I Don’t Know What to Say About Flint

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Jake May/AP

 

By Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

Over the last few weeks the water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan, has weighed very heavily on my mind. Needless to say the thought of citizens, and especially children, being exposed to lead and possibly other toxins and diseases would make most people deeply concerned. But the main reason for my huge disappointment is found in my foreign background.

As a South African expatriate residing in the USA, I have endured countless Americans ask me questions about the availability of the most basic amenities and services on the African continent as soon as they hear where I come from. Regardless of the fact that my upbringing differs only very slightly from that of the average middle class citizen here, I do not take offense to the assumption that living in the USA affords me opportunities I would have never had as some believe. For many years the only exposure some citizens of first world countries had to Africa centered on images of famine, drought and civil unrest. All of us have seen the pictures of women and children walking miles to fill a bucket of water in a river or out of a communal well, and over the years many nonprofit organizations and development agencies have invested heavily in creating the infrastructure necessary to ensure safe drinking water for millions of people in developing countries.

I am not discounting the water crises in many other countries, but I do find the crisis in Flint abhorrent, because this could and should have been prevented in one of the most developed countries on earth. It is hard to digest that elected officials created a situation that threatened the livelihood of their constituents, sat by and covered up what can be seen as gross negligence and misconduct. All of this happened in our backyard while large sums of money continue to go into this very cause outside the USA. How does a city in this developed country open their taps to water more toxic and dangerous than the water in those images of Africa?

At what stage does charity begin at home? I am not ungrateful for humanitarian aid, but at the same time it is hard to swallow the lead-filled pill which is Flint while so many Americans still see developing countries as needy and lacking in the most basic of services. Flint is the perfect example of how much need there is and how easily a blind eye is turned to disenfranchised citizens right here on US soil. As an outsider now on the inside, watching this unfold has left me speechless, utterly disappointed and even enraged. I just don’t know what to say about Flint, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how I’m going to respond the next time I get asked about the availability of the most basic necessities in my home country.

cle headshot 2 Cheri-Leigh Erasmus is a nonprofit professional in the leadership development sector. An avid traveler and lifelong learner, she cares deeply about access to education and human rights.

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State of the Union Priorities: A Path Forward

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By Atiba Madyun

This week, I attended a White House briefing on the President’s initiatives addressed in his State of the Union address.  His staff spoke on Cradle to Career education initiatives, My Brother’s Keeper, criminal justice reform, minimum wage and family sick leave.  They emphasized a sense of urgency and that the President has 22 months left to move an agenda focused on strengthening the middle class and investing in America’s future.

On education, the President believes no young person’s zip code should determine his/her future.  While the nation has its highest high school graduation rate ever (80%), it can link its high school dropout rate to 1,300 of the Nation’s schools. Therefore, the President has a new national goal to prepare the next generation(s) for high quality education and a bright future.

To achieve these new goals, it will require greater participation and accountability.  Like the old African proverb, It Takes a Village to raise a child, every child’s grandparents, parents, communities and schools should work collaboratively in this effort.  The President wants to increase America’s rank in providing high quality Pre-K access to high risk children.  Currently, according to Early Education for All, the U.S. ranks 28th out of 38 industrial nations that provide Pre-K and “the achievement gap between low-income children and their affluent peers is growing.[i]

By creating better pathways, students will have a better chance to graduate high school putting them on a pathway to college and enhanced career choices. To close the access gap, we have to address cost and make college more affordable for students that work hard and get good grades.  Opening access and making the first two years of community college free is a way to help students attain a higher education without going deep into debt before starting their career.

Increasing the minimum wage will help many Americans including some college students.  In 2017, 7 million Americans will benefit from minimum wage increases.[ii]  Making family sick leave available so employees working full time get at least seven days of sick leave a year makes sense for the employee and employer.  It can help businesses maintain low turnover while allowing employees to stay home when they are sick so they don’t get coworkers sick.  It also helps employees care for sick loved ones during episodes of illness.

Additionally, protecting and promoting family values also leads to success for America’s youth.  Each day, an average of eight children and teens are killed by guns.  Last year, we heard one too many stories of young men killed by police officers that set off a firestorm of protests.

Recognizing that too many young men are off track, the President one year ago this month, introduced My Brother’s Keeper (MBK).  Later in the year, a month after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the President issued a challenge to cities, towns and tribes to become “MBK Communities” to implement coherent cradle to college and career strategy to improve outcomes for young people.  It addresses serious concerns in the African American, Hispanic and Native American tribal community.

