Saving Kids’ Lives

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Saving Kids’ Lives

December 30, 2015

Thank you so much. It’s good to be home. I will say a couple of things before I start. First off, Christina (Waters). I met her, I recall meeting her when she was in the hospital fighting for her life. She had gone through elementary school to Ariel Community Academy. Great student. Fantastic basketball player. (Inaudible). Was going in a couple of days to college to compete. Was at a church social and was shot there in the head. Don’t know why. Don’t know by whom. Somehow through that tragedy, she has gone on to do amazing things. I met with a group of young people like Christina unfortunately just a couple of weeks ago in my office from across the nation who had experienced gun violence. Her leadership, her passion, her ability to inspire them was remarkable. Whatever we can do to see her become the young leader that she is going to be, we ought to be behind her. Please give her another round of applause.

Father Pfleger. I have said this before. He and I have laughed together. We have marched together. We have cried together. I hope to do more marching, hope to see a lot more laughing and a lot less crying. His heart, his commitment has inspired me and so many of us for so long. We are lucky to have a leader like him in Chicago’s Southside. Please give him a round of applause.

Why here? Why a church basement? It wasn’t an accident. My life’s work started in a church basement. Movements have come out of church basements. We could have been in a fancy hotel downtown. We could have done something else. But that didn’t feel right. This feels like home. If we can use church basements here in the Southside, the Westside, not just in Chicago, but across the nation, to move our country where we need to go, hopefully some of that can start here.

This is speech 257 for me. That’s more than enough. Probably 255 too many. So happy to be with you. (I will) say some things. Happy to take your questions afterwards, but thrilled to be here in a church basement.

This is supposed to be a time of reflection. I would love to spend the next half hour or so talking about all the great things we’ve accomplished and there’s a lot that I am amazingly proud of. Thrilled that we were able to put more than $1 billion behind early childhood, an unprecedented investment. But I’ll come back to that later. Thrilled that graduation rates are at an all-time high—82 percent. Thrilled that there were significant reductions in dropout rates. African-Americans dropout rates cut by 45 percent. Latino dropout rates cut in half, from 28 to 14 percent. We used to have 2,000 high school that were quote unquote dropout factories. Today, that’s down to 1,000. With high school graduation rates up, and dropout rates down, we have more than 1.1 million additional students of color, not just graduating from high school, but going on to college. The progress is real. (I) would love to spend lots of time talking about those things and the stories behind them.

But that’s really not what moves me today. What moves me today is not the past, but the present and the future and how far we still have to go. Spending time thinking about what was done in the past but what lies ahead. I think like you, I feel this huge sense of urgency. That we have to do better, we have to more for our young people. This is not some “mission accomplished” moment - not by any stretch.

If I could leave you with one number—16,000. In my first six years as Secretary of Education, that’s the number of young people who were killed across our country. 16,000. That’s an average of 7 a day. That’s a devastating rate of loss. White, black, Latino, urban, rural, suburban. This is a Chicago issue. This is a national issue, it’s a national issue . It’s a crisis that we have to come together to work on. That’s in the first six years. If you take 2015’s numbers, it’s probably north of 18,000.

Too many family members here… Christina is lucky to be here, lucky to survive. Too many families here who weren’t so lucky. Their children didn’t survive. It’s a tragedy that no family should have to go through. Father Mike (Pfleger) has had to bury too many young people who, through no fault of their own, their lives were taken from them. There is a group Purpose Over Pain. Can we ask those parents to please stand?

My wife and I have two children. I can’t imagine what you’ve had to go through. Whatever we can do to support you going forward, just know that we are going to be in it for the long haul and how much we appreciate you. Thank you.

Let me give you one more number—5 million. That’s the number of young people who dropped out of high school over the past 6-7 years. 5 milllion across the country. That’s even with high school graduation rates at all-time highs and dropout rates at all-time lows. 5 million young people, ages 15-25, today, who are out there who walked away from our schools, on the streets, very little hope. To me, these two populations—those we have lost and those we are losing—they’re so similar. They are losing hope and facing similar challenges. These issues are absolutely interrelated, they’re absolutely connected. Too many of these kids, we have lost them almost from the very start. They are behind at birth. You never catch them up. They got passed along too easily through schools, through grades, through communities, through foster care systems. But their needs for love, support, opportunity, physical and psychological safety—their needs were rarely met.

What does this collective failure as adults to nurture and protect our children mean? What impact does it have on them, both psychologically and on the decisions that they make.

