Building, Growing, Supporting and Sustaining Communities of Hope for All of America’s Children

Casey Family Programs President and CEO Dr. William C. Bell recorded a video presentation of an essay he composed titled, “Building, Growing, Supporting and Sustaining Communities of Hope for All of America’s Children” for the Center on Community Philanthropy at the Clinton School of Public Service, University of Arkansas. In this address, recorded in November 2021, he speaks about the profound opportunity we have today to build a world that is closer to the ideals we profess to believe in, the steps we need to take to get there, and how Building Communities of Hope is a solid blueprint that supports the needs and dreams for a better life for families.

Dr. William C. Bell: Building, Growing, Supporting Communities of Hope
RUNTIME: 00:23:07
RUNTIME: 00:23:07

Prepared remarks

Regardless of who you are and where you are today in America, one thing is true: we are living in a moment of profound opportunity.  It is also true that this is not the first time that we have faced a moment like this.  We have been offered throughout our history many profound opportunities to demonstrate and make real the words of humanity and community that exist in our founding documents; but too often we have failed to capitalize on those moments.

These are the moments when the things that are unfolding before our eyes, in our communities, in our nation, in our world seem so egregious and beyond the pale that everything deep inside of us screams for us to do something to re-imagine our world and our communities and to make them what they can be and what they ought to be.

In this moment today, our nation is filled with inequality of income, housing, educational, race and gender.  In this moment today, our nation is filled with a lack of equity in social justice; lack of equity in the way that different communities are impacted by law enforcement and the criminal justice system; and a lack of equity in the access to a globally competitive education made available to all of our children.

But even in the face of these challenges we are standing in a moment of opportunity for us to do great good, a moment of opportunity for us to make change, a moment of opportunity for us to create a better society – better communities and a better nation for ourselves and our children.

The opportunity for change is here and now and it is within our grasp.  We only need to have the courage to seize it and to join together to chart our Nation’s path forward.

As I speak to you today, I want you to understand what is happening to our children in communities and Zip Codes all across the United States of America.  I want you to understand what is happening to our children even though we are still the richest and most prosperous nation in all of history, and – as we like to tell ourselves – America is recognized as one of the most forward thinking and generous Nations to ever exist.

Every morning in the United States of America, more than five million children wake up in homes where their families are living in a condition of extreme income insufficiency.

This means that a family of four is trying to exist on $36 a day.  That’s $9 per day per family member.

Every morning in the United States of America, nearly 424,000 children wake up in a foster care bed as opposed to a bed in their own home.

  • On average, every 24 hours across America, approximately 1,800 children are confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect,
  • And nearly 700 children are removed from their families and placed in foster care.

On average, every 24 hours across America, we lose 39 young people under the age of 25 to violence:

  • Approximately 15 young people under 25 die from homicide.
  • Approximately 5 children die from child abuse or neglect; most of them haven’t yet reached their sixth birthday.
  • Approximately 19 young people under the age of 25 die from suicide, making the statement that death is a better option to them than to live one more day of life as they know it.

Against this backdrop each day, I hear the voices of so many of our children crying out to us saying, no one cares about me.  They are saying, I am out here in these streets, and these streets have taught me to believe that no one really cares about me.  Our children are crying out for a lifeline. They are crying out for a chance to dream. They need a reason to hope.

As our children cry, we must ask ourselves, what are we willing to do in this moment of opportunity for change?

Are we willing to move beyond focusing on symptoms and being satisfied that we tried, but ultimately concluding that it was too hard to save somebody else’s children while we gloat over the success of our own children?

Are we willing to finally address the core issues and begin to ask and answer the tough questions that we have avoided for far too long?  Or are we comfortable just with doing what we have always done, and continue pretending as if we really believe that what we’ve always done just might work this time?

Are we willing to acknowledge that the issues confronting our children, their families, and their communities today did not just arrive with the pandemic; or with our divisive, dysfunctional politics in recent years; or with the opioid crisis; or the crack epidemic before that?

Are we willing to debunk the myth that the issues confronting our children, their families, and their communities exist because parents don’t care enough to pull themselves and their children up by their bootstraps?  Especially when many of them don’t have boots?

Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India, once said, “The power to question is the basis of all human progress.”

The question before us today is, what will happen if nothing changes?  What will happen if we do not act in this moment of opportunity for change?

It is the answer to that question that must continue to remind us of the urgent need for ourselves, and for our nation as a whole, to think differently and to act differently than we have up to this point in time.

Finding, implementing, and sustaining solutions to the issues affecting far too many of our children and their families in communities across this nation will be complicated, resource intensive – in terms of both human and capital resources – and it will be filled with complexities and disagreements about what we should and should not do.

But, that hasn’t deterred us in the past whenever we decided that something was a true priority for America or those with power in America.

America as a whole and every individual state has overcome complicated, complex, and resource-intensive challenges many times in the past.  Every time we, as a nation, have decided that something was important enough to get done, we have put forward the political will and the public will to get it done.

Our children, their families, and their communities should receive no less of a response from us.

We, as a nation, have to marshal the courage and the will to change the human conditions that we have allowed to exist for some children while, at the same time, we have fought relentlessly to ensure that those same human conditions did not become part of the daily reality for other children in the same city, in the same ZIP code, in the same school district, and in some cases, even in the same school building.

There are schools around this country where some children are exposed to life-changing educational opportunities and classes while other children in the same school building are provided classes that will not give them the same opportunity for success and prosperity in their adult life.  What does a nation tell itself to justify the inherent injustice of this practice?

The United States of America has to create the political and public will to take the actions required to ensure that the hope that comes from a globally competitive education, and economic opportunity are equally available and within the reach of every child, on every street, and in every community across this Nation.

We can no longer be content to accept the challenging human conditions that so many children experience as long as our own children are doing better than those other children who live over there, in another neighborhood, another ZIP code, on the other side of town, in another city, in another state, or on Tribal land.

Children deserve better, regardless of where they live.

Inequities in our society are the product of our own creation and decision-making, and likewise, their reversal will have to be the product of our creation and decision-making.

As a nation, we must commit ourselves to bring about sustainable and equitable change for families who, for generations, have felt isolated and trapped living in some of our most challenging communities.

This opportunity to achieve change in our communities – and for thinking and acting differently than before – demands that we begin by having a different conversation.

It must be a conversation that provides the roadmap for the change that our nation’s children, families and communities need;

A conversation that is grounded in the need for transformation in the way that we create possibility for all of our children; and

A conversation that creates real, tangible and visible hope for all of our children in their community.

Given its mission, philanthropy, including community philanthropy, is uniquely positioned to be a leader or catalyst for achieving this change.

Although philanthropy must be a key player, philanthropy cannot be the only player in moving the nation toward achieving change.  Deep, sustainable and meaningful change requires the commitment, the will and the work of all of us, the entire community.  This means all five sectors that make up a community have to be engaged and part of the decision-making and creation of solutions.

The five sectors in the community are:

  1. Government (federal, tribal, state and local) and elected officials
  2. Business and corporate entities
  3. Non-profits – civic, grassroots, faith-based, and other community
  4. organizations
  5. Philanthropy
  6. The general public – community residents, families and children

Creating meaningful and sustainable community-based solutions and support networks – determining what that means, what that looks like, or what it takes to make it a reality – will require the efforts of the entire community.  All five sectors will have to collaborate and work together cooperatively toward that end.

This means working with the children and families whose lives we seek to improve and changing the conversation from talking about what we can accomplish for those we serve to what we can accomplish with them.  Together, we can design community-driven strategies and solutions that support their needs and dreams for a better life.

Intentional efforts must be made to work across the boundaries that define our public, private, philanthropic, charitable, community and civic response and responsibilities.  Stakeholders have to overcome whatever boundaries and walls that insulate them and what is regarded as their exclusive piece of the pie, turf or silo, and work together.

The driving philosophy underlying the five-sector model is one in which all five sectors capitalize on their leadership and make the most of their capacity to influence, invest resources and build the political and public will necessary to improve marginalized communities and the lives of the children and families living in those communities.

