And are we serious enough to at least begin to acknowledge that it is not possible for one single government program alone to change this? It is not possible for one single program of any sort to change this, and it is not possible for one single foundation, a nonprofit, alone to change this.
We can’t change the streets by ourselves. I know that the funding streams have challenged us to tell everybody, “I can do it. Give me your money and I will prove to you that I can do it.”
I will never be able to do it, and until I become we and we stop fighting for the crumbs that this country spends on social programming …. And I mean that: crumbs. When you look at our GDP, when you look at what we spend when we want to spend, when you look at how in a drop of a dime, we have spent billions of dollars in wars that will not end, the crumbs that we spend on social program — and we make people jump through hoops to try and get them …. As long as we continue to act as though we can save vulnerable children from their broken parents and undeserving communities …. When we can save those children without engaging the families and the communities …. As long as we keep pretending that that is true, our kids will keep crying.
We must change our mindset, first pathway to creating solutions. We must begin to engage in solving the challenges and addressing the issues and challenges that are affecting our kids in the context of the issues and challenges that are affecting their families. And we must engage and address in solving the issues that are affecting their families in the context of the issues that are affecting their communities. There are communities in this nation where you cannot buy a piece of fresh fruit, but you can get a bottle of liquor with food stamps. You cannot buy a piece of fresh broccoli, but you can get a 20-piece, I’m sorry McDonald’s, you can get a 20-piece for $4.99.
When we decide that you can’t get a bank loan — hear me somebody — but you can get a pay day loan at 300 percent interest …. There was a time when they called that loan sharking.
I’m about to get upset, so bear with me.
But I’m convinced that the greatest challenge that’s facing America today is not the challenge of who’s going to win the election on Nov. 8, or even the challenge of who won the debate last night. That’s not the greatest challenge facing us. The greatest challenge facing America today is the growing sense of hopelessness that we see in just about 7,000 ZIP codes across this nation.
You see, there are approximately 33,000 residential ZIP codes in the United States of America, and just 20 percent, or about 6,600 of those residential ZIP codes, contain 80 percent of the 16 million children who are living in poverty in this country. Twenty percent. Sixty-six-hundred ZIP codes. And because they are ZIP codes, we know where they are. We can find them. We know most of these children by name. They’re in schools. They’re in jails. They’re in hospitals. They’re in the public assistance register. We know them. They’re on the child abuse register. We know them. They’re in juvenile justice. We know them.
These 6,600 ZIP codes also contain 76 percent of the 28½ million adults who are 25 years or older whose highest level of education is less than a GED. Help me. Twenty-eight and one-half million adults, 25 years or older, whose highest level of education attainment is less than a GED in this great nation of ours.
And it would stand to reason that you have seen many of these children and these families in your work, and we all know these ZIP codes.
The question is, are we serious this time?
I’d ask you to close your eyes for a moment and think about your city, and tell me if you can’t see the streets in your city where these kids are. Some of them may be streets that you don’t really want to walk down, but if you’re a CPS worker, if you are in juvenile justice, you don’t have any choice. These streets exist in our cities, and we know them.
You know, I kind of feel like I should pause for a minute right here because I just want you to know that while I know those things that I just talked about, I also know that we’ve made considerable progress over the course of time.
I know that at one point, there were over 100,000 children in juvenile justice facilities and that number has been reduced dramatically.
I know that at one point there were over 550,000 children in foster care in this country, and right before this opioid crisis came about, that number had dropped below 400,000. I know that.
I know about the great work that Kathy and her team at NCCD are doing. And I know the great work that you guys are doing. I know what we’ve gained from our ACEs research and the programs that we’re developing. I know this.
I know that what we’ve gained from a study of brain science, and what we’ve gained from the trauma-informed practices that we’re putting in place. And so I know that we are changing things. And I even know that some of you and many of our partners around this country are on a crusade to end juvenile incarceration, and I applaud you from the depths of my heart for trying to end that atrocity.
But, I don’t want anyone to leave here depressed because you thought that I was painting a gloom-and-doom future for our world. And the way you clap when I was introduced, you might think a little bit about the words that I say, and so I just want to make sure that you hear me say that I hope that what you leave here with when you go back to your daily work is a renewed commitment to change.
I hope that you don’t go back thinking, oh, Dr. Bell said it’s just going to hell in a hand basket and I better change my career before it gets here. No, that’s not what I want you to take with you.
I hope that you take back with you a renewed perspective and a renewed vision that you can. That we can. And that this country can, and it must find a way to create better pathways to hope for all of our children so that they can see that lamp that is lit and lifted by the golden door.
I hope that you go back with a renewed sense of the sacrifices that will be required if we are ever going to make it possible for families and their children to realize the citizenship rights — indeed the birth rights — that we all should have as citizens of this nation; that our Constitution says are endowed to us. They’re ours in theory: equal justice and equal protection under the law.