Let me give you a couple of quick examples. When I ran Chicago Public Schools here, I kept a picture above my desk that a young man gave me when I visited his school. It was a picture of a fire fighter climbing a ladder.  The caption he wrote on it was “If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.” If I grow up, not when. That’s what he was thinking. That was his reality.

When I visited Ferguson (Missouri) after the unrest there, talked to an amazing young girl who said she considered it a blessing if I can live to be 16.

Was in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago, been there a couple of time, talked to an amazing junior in high school, a young woman there who talked about the challenges her young male friends were having. She said so many of her young friends don’t think they will live past 23. I asked her what percent of your friends don’t think they’re going to live past 23? She thought for a moment and said 60 percent. I don’t know if she is right. I don’t know if she is wrong. But just half of that number, half that number. Think what it means for our young people. We are talking about going to college, planning for the future, deferring gratification. Think if 60 percent of young people that she knows in Baltimore honestly don’t believe in their hearts that they are going to live past 23, what does that do to their decision-making process? What does that make them think about every single day? And that is their reality.

I think we as adults, we have not come to grips with the reality what our kids are feeling, saying, articulating to us. I almost think it’s too hard, too painful for us to fully come to grips with that of young people, “if” I grow up, not “when.” The majority of young men of color don’t think they will live past 23. What does that compel us to do? It’s not business as usual. It’s something radically, radically different.

Like the President, I feel there has been no greater frustration, no greater disappointment than Congress’ unwillingness to move the most simple, most basic laws to better protect our children. There’s not a greater disconnect in public policy between what the American public wants in terms of preventing gun violence, increasing safety, and what Congress has actually done.
It doesn’t mean that we should quit, doesn’t mean we should give up. I guarantee you that I am in this for the long haul. I guarantee that the President will do everything he can in his power over the course of the next year. The fact that we as a nation have allowed so many of our young people to die, somehow it has become an acceptable way of life. There aren’t too many other places.

My wife grew up in Australia. Grew up in the state of Tasmania. In 1996, they had an awful shooting, a massacre. A couple 35 people killed and dozens injured. And a couple of weeks after that, Australia radically changed their gun laws. Over the past 18-19 years, there has not been one, not a single mass shooting in the country of Australia. They have mental illness, they have challenges, they have angry young men. Not one.

We as a nation, this is almost a weekly occurrence now that this is happening. Same issues, same challenges, different response, radically different results. An entire generation of young people don’t know what a mass shooting is in Australia. That’s history. Look at the gift that country has given to their children, versus what we have done here in the United States.

We can’t let up. We have to break through. We have to get guns out of the wrong people’s hands. We have to make our babies safe. We have to make sure that these things don’t just continue. So the fact that we haven’t broken through is by far our greatest frustration, but it’s not a reason to ever stop, and we have to continue to work to do more there.

And today, I don’t want to just talk about the physical and psychological safety related to guns. It’s just the reality we have to talk about - we have to address the issue of police training and conduct, as well.

Whether it’s right here in Chicago; whether it’s Ferguson, or it’s Baltimore, or it’s Cleveland, or countless other communities, these issues are real. And to turn a blind eye, to not address them, I think would be much less than honest.

Today, we have good cops who feel they do not have a chance. When cops unnecessarily use deadly force and aren’t held accountable, and when other cops witness that behavior and lie about it and they aren’t held accountable, then the system loses its most precious resource—and that’s the public’s trust. I talked to a policeman who is a friend the other day. Policemen have the hardest job. It’s unimaginable how hard their jobs are. And, most police do more good in a week than many of us do in a year. We have to support the ones who are doing the right thing. I talked to a cop I have tremendous respect for on Monday. He said the change he feels they need in the culture isn’t incremental. The word he used was seismic, they need seismic change. I think he’s right. I think gaining the public’s trust is never easy, but it can be done. In situations like this, actions always speak much louder than words. It’s not just training that they need. There has to be a commitment to truth and transparency, and not protecting the bad apples. So, there’s an urgent need there.

I want to add something that’s a hard thing to say today, but again it’s the truth and I want to be as truthful as I can. That both we as a nation and as a city – I want to be very, very clear – if we were to fix every police department today in need of help, in need of change – if we were able to do that – that would be great. But if we don’t fix the communities where so many of our children are dying, if we don’t address the underlying causes why so many children are dying and so many are dropping out, then we cannot begin to declare victory.

