This year’s Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy “Stand For” virtual speaker series featured Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson, the President and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund. A pastor, an educator, a philanthropist, and an activist, Wilson “sees things at the intersections,” said Duke Divinity School Dean Greg Jones. He continued, “If we want to make progress on race and justice, if we want to make progress on healthcare and economic opportunity and education, we need to see them at the intersections.”
Wilson began considering the deep questions concerning what it means to care for Black and brown children following the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 in response to the death of Michael Brown. It was at that time that his colleagues and mentors encouraged him to look towards the model of the American civil rights movement, and “it was in the library that [he] began to wrestle with the reality of racial uprisings in the context of America over the years.”
Wilson shared the first of several important, perhaps surprising realizations: maybe he shouldn’t look to the civil rights era and movement for his response. Being one or two generations removed from the movement, “maybe there is something about the anti-Black sentiment and racial reckoning that happened in South Africa where there were lessons for me,” he said.
“I came to know that we were headed toward our own kind of apartheid in America.” Wilson then cited the alarming inequities in housing policy; the increasing presence of discrimination, education and public health disparities; and the unequal distribution of resources as evidence that “the language of apartheid was not even new.”
What was new was that, according to census data, the majority of children born since 2011 were children of color; in fact, since 2014, the majority of children in the U.S. under the age of five are children of color. Wilson noted the significance of the 2017 projections that estimated that the year 2020 would be the first year in history where the majority of American children under the age of 18 would be children of color. “There has been a rising of people of color coming into the majority in America,” he stated, “yet there has been a decline in representation.”
Wilson asserted that, “when we have conversations about child well-being in America, and we do not apply a racial equity lens and do not consider racial justice, we’re engaging in work avoidance.” To do racial equity work in America, he explained, the work must center around American children and youth.
“These are America’s children,” he reminded viewers. “They are Black, they are brown, they are Indigenous, but they are also the poorest demographic in American history.”
So, what is the work and how might we engage Americans in the work?
“It must be done at all levels,” Wilson emphasized; we must work to end child poverty in America, we must work to ensure every child has access to a quality education, and we must support children by supporting their families and their communities. While “people did not care about grown adult poor people in America,” he posited that, “they might listen if you focus on children.”
It is for this reason that the Reverend suggested that an effective strategy, employed by the Children’s Defense Fund, is to engage individuals in discussions about racial justice using children’s well-being as an entry point to dialogue. He believes that “powerful movements,” such as Black Lives Matter and so many others, “make progressive policy possible,” and emphasized how the Capitol invasion on January 6th, 2021, illustrated that we are now in a “struggle over power.”
He now calls for those who care about children, those who care about families, and those who care about racial justice in America to “invest deeply in the work of power building in order to advance policy for our good and for our children.”
This work is of utmost importance. Wilson cited the staggering statistics regarding child abuse and neglect, child mortality, suicide and gun violence, involvement with the juvenile justice system, arrest rates, corporal punishment, a lack of access to healthcare, and rates of school suspension and expulsion.
“They are slipping through our hands,” he admits, “and unfortunately, just like the statistics of child poverty, they are disproportionately Black and disproportionately brown.” It is for this reason that “child well-being and racial justice are intimately and forever intertwined.”
Terry Sanford, the late founder of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and 13th President of Duke University, encouraged all of his students and colleagues alike to “think about what they stand for and to stand for something.” It is incumbent on us all to heed Wilson’s call: we must remember that to do racial equity work on behalf of our nation’s Black and brown children and families is to join the fight for equity, justice, and hope for all of our nation’s children and families.
Sophie Hurewitz is a junior at Duke majoring in neuroscience with a minor in global health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She plans to become a pediatrician to combine her interests in health and education policy with clinical medicine, family advocacy, and child and adolescent development.