But a larger issue has overshadowed those successes: Rates of black childhood poverty keep growing.
“We have to again come together to stop the backward slide of our children,” said Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and organizer of the 1990 retreat. “We need to revive a policy voice for children. The cradle-to-prison pipeline — breaking it up — is going to be the overall framework from which we move forward.”
According to the 2010 Census, black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children. Forty percent of black children are born to poor families, compared with 8 percent of white children. And a black boy born in the past decade has a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime.
“We’ve got great models, but it’s not helpful to the nation when we’re saving 2,000 kids and we’re losing hundreds of thousands,” said Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a program that has created a web of community services in Harlem to aid impoverished children and their families.
Canada was at Haley’s farm 20 years ago and calls it a “magical” place. The farmland, which is owned by the Children’s Defense Fund and sits on 157 acres about 30 minutes outside Knoxville, houses an interfaith chapel and a library designed by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, among other buildings. Canada returned to the farm last month when Edelman called for a second gathering of black leaders to address childhood poverty and to restart the Black Community Crusade for Children, a network of black leaders focused on addressing the issue.
“It was a clarion call saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to stand up for our children,’ ” Canada said of the recent retreat, which included 140 black advocates, academics, ministers and youth organizers.
Michelle Alexander, a professor at Ohio State University’s college of law and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said that among participants there was a “common commitment to ensuring that the fate of black children today is dramatically improved in coming years.” She gave a presentation about her book, in which she argues that high incarceration rates among African Americans is tantamount to discrimination in the Jim Crow South.
The advocates face a major challenge as the federal government and state officials look to cut costs during the economic recession. Not only do Canada and the others want to protect programs such as Head Start and the Children’s Health Insurance Program from budget cuts, they want to increase spending.