Two decades ago, 22 black leaders gathered for a retreat on farmland in rural Tennessee once owned by writer Alex Haley. The reason for the gathering, which included historian John Hope Franklin and civil rights matriarch Dorothy Height, was to address growing rates of poverty among black children.
The idea for the Harlem Children's Zone was born there. So was the Freedom School initiative, which has provided summer and after-school enrichment programs for 80,000 children.
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.
"We can't help but be concerned with the state of the economy," Canada said. "It's a real time bomb ticking, especially when you look at the states. What I worry about is, as we're making limited choices: Are we making the kind of decisions that will benefit the group of Americans that has been poor for the last 20 or 30 years?"
Promise Neighborhoods, one of the Obama administration's programs aimed at addressing childhood poverty, has not received full funding from Congress. The program, which is modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone, would replicate the intense geographic services provided in the zone (prenatal care, dental care, all-day kindergarten, quality schools, after-school arts, music and other programs). The cost is about $5,000 per child, and Canada raises much of his $70 million budget from private sources.
Twenty communities, including the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana and neighborhoods in Houston and Los Angeles, are preparing proposals to create their own zones with $10 million in planning money approved last year by Congress. But full implementation will cost the government $200 million and require similar levels of matching money from philanthropy and business. If that money is not appropriated this year, the program could lapse.
"We are in a moment of advocacy because we want to make sure that this program gets funded," said Angela Glover Blackwell, who attended the Haley farm retreat and is president of PolicyLink, a nonprofit organization that has helped communities apply for the Promise Neighborhoods program. "By the end of this year, we expect [some of] these groups to move into implementation. And we want to make sure that the funding is there."
Such funding could be unlikely at a time when Republicans in the House have promised to cut spending. Similarly, bipartisan commissions are working on plans to trim the deficit.
James H. Shelton III, head of the Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement, said that this year the administration probably will have only an additional $10 million for the Promise Neighborhood program and will request more money for the program again in 2012.
"At a minimum, we could have a small-scale implementation, not nearly what we had anticipated," Shelton said. "Communities are moving ahead without benefit of federal resources. They are finding folks who share their vision and getting them to donate."
Edelman said she is similarly undeterred. "We can't let the political weather determine the fate of our children," she said. "Unlike 20 years ago, we know what works. Our task is to scale up."