Throughout his life and during the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King constantly reminded us that we cannot stop what we are trying to do. We are on a movement to change the way this nation treats its people. We’re engaged in a movement to say we can’t keep doing this this way, and we cannot stop what we are doing until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
And let me take a moment to talk to you a bit about justice and righteousness in the context of where we are and who we are today. You see, justice is conditioned on the laws that exist and the way in which those laws are practiced and applied and enforced for each individual, each group of individuals, and each community. And sometimes that’s unequal.
Righteousness is conditioned on what each of us as people believe about other people. Righteousness is conditioned on the content and the capacity for equality in the human heart, our ability as an individual to possess a heart governed by righteousness will overwhelmingly be determined by our willingness to grant others equal justice, the equal protection, the equal opportunity, and the equal access that the law says is already theirs. Our capacity to behave righteously and justly towards others is governed by what we see when we look at somebody.
Justice defines and prescribes in law the way that I should be treated, the way that the opportunities should be presented to me, and the access that I should have to opportunity in this country, and how I should be treated if I violate the law. Equal justice speaks to the need and the expectation that those things would be applied to me regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of the fact that I may be a member of the LGBT community, regardless of the fact that I may have been previously incarcerated, regardless of the fact that I may have a disability, and regardless of the fact that I may have a mental illness. Justice and equal protection of the law has been said it belongs to me. I’m entitled to it.
But I want you to wrestle with something. What you see when you look at me has more to do with how you perceive me, how you respond to my needs, and how you treat me than anything I could ever do or say. What you see when you look at me.
Anybody in this room, you ever encountered somebody for the first time? You’ve never seen that person before. You walk in. No words are spoken. You don’t speak to them. They haven’t spoken to you. And before the encounter begins, you can recognize a distinct change in their facial expressions and their body language. Anybody other than me? I know some of you all don’t want to tell the truth. I know it. But it’s real.
You ever have this thing where you don’t know that person but you look at them and you say they don’t like me? You don’t have any words or history but there’s something that rises up in your gut that says, they don’t like me, and they don’t know me.
What you see when you look at me has more to do with how you perceive me and how you treat me than anything I could ever do or say, because what you see when you look at me will cause you to take me to a Burger King meal even though you just arrested me for killing nine people in a church and fleeing the scene.
What you see when you look at me will cause you to shoot me within seconds of showing up on the scene where I am even though I’m a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun.
What you see when you look at me will cause you to shoot and wound me so that I can be arrested even though you know I just shot at you, and even though you know that I just planted bombs in New York and New Jersey. But I get to go to jail while others who have no evidence whatsoever that they’ve committed a crime, others who have no evidence that they have done anything to threaten you, get shot down on the spot. What you see when you look at me.
What do you see when you look at the faces of the vulnerable children in America?
What do you see when you look at yourself? And I tell you that you’re the last best chance that many of those children would ever have of getting equal protection under the law. What do you see when you look at yourself as the one who could be the catalyst for changing some of these contradictions that currently exist in our policy statements and our policy practice? We don’t always do what we say.
What do you see and what you see about yourself may be the key to the answer to the question of what is America going to do for the more than 700 children who 24 hours from now will be placed in foster care.
What you see when you look at yourself may be key to the answer of the question, what is America going to do with the more than 2,000 children who by 24 hours from now will have been confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect in this country?
What you see when you look at yourself may hold the answer to the question of what is America going to say and do about the more than seven million children who woke up this morning in this great nation living in a household where their family was trying to survive off of less than $8 a day per family member.
I’m looking at these Starbucks cups on these tables. $8 a day per family member. If you drink two venti Americanos a day, as I have been known to do at times, depending on whether you’re in an airport, because they get jacked up there, or in the counter in Seattle, you may spend more than $8 just on your coffee.
What you see when you look at yourself may help hold the key to what is America going to do for the more than 50,000 juveniles who woke up this morning in a juvenile corrections facility.
I’m sure that most of you have heard this story about the question of what would you do if you were driving alongside a stream and you looked at the stream and you saw babies floating down the stream, and the question is would you go and pull the babies out of the stream and would you go further upstream to try to find out what or who was causing these babies to be placed in the stream in the first place. And we know obviously both of these things need to happen. We need to pull the babies out of the water as many of us we can because if it’s just you, you can’t get every baby, and if it’s two of you, you can get more babies, but maybe not twice as many because the both of you won’t necessarily be working at the same pace. And so we got to get the babies out of the water, but we also need to go upstream to try and eliminate the source.
The question is when you look at yourself, do you see somebody who is better suited for pulling the babies out of the water, or do you see somebody who is ready to go upstream? And that’s a question that you can answer and only you can answer for yourself. Are you better suited to spend the rest of your career pulling babies out of the water, or is it time to go upstream and eliminate the source? Because when you go upstream to eliminate the source, you are going to challenge the status quo. When you go upstream and eliminate the source, you are no longer going to be able to say it’s just in the job description, because this is not in the job description. This is in your heart.