This is where I think Father Pfleger’s passion and vision is so important. We must ask so much more of ourselves at a time of real crisis. We have to honestly address everything – address the big picture. This is a time – if ever there was one – where we have to challenge everything – to think big and to think long term. The truth is that in virtually every community plagued by devastating levels of violence, you will also find a perfect storm of high unemployment, under-resourced schools, little economic development, high percentage of people returning from prison, and few – if any - positive options for the children we care so much about. What’s harming our children is not just gun violence. It’s the hopelessness. It’s the lack of hope and the disconnectedness that leads children to pick up those guns when they have challenges.

And simply put, if we want to change kids’ lives and not just keep them alive, we must put in place what I’m going to call a “new deal.” A new deal for children and a new vision for the communities in which they live. Our children need hope and hope not in the unseen or the distance, but in what they can see every day on their block and in their schools and in their communities.

And let me close with four ideas that I’m convinced would both transform our children’s opportunity structure and, just as importantly, help them believe that they have a future – that there is a reason to work hard and do the right thing, to think long term and not just try and survive.

First, and this is not a new issue, I’ve talked about this all over the country. I’m huge believe in the power of early childhood education. And in those communities that have—in those communities plagued by devastating levels of violence, we have to make sure that every baby has a chance to get off to school and be prepared to enter kindergarten and be successful. And the fact is that today, the average child coming from a poor community starts kindergarten at five-years-old 14 to 16 months behind. And the honest truth is that we as adults rarely do a good job of catching them back up. Those students that start behind, you can draw direct line from starting behind to future dropping out to future incarceration. If we were to address it at the front end, we could do so much to give children a chance.

Recently I had a friend who actually grew up here in Chicago, lives in DC now. His family moved to Minneapolis, and tragically his brother was killed just a couple of weeks ago. And I called the two people that I’m closest to in Minneapolis to try and help figure out the situation there. One is a woman named Laysha Ward, who runs Target’s foundation there, and the other woman is Brenda Cassellius, who’s the chief state school officer for the state of Minnesota. Both those women happen to be African American. Both of them happen to be products of the Head Start systems themselves, when they were kids.  These are powerful women who had a chance, they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but because they had Head Start and because they had other things, they are now powerful community leaders.

We have some many other babies out there who could do so much if we just gave them a chance. We have to commit, not to every child but for those children in the communities. Take in Chicago, in DC, in Baltimore, those five communities, those 10 communities with the highest levels of violence.  Let’s figure out in a laser-like, intensive way how we put these things in place for the communities that are hurting the most and need the most help.

Secondly, we have to realize that teaching in Englewood and teaching in North Lawndale and being a counselor and social worker is a very different job than being a teacher, counselor or social worker on the Gold Coast, or at Northside College Prep. 

We as a nation have failed to recognize and reward the degree of difficulty that goes into this work. And, I presented an idea a couple of months ago at the National Press Club, let me just sort of walk it through very quickly for you.  Talked about the school-to-prison pipeline and how when you have zero tolerance policies and when you start to suspend and expel – 4 and 5-year-olds, 3-year olds, in pre-K, we have to look in the mirror and say we are perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline.  We are part of the problem as educators and we have to face that.

As we address that, that leaves the mass incarceration, which has been a disaster for the nation, for our communities and for our families. If we simply stop locking up 50 percent of our nonviolent offenders, that would free $15 billion each year, $15 billion dollars could give a 50 percent bonus to every teacher, principal, social worker and counselor who work in our highest poverty schools.

And I promise you if we invested, if we brought the hardest working and most committed educators into the communities who need the most help, the difference for our children would be extraordinary.

Third, not every child, but so many of our kids need a mentor. They need a role model, and I can’t overstate the power of relationships. Every single one of us is in this room because we had someone, a teacher, a counselor, a coach, a parent or grandparent, someone who saw something in us that we didn’t see in ourselves and helped to move us forward. Not every child needs that, some child is lucky enough to have a strong mom or a strong dad or both or a grandmom.  We have too many kids that don’t have any of those and those are the kids that fall through the cracks.  And if we committed not at 13, 14 or 15 or 16 in high school but in kindergarten or first grade to those children and gave them the long-term support they needed—that is a life-transforming, life-altering process.  

How do we find out? Talk to those pre-K teachers, talk to those kindergarten teachers.  They know.  When I was in Baltimore recently, I talked to a first-grade teacher.  She has about 28 kids in her class.  I said how many more need more than what they are getting every single day.She thought for a minute and went through her head.  Nine, she’s got nine. 

