Last week, I wrote of the fact that nearly 60 percent of all black children today are born out of wedlock, mostly to teen-age mothers, and discussed the poverty and disintegrating black family structure that has resulted. Readers' response to these deep and tragic problems was heartening.
But in the wake of new sensitivity generated by dramatic media attention to the plight of the black underclass, which threatens the future of rich and poor blacks and the fabric of the broader society as well, people are craving solutions, not just anecdotes and analysis. "What," they ask, "is being done?" And they wonder: "What can I do to make a difference?"
I decided to contact several major organizations to find out what they are doing to deal with the problem.
Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, said her organization considers the issue a "priority project" and supports projects that range from training community women to support pregnant teen-agers to holding prevention-oriented rap sessions with high school students. "But if all of us worked 24 hours a day," she said, "we'd all be playing catch-up."
National Urban League president John E. Jacob addressed another aspect of the problem. He said the preventive and service programs run by 60 of his organization's 113 affiliates include a national male responsibility project and a program in the District to train single female heads of households to use computers.
"Our programs pale in terms of the enormity of the problem, but they demonstrate that there are strategies to address it," he said. "We hope they will encourage other social, government, private and voluntary organizations to understand there is a role they can play, and if they employ similar kinds of strategies this problem can be solved."
Delta Sigma Theta sorority, an organization of college women and alumnae, wanted to go on record as establishing programs in 150 cities to provide support services to black female heads of households in general as well as education and training for teen-age mothers.
The Deltas' chapter in Potomac has "adopted" the nearby community of Tobytown. Taking a sister-to-sister approach, chapter members work with parents and children in that impoverished black community.
The special ingredient in the program run by the Children Defense Fund, a leading child advocacy organization, is comprehensiveness. Last year it launched a nationwide, broad-based adolescent pregnancy prevention project in collaboration with several other groups. Beginning on Feb. 26, the organization will sponsor a three-day national teen pregnancy prevention conference at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
"We hope to pick up on the momentum that is building nationwide to come to grips with this complex phenomenon, which affects the futures of hundreds of thousands of young women, men and children each year," said president Marian Wright Edelman.
But the problem's complexity makes it too big for these organizations alone. Individuals must become more involved in how children learn about sex, and must insist that schools, churches and social agencies address the issue in a nonjudgmental way. Like the Deltas, caring individuals can create support systems, providing exposure and opportunities so young girls don't feel so unloved that they think only having a baby will fill the void.
Moreover, middle-class blacks can ask such organizations as the Urban League to organize ways for them to interact on a one-on-one basis with isolated young people in areas such as Congress Heights, using the facilities of schools and churches.
"We have not yet tapped the magnitude of the black community's capacity to help these young men and women," said Jacob.
In Thursday's column, I also quoted George Washington University's Sol Levitan, who suggested possible incarceration for those young black men who father children and fail to provide support. Levitan objected, saying the statement was made in the context of his acknowledgement of the need for jobs, training and welfare reform. I agree with him on the urgency of young black men taking personal responsibility, but not with his solution.
The point is this: While we in the black community lack the capacity to solve this problem alone (jobs, training, education and opportunity will require participation from government, other sectors and people of good will), we must take the lead, for it is our priority problem. We need to talk about it in kaffeeklatsches, block meetings, community forums and church socials.
Ironically, February is Black History Month. But unless blacks address this problem, the strengths of the past will be eclipsed by the weaknesses of the future.