The disparities that we see in society are not distributed evenly across the United States, but are found in discrete pockets across the country – concentrated in certain neighborhoods, communities, census tracts and ZIP codes.

Of the roughly 33,000 residential ZIP codes in the United States, approximately 20 percent – about 6,600 ZIP codes – contain 80 percent of the nation’s children who live in income insufficient households.

Additionally, 76 percent of adults 25 and older who do not have a high school diploma or GED live in 20 percent of the nation’s ZIP codes.

There is a strong correlation between the level of educational attainment and income.  Many of these ZIP codes house both children living in income-insufficient households and adults who have dropped out of school.

These communities also are more likely to produce a disproportionate number of children in foster care, a disproportionate number of inmates in prison, and a disproportionate number of violent crimes and homicide victims.

In his speech about the other America, the America of the have-nots and left behind, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at Stanford University in 1967, said:

“…the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children.  Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies.  And as we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”

The 5 sectors working together presents us with an opportunity to restore hope, mend dreams and change the future for all of our children.

Philanthropy, working with the other 4 sectors, presents us with an opportunity to leverage our investments in a way that can provide children, their families, and their communities with an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives for generations to come.

This is not necessarily about how much new money we need to find to make this a reality.  However, this is definitely about how we collectively begin to invest differently and more intentionally to make the outcomes we want for our own children accessible for all children in America.

Many see foundations and philanthropy primarily as a source of funding, but that doesn’t have to be philanthropy’s sole contribution.  Foundations are more than money.  Foundations have a much more expansive and complete role to play.

Foundations are vital members of the community, practice demonstrators, strategic partners, change advocates and influencers for a better America – advocating for laws and policies that align with truly becoming one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

Although funding is necessary, foundations must bring more than money to the table.

Foundations leveraging their dollars with the efforts and dollars from other sectors to implement promising and proven programs and services is vital, but foundation dollars alone are incapable of going the distance required to get the nation where it needs to be.

For example, the annual giving of all foundations cannot compare or compete with the government’s annual spending.  The annual giving from foundations can only complement, leverage and enhance government spending.

Giving USA 2021 reported that total giving from all foundations in the United States in 2020 amounted to a record high of approximately $89 billion.

Comparatively, federal, state and local revenues for public schools alone in 2019 were approximately $752 billion: $58 billion in federal funds; $351 billion in state funds; and $343 billion in local funds.

Relatively speaking, philanthropy’s record amount of $89 billion in charitable giving toward numerous causes and needs in this country doesn’t even come close to government’s capacity to invest in just one area of need, education.

In this moment of opportunity for profound change, philanthropy has to do more. It has to be more than its money.  We must work with all sectors to bring about the change our children need.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in 1967, where do we go from here, chaos or community, he believed that we had the resources and technology to eradicate income insufficiency.  All we needed, he believed, was the will to do it – the will to form a united social movement to fight poverty and create an equality of opportunity.

In a nation of immense resources, building public and political will and human capacity are the central issues.  We have the capacity to change things, but oftentimes organizations and agencies lack the will to re-align their capacity in response to the need.

Organizations across the five sectors have to exercise bold leadership and use their influence to move our collective capacity toward a common goal of stronger families and communities.

If we are to create a better America, we must leverage the opportunity that the concept of community philanthropy and a true five-sector collaboration provides us to engage in a collective community-driven effort that helps communities create a pathway to hope for children and families across this entire nation, from sea to sea and from border to border.  All five sectors in communities must cooperatively engage in an unrelenting pursuit to improve the life outcomes of all children, in all communities, in all ZIP codes.

It is customary for the Maasai of East Africa to greet each other asking, “Kasserian ingera,” or “How are the children?”  The response is “Sapati ingera,” an aspiration and a declaration, meaning “All the children are well.”

How would we answer that question?

If, as Indira Gandhi suggests, the power to question lies at the basis of all human progress, then I am compelled to ask:

How are America’s children?

What will happen if nothing changes?

How will we ever reach that place of Sapati ingera?   How will we ever reach that place in the United States of America when all of our children are well?

Thank you, and God bless.