And where are we as a nation, not as a school system, as churches, as non-profits, as social service agencies—are we asking those teachers in pre-K, in K, in first-grade, in our most devastated communities—which kids need more help? And are we willing to stay with them for the long-haul? And if we did that, if we did that, we could counter some of the destructive behavior happening sometimes at homes and in the community. The difference it would make for our young people is unbelievable.

There is a young woman—is LaWanda here? LaWanda Crayton?  I don’t know if she came. LaWanda, stand up. LaWanda and I have talked about this publicly.  I recently interviewed her for a StoryCorps interview. So you can read her story, she has been very, very open and honest about this. But LaWanda is a part of the “I have A Dream Program” that my sister and I started back in ’91, ’92. I’m not going to say anything LaWanda hasn’t said herself. You don’t have to keep standing. I’m sorry.

Lawanda came from a situation, living with her mom and her stepfather that was not dysfunctional – it was violent. And there was a level of violence that was staggering. And the number of times the police were coming to her home was unbelievable.

There was a time when Lawanda didn’t want to live anymore. There was a time when her sister tried to commit suicide. There was a time when LaWanda got tied to the gangs a little bit in the neighborhood. But LaWanda had an amazing mentor named Carlene Theodore. She had my sister and me, and Chris and Kendall Mallette and Bill Jordan in her life. And for all of those negative and destructive forces, she was this amazing leader and bright young woman. And we were able to counteract some of that stuff.

And today she’s doing an amazing job working with the city as a leader here. She’s an amazing mother, and her two girls are having a radically different life than what she and her sister had growing up. What gives me the greatest joy is that she is now mentoring other young people and helping them. So in one generation, you went from absolute violence, absolute chaos, absolute self-destruction, to a city leader and a role model and an amazing mom and a mentor. That’s the power of relationships.

In a time when technology is very important  - I understand that. But I’ve never seen a phone change a person’s life. It’s relationships. It’s people who care about you. It’s people who are going to be with you through good times and bad. There are other LaWandas out there, Southside, Westside, all across the nation, who have this amazing potential. But if we don’t intervene, and intervene early, they are going to go the wrong way because there is no other choice. There is no other option. And so we have to break through there.

And then finally, we have to talk about the economic situation – the economic injustice, and jobs, and job creation, and support of ownership, and support of minority businesses. And if we don’t have real jobs and real opportunities for young people, then far too many have no choice but to go to the streets.

I’ve yet to hear of a gang that says that they’re not hiring. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, they’re out there. And when we’re going about our business and we’re home comfortably in our homes at night, those children who are desperate – those children who are falling through the cracks – they have one choice. They have one choice, and we have to provide other options.

We have so many kids who are defying the odds every single day: Honor roll students; 98, 99, 100 percent attendance. What do we do as a city– not just as a city, but as a nation – what do we do to guarantee them a job and a chance to build upon their skills and to have a future? We don’t. We don’t provide those rewards. We don’t provide those incentives. And if they get desperate for money, there’s one place to look.

Father Pfleger and I went a couple months ago to meet with a bunch of young men who are locked up here in town. And it was stunning to me, out of a room of 10 or 12 young men, two or three of them basically said, “We just got tired of seeing our mothers cry at night. We got tired of their pain. And we had to go do what we needed to do.”

And I sort of asked the question, “Did you have a mentor? Did you have a role model? Did you have a chance to earn money in the legal economy?”

And they almost couldn’t comprehend the question. It was so far – so distant from their reality. No one was close. So it wasn’t that they were bad kids – wasn’t that they were evil. They did not see an option. They were hungry. Their mothers were struggling. They had one option – one availability – in their neighborhood. And we as a community of adults haven’t come together to counteract that.

I want to talk about not just jobs and job creation, but the importance of minority entrepreneurs and ownership, and what that can mean in our communities. Minority entrepreneurs are from the community. They’re committed to the community. They don’t just create jobs, they also give philanthropically. They’re generous. And they support other minority businesses. So you have these ripple effects – deepening effects – that help more businesses grow.

And it kills me that in a place like Chicago, we don’t know our history. We don’t remember our history. It’s not even that ancient. People like Ed Gardner, an amazing business leader, but he funded Black on Black Love. He helped fund the new Regal Theater. He helped to elect our city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. He employed hundreds and hundreds of folks.

George Johnson. He chaired the Independence Bank – largest black-owned bank. He was the biggest customer – advertised on Soul Train. He was one of the biggest customers of Essence and Ebony and kept those businesses going. He was the biggest customer of Burrell Advertising, which is the largest black advertising company in the nation. And when Dr. King couldn’t make payroll for the SCLC, who did he go to? He went to George Johnson.

