By Benjamin Carlton – Chief Equity Officer, Friends of the Children
Celebrating Black History Month hits differently for so many this year; that is mainly because many of us found ourselves taking part in monumental social justice experiences, reminiscent of the Black history moments we’ve commemorated since childhood. Last year was a year like no other for the causes of social justice. Billions of people from all over the world took to the streets and proudly proclaimed Black Lives Matter! This was always about the movement for Black lives, not just an organization.
The year 2020 was a great awakening for so many around the world. The culmination of the global pandemic mixed with continual imagery of Black and Brown lives unjustly taken, activated a human emotion that we all share – empathy. More people from all backgrounds were involved in fighting for Black lives than ever before. We spent an entire year protesting police brutality and discriminatory policies. And not to be outdone by 2020, this year we witnessed the storming of the United States Capitol led by extremists and white supremacists.
The fight for social justice doesn’t come without a cost. Last year, I was chased by the police, shot at by the police, and followed by unmarked cars, all for simply standing up for my existence as a human being. A few of my friends weren’t so lucky. The rubber bullets and tear gas sent them to the hospital with major injuries requiring surgery and stitches. We did not break one law yet we were treated like the enemy of the state. And this was a total contrast to how the white insurrectionists, who stormed the US Capitol, were treated. And they actually meant to do our government officials harm.
My grandfather, Benjamin Sr., who was a Korean War Veteran and successful entrepreneur, who turned a warehouse he purchased for $25 into a million-dollar business, always told me tough times don’t last, but tough people do. I take great pride in my fight for justice, but it pains me that I’m still having to fight. While the fight for Black liberation has always been an integral part of U.S. history, every Black History Month we always hear the same stories, watch the same programs, and quote the same “I have a Dream” speech.
This Black History Month there is no need to dig 50 or 60 years into the past to celebrate Blackness. We can literally look at our today and celebrate the resiliency of Blackness. Everyday we are faced with inequities, discrimination, anti-Blackness, and racism, and somehow, some way, we find a way to make a way. We break barriers, tear down walls, and lift up a standard of equity that works for everyone. We celebrate the first serving Black Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. We celebrate Eugene Goodman, the Black Capitol Police Officer who risked his life to save members of the United States Senate. We celebrate the first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who happens to be a young black woman who addressed the world at the inauguration of the first woman, Kamala Harris, to ever hold the Office of Vice President, who happens to be a woman of color too.
While everyone’s attention and intentions are on celebrating Black history, this is the perfect time to fortify the next generation of leaders to take the baton and carry on the fight for freedom.
So how do you strengthen a generation to endure hard times and continue the fight for justice?
1. Tell them the truth. Often, we like to shield our youth from the harsh realities of life. But with today’s technology that gives them fast access to information, it’s impossible to hide what’s happening. Have “the talk” with youth as soon as possible. Our youth know something is wrong. They see the injustice and unfair advantages. By age 4, most youth can recognize unfair treatment based on skin color. Have conversations about race, racism, privilege, bias, and the harsh history of America. If you don’t have the words, the best ways to communicate to children, especially younger children, is through books. Here's a sample list of 31 books created by The Conscious Kid and American Indians in Children’s Literature.
2. Start with the end in mind. What future would you like to see for you and the children in your life? What are the aspirations of your children, nieces, nephews, or mentees? Talk about how you can collectively work on building that future with them, their friends, and community. Be sure to discuss some of the struggles, disappointments, and barriers that may be involved in getting to that expected end and the skills and strategy needed to overcome them.
3. Unlearn to relearn. Most people are recovering from years of mis-education. Black history is not properly taught in schools, some people are taught that their skin color makes them superior or inferior, and the realities of racism are ignored. Sometimes you must take a moment and reset and approach liberation for all mankind with more informed lenses.
4. Celebrate those who endure tough times. There are so many examples of young leaders and freedom fighters who are breaking glass ceilings and charting a path forward for future generations. Celebrate these people today. Young leaders like Mari Copeny, Robbie Novak (a.k.a. Kid President), Jess Guilbeaux, Marley Dias and countless others are creating a brighter, more equitable world now, and will for years to come. Also, here’s a great starter list that highlights a few more leaders.
5. Lead by example. One thing for certain and two things for sure, children watch your every move. If they see you aren’t actively standing up for the causes of justice, then why should they? So many communities have been harmed not only by the actions of the aggressor, but by the inactions of those who could have done something. Challenge yourself to go above and beyond what you normally do during Black History Month. Break away from your normal “go-to’s”. If you are going to reach back, study Malcolm X, listen to Nina Simone, glean from James Baldwin, and take a journey with Fannie Lou Hammer.
The hard truth is, while we take this time to celebrate Black history and culture, we still have a long way to go in the fight for equity and justice. That’s why Friends of the Children is taking action to ensure we are standing up for our staff of color and the children and the families we serve. We are setting up a standard of equity from the inside out. Last year was a rally call for greater depth in the fight for social justice and we answered. We are willing to challenge the status quo and choose the right side of history. We are willing to invest in developing strategy to help eliminate inequities in our own systems and help identify the inequities in the systems we operate in - foster care, child welfare, education, and social services. This is a big challenge and burden that will not be resolved overnight. It will take the commitment of everyone to continue to demand equity, no matter what.
As we honor and celebrate Black History Month this year, keep this in mind — we often hear that children are our future, but they’re also our present. Let’s continue to guide them, protect them, and equip them so that they can march on and build an equitable future for all.
In what ways are you engaging youth in the fight for equity and justice? We’d love to hear from you.