MBK is seeking to find ways to save young people from a pathway that leads to prison. These are tied to his initiatives for education.  As early as pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, some 4 and 5 year olds have been suspended for negative behavior that can be typical of a child who is developing social-emotional skills. This is not how we should be supporting young children in their early years.  Data shows the nation’s greatest challenges dropout rates, crime, health-care costs, competing in the global marketplace – can be met by focusing on the development of all children, beginning at birth.

The President asserts a child’s future should not be predetermined by his/her zip code.  The Ounce of Prevention Fund research shows that at-risk children who don’t receive a high-quality early childhood education are[iii]:

  • 25% more likely to drop out of school
  • 40% more likely to become a teen parent
  • 50% more likely to be placed in special education
  • 60% more likely to never attend college
  • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

Early childhood programs are the most cost-effective way to ensure the healthy development of children in poverty and offer the greatest returns to society.In DC, where Pre-K is offered in every elementary school, Councilmember David Grosso recognized this and introduced legislation to positively address this growing trend to protect our 4 and 5 year olds and find better ways to promote positive social and emotional development.

MBK can be a vital instrument in impacting the lives of young American men.  To sustain and create greater opportunities, it is securing corporate, advocacy and community partners to better engage young men.  It is identifying long term solutions to their growth and prosperity in American society.  And all of the President’s cabinet agencies with focus on domestic policy are engaged in this effort.  More importantly, the President has expressed his and the First Lady’s commitment to work on MBK long after they leave the White House.

Mandatory sentencing laws have hurt families for too long.  The President’s staff and the Justice Department are looking for better ways to address re-entry, so that people can re-enter society better equipped to find employment, stay out of prison and empower them with the right to vote.  His Task Force on 21st Century Policing is looking at how billions of dollars are being spent in the militarization of police departments.  Body cameras and collaborative reform are great.  Here is not only a need, but an excellent opportunity on Capitol Hill for bipartisan support.

What the Administration and Congress might also consider is a national database to track the number of times police officers fire their weapons, injure and kill as well as kill unarmed individuals.  While body cameras are a great first step, it is vital to have policy guidelines defining when an officer turns them on and who views the footage.

As Americans, we can study the President’s proposals and look at like a shareholder of a company would.  Whether it is increasing the minimum wage, creating seamless pathways to attaining higher education, protecting our young men and law enforcement officials, providing greater upward mobility opportunities, they all look to strengthen our nation and our economy.  That’s a win-win as an American shareholder and a great way to invest in America’s future!

Atiba

Atiba Madyun is the President of The Madyun Group, a Public Affairs firm based in Washington, DC.

Learn more about My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) www.whitehouse.gov/MBK or visit www.mbk.org.

[i] Early Education for All –  http://www.strategiesforchildren.org/docs_research/14_International.pdf

 [ii] The White House – www.whitehouse.gov/raise-the-wage

 [iii] Ounce of Prevention Fund – http://www.ounceofprevention.org/about/why-early-childhood-investments-work.php

Swagger!

SOTU

By Atiba Madyun

Did you see the President get “jiggy” with Republicans last night?  If you missed it, you missed a speech blended in off the cuff entertainment, as the President highlighted his Administration’s agenda.

Republicans sat when the President said the “The State of the Union is strong” instead of standing with the Democratic minority as is the customary tradition.  At one point, Republicans sat silent as the President looked in their direction saying with a smile and a wink, “this is good news people.”

When he said “I have no more campaigns to run,” Republicans clapped. He responded on cue and off script, “I know because I won them both.” (Click to view).   Democrats erupted with cheering so loud, it seemed they were in the majority.

Calm and loose as quarterback Russell Wilson leading his team last Sunday to a late game winning touchdown, Obama with swagger and confidence laid out an agenda for “middle class economics.”

He jabbed at Republicans on the minimum wage debate “to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

The President talked about tax relief for the middle class, jobs for veterans, affordable child care for working parents, equal pay for women, paid sick leave and two years of free college tuition to those who work get good grades and work hard.

His swagger gave the impression that he is not a lame duck and will not go silently into the night.  He ended his speech with a unifying message “My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America.”

The President assured us that he is working to turn the page and complete the job he started six years ago.  We can sit on the sideline and wait two years for another President to take office. Or we can come together, regardless of political party and work with the President and pressure Congress on both sides to work together.  Which will you be?

View the President’s #SOTU speech here.

Read the President’s #SOTU speech here.

Atiba Madyun is President of The Madyun Group (TMG) a Public Affairs firm based in Washington, DC.