We can’t have social movements, if we don’t have commerce, if we don’t have business.  If you go today in a city like Chicago, that is majority-minority—Crain’s just came out with this 2016 book of lists. You can go check it out.  I may be wrong but I don’t think I am, you can look at it. A city that is majority-minority like Chicago, if you look at the 150 largest businesses in our city—how many are black-owned?  None.  None.  Not one.  And again, you have to draw a direct line for children’s hopelessness and picking up guns to the lack of positive economic opportunities. And if we don’t support our business community and the minority community; if we don’t create jobs and sustainability—we cannot solve these social problems in isolation. 

These challenges are all real and they’re urgent in many places, including Chicago. Chicago is not unique but including Chicago. I think we’re at a crisis point, a crisis level.

But for all of that, I want to say how hopeful I am and how optimistic I am. We can turn the pain and the fear and the anger and the heartbreak into unprecedented action.  Not talk, not soundbytes, but action.  Here in Chicago and across the nation, amazing things can happen. 

And let me just close quickly with why I am hopeful with these examples locally and nationally and internationally where these things are absolutely happening.  Everywhere I am talking about, this is not about hoping for the unseen. We see it in cities like New York and San Antonio have committed to things like early childhood education at scale. 

I was in the Netherlands for a couple of days this summer.  In the Netherlands, every four-year-old, every four-year-old has access to pre-K. They are now moving to every three-year-old.  And the question they ask me is why in America, don’t you guys care about your children more? 

This can happen. In terms of great teachers, and trying to move great teachers and principals and support them in under-served communities.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg is systemically in North Carolina, identifying their best talent and putting that in communities that have been hardest hit.  I visited there and I spoke with the principal.  He had been there for 25-30 years and thinking of retiring.  Had been at a more affluent school, was asked by the district to move to one of the poorer areas and work there.  He thought about retiring.  He decided to do the work. He said, “Arne this is the most moral and ethical work that I have done in my life and I am so thankful for the privilege of having this opportunity.”

South Korea, which beats us on every metric in terms of educational opportunity—they pay teachers more and support them to work in underserved communities.  These things can be done.

Mentoring, in places like St. Sabina, they are doing an amazing job of helping young men who are struggling with their past, come back to the community, turn their lives around and help others do it. 

I’ve visited the Match Tutoring program in Bogan High School doing a fantastic job not just in academic support but at helping kids be successful, putting adults in their lives who matter.  Jobs. After School Matters hires 10,000 young people here across Chicago. The University of Chicago does an amazing job as an anchor institution of supporting minority entrepreneurs and bringing businesses to the community.

I visited Carrollton, Georgia, on one of my back-to-school bus tours—rural, poor and largely white. Met with a group of young people who are going to be first from their families to graduate from high school.  Not from college, but high school. One young girl had a baby at 15. And another, both of her parents had been in to school for drug addiction. And another young boy, his mother was on her third husband—that husband had kicked him out. And what they have done there with a private company, a company called Southwire, is the kids go to school half the day in the mornings and they work in the Southwire plant in the afternoons.  And they don’t work in the plant, they run the plant.  They are the tech support, they literally run the plant. They are the CEO. They set the hours. And I met with the folks from Southwire, I had never seen anything like this before. This was not a charity.  He said, the guy was very clear, this was not philanthropy.  This was a business. We’re making a profit here. 

And young people who are at the bottom of the barrel, who had every risk factor imaginable were the leaders in this community—helping to create jobs, helping to make money to support themselves and go on to college.  So all these things are possible. 

What we need in Chicago and in Baltimore and in Cleveland and in so many urban centers. Yes, we need some ideas, but honestly this is not rocket science. This is not looking for the next cure for cancer. A simple question, I will close here. Do we have the will, do we have the courage, do we have the ability to think at scale? Not in terms of pilot programs but do we have the ability to think comprehensively, not one piece but to take the whole thing together? And are we willing to think long-term?

We’re going into a new year, 2016. What if we had a 10-year plan to do something radically different at 79th and Ashland and in Englewood and in North Lawndale? What if a handful of communities here in urban Chicago and other cities, we said, at scale, every child would have access to early childhood and to great teachers and to principals and to after-school programs and to mentors and to jobs?

If we did that, I promise you we would have a lot more LaWanda Craytons, a lot more Christina Waters, a lot more young people who have this amazing talent. In our nation, talent is much more evenly distributed than opportunity. And if we adults commit to delivering opportunity fairly and openly, our kids will do very well.

Thank you so much, happy to take your questions.