In 1901, Illinois created the first juvenile court, and Judge Julian Mack, who was the founder of that court, said these words: “The child who must be brought into court should, of course, be made to know that he is face to face with the power of the state, but he should at the same time, and more emphatically, be made to feel that he is the object of its care and its solicitude. The ordinary trappings of the courtroom are out of place in such settings, in such hearings.”
The Judge went on to say, and he described how the judge should not sit on the bench looking down at the child, but rather the judge should be sitting next to the child in the event that the child, at some point, would need an embrace.
When was the last time you were in a juvenile court proceeding? What happened to that vision when you are willing to go upstream? You are fighting to change the streets and to change the way we conceptualize what’s going on in the streets?
And I want to leave with you a couple of things that I would suggest we need to do, because you’ve got to be ready to take action if you’re going to eliminate the threat. That’s a different mindset of my brain. I’m going to take that one out. If you’re going to eliminate the source. And I won’t go into that because my time is growing short, and I know you have much to do over the remainder of this conference.
But we need political will and public will to sustain anything that we’re going to do. I’m from New York City Child Welfare Agency, and that agency has changed many times over, and at one point, there were 50,000 children in foster care in New York City. Today, there’s under 10,000. At one point, we were placing 13,000 new children a year in New York City, and today, that number is less than 3,000 new kids a year. But now they’re dealing with another child fatality, and the old conversation has come out again. This system is beleaguered. This system is broken. How could the commissioner be asleep at the watch when this child dies? But I’m yet to hear how could the police commissioner be asleep at the watch when that child was killed. We’ve got to sustain political and public will.
We’ve got to create integrated government response systems. I long for the day when families don’t have to go through this door for this need and this door for that need and this door for that need and this door for that need, and then when they get through this door, they get referred back to the first door for follow up services. I long for the day when we can integrate our conversation as though we are actually dealing with families.
One that I am focused on is how do we get to a place where we can integrate the funding streams for how we pay for things and with the investments that philanthropy makes, and stop having people jump through hoops to get that money; and investments that businesses make, and stop having people jump through hoops to get that money. When will we get to the place where we can integrate those things so that we can buy the outcomes that we’re looking for?
As long as the majority of our spending in juvenile justice goes to pay for incarceration, as long as the majority of our spending in child welfare goes to pay for keeping kids in foster care, we’re going to keep getting the same results. You do the same thing, you get the same result. You do the same thing again, you get the same result. If we want change, then we must buy change.
Another thing, we must end this practice of zero tolerance in schools and in public programs in our communities. Zero tolerance and equal justice under the law cannot coexist. It cannot, and as long as we think that we can, we will continue to deceive ourselves. We must move toward greater utilization of restorative justice and transformative justice strategies in our work, and we must restore true rehabilitation to our criminal justice system. It’s gone. Rehabilitation and education have been effectively removed and replaced by gang violence, sexual assault, guards colluding with people who are incarcerated. In many instances, it looks just like the streets that we’re talking about.
And finally, if we want bold change, then we must be willing to set bold goals, make bold proclamations, and take bold actions. And to do that, we must make a bold change in our belief system; in our ability to believe what is possible.
I’m going to ask you a few questions.
Do you believe that it is possible to end sexual assault in juvenile corrections? Do you believe that it is possible to have a child welfare system where no other child will become an adult while living in a temporary foster care placement?
Do you believe that we can abolish the use of for-profit facilities in juvenile justice and criminal justice?
Do you believe that it is possible to change our intervention strategies from a child-centered, individual-centered intervention strategy to a family- and community-centered intervention strategy where we focus on addressing family readiness, family education, family economic needs, family housing stability, family-centered justice, family mental health needs, and other family- and community-centered approaches?
If we want bold change, we must be willing to take bold actions.
Do you believe that we can end all juvenile incarceration in these United States of America?
When I was a child growing up in Mississippi in the — I almost said the 1950s, and you were going to laugh at me — but I was born in the 1950s. In the 1960s, we had to supplement our food supply through a government program called commodities. Some of you may know about that good cheese.
But when I became an adult, I realized that commodities was also an asset category, an asset class that is traded on the stock market. And so now I have to ask myself, what does it say about a nation when it reduces its children, vulnerable children, and some of their parents to a commodity that gets traded on the stock market?
Right now, 19 of our states — and this is based on 2013 ODJJP data — 19 of our states house more than 40 percent of their juvenile offenders in for-profit facilities. Ten states house 50 percent or more of their juvenile offenders in for-profit facilities. Florida: 74 percent. Iowa: 65 percent. Pennsylvania: 73 percent. Commodities.
The United States of America has become the beacon of hope for so many around this world. We have people going through all kinds of things to get here because they look at us and they see opportunities. They look at us and they see hope.
When will we become that hope for our own children?
When will we become the place where every child – every child – born here will know that dream? When? I urge you to decide. Do you pull babies out of the water for the rest of your life or do you go upstream and eliminate the source? And those of us who believe cannot rest until justice flows like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Thank you for sharing this morning with me, and God bless you all.