As a nod to both the last day of Black History Month and impending federal budget cuts (two areas with more in common, apparently, than one might think), on Monday the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) hosted a forum dedicated to investing in communities of color.
Dr. Elsie Scott, president of the CBCF, a nonprofit policy institute, explained the connection.
"We've spent much of the month of February looking back on our past and how far we've come. Now we're talking about where we're going in the future," she said at the top of the meeting, which mostly explored possible solutions to combat unemployment.
"Communities of color are faced with a lot of hardships. We've got a budget crisis, and we're being cut out. But we can't sit back and say, ‘Woe is us.' Let's talk about how we can invest the resources that we have — which are so much greater than our ancestors had — and how we are going to move forward."
When the premise is, "At least it's not as bad as slavery and Reconstruction," you know it's going to be a questionable sell. But under that principle, a roster of Obama-administration officials and other policy experts took an optimistic stance, presenting some of their plans for making the best use of what they've got.
On the employment front, Gerri Fiala, the Department of Labor's deputy assistant secretary for employment and training, acknowledged the difficulty ahead.
"When you're talking about big budget cuts, increased demand for training, and high numbers of unemployed and underemployed people who want the skills they need to advance, it's a tremendous challenge," she said, adding that she is hopeful about what's possible.
Fiala touted several existing Labor Department programs connecting African-American adults to employment opportunities, such as the Wagner-Peyser program, which offers job-placement services. Between October 2009 and September 2010, more than 4.3 million people went through the program, and 19 percent were black.
As of September 2010, nearly 28,000 African Americans have received training through the department's community-based job-training grants, and under the Workforce Investment Act, about 140,000 African Americans found jobs between October 2008 and September 2009.
Furthermore, on Monday Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced $17 million in new grant money under the Reintegration of Ex-Offender Operation Plan for young ex-offenders, ages 16 through 24. This program awards grants to intermediary organizations and community-based partners to launch academic and career training at juvenile-justice agencies.
Piggybacking on the subject of re-entry from the criminal justice system, Amy Solomon, senior adviser for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, detailed the agency's current initiatives. The Second Chance program, for example, started under President Bush in 2008, provides grants to government and nonprofit agencies to support adults leaving prison.
"Over the past two years, we've put out $125 million in grants that are supporting more than 250 active grantees in the field," said Solomon. "We want more money and want to be doing more. But the good news is that a few years ago, there were just programs here and there, and now we have them sprouting up all over every corner of the country."
Solomon also plugged the department's new interagency Reentry Council, which held its inaugural meeting in January, headed by Attorney General Eric Holder. The council is working across agencies to find new ways to garner attention and make progress on the issue.
"We're putting as much emphasis as we can on what we can do now, without new money or new laws, to make a difference," said Solomon, citing local solutions such as the "ban the box" movement to eliminate questions about past convictions on initial public-employment applications.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan explored the education landscape by playing up the administration's reform agenda, starting with requests put forth in Obama's 2012 budget.
He opened with the importance of early-childhood education, arguing that in order to close the achievement gap, we have to make sure our 3- and 4-year-olds enter kindergarten ready to learn. "In the budget, we're asking for the chance to invest $350 million into disadvantaged communities to increase access to early-childhood programs and to make sure they're high quality," Duncan said.
Lauding the success of the Harlem Children's Zone program — which involves the entire community in the education of its children, through parenting workshops, GED classes and community centers — Duncan said that the administration wants to invest $150 million toward replicating the program nationwide in the country's poorest neighborhoods.
As for investments that are already in place, Duncan highlighted the Education Department's $4 billion in "school turnaround" grants for states and districts with the lowest-performing schools. Different turnaround models include longer school days and years, removing ineffective teachers and implementing stronger professional development for staff.
"We have one goal in mind for all of this, and that is to dramatically increase the percentage of college graduates," Duncan said. "There are no good jobs for a high school dropout in the legal economy, and basically no good jobs if you just have a high school diploma. Some form of higher education has to be the goal for every single student."
That said, Duncan emphasized the $2 billion that the administration put toward community colleges for increasing capacity and access, and its boosting of Pell Grants for low-income college students by $40 billion over the next decade.
With its focus on making the most of an about-to-be-even-worse situation, the forum was a refreshing break from lingering on the negative. Unfortunately, the administration will require cooperation from Congress in order for many of these programs to continue.
Meanwhile, the current debate on Capitol Hill is largely defined by opposition, resistance and threats of a government shutdown instead of a vision that recognizes the harsh realities of poverty that millions of Americans face. In this environment, more than just financial investments, we also need new investments in political civility, cooperation and sensibility.
Tying in the forum's acknowledgment of Black History Month, Edward Harris, assistant urban-planning professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, closed his remarks with a fitting quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"America owes a debt of justice, which it has only begun to repay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes, and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensible element of greatness — justice."