JPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune speaks out on race and education

Community leaders share their thoughts on racism in a series of columns in the Florida Times-Union. Read all four columns below.

7/12/2020

Another view: Jacksonville educators are first-responders for racial injustice.

This guest column ran in the Reason section of the Florida Times-Union on July 12, 2020.

To make this time of racial reckoning more than a moment, Jacksonville must seek to understand how racism affects every aspect of daily life and is embedded in every system in our society. To that end, community leaders are speaking out on racial disparities across sectors, how they’re working to close them and what it will take to build a more just city. This is one of a series of columns.

If we want to realize the dream of racial equity — this time, finally — we need to do a better job of investing in public schools.

Equitable public schools can help attract businesses to Jacksonville, lift families out of poverty, stop crime before it starts, dismantle racial stereotypes and prepare the next generation of Jacksonville residents for greatness.

We have come a long way since the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.

And our public schools in Duval County are not those of the past. Duval County scored in the top for the achievement of African-American students on the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Education Progress.

We celebrate this progress even as we refuse to accept any disparities by race in our public schools.

At the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, we look to data and best practices to guide the way. A growing body of national research is shedding light on why racial disparities persist in schools and what we can do to address them.

Evidence shows that unintentional discrimination, known as implicit bias, can lead black boys as young as 4 years old to face harsher discipline than white children. In Duval County, 44 percent of students in public schools are black, yet they make up 73 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to 2018-2019 data from the Florida Department of Education.

Research from North Carolina has shown that when black boys have just one teacher who looks like them, their risk of dropping out falls by 40 percent. In Duval County, which mirrors national trends, our teacher workforce is not as diverse as our student body. According to 2018-2019 FLDOE data, 66 percent of our learners are students of color, while only 32 percent of instructors were teachers of color.

In Duval County, our graduation rate has risen for all students, and the gap is closing, but disparities persist, state data show: 85 percent of Black students graduated high school on-time in 2018-2019, compared to 94 percent of white students.

Let me be clear, our public school educators and district leaders know the data better than anyone — and they are working tirelessly to address the disparities. Many of them went into education to make a difference for our disadvantaged students.

We must also be clear that many of the challenges our children face come from outside our classrooms — they result from inequities affecting our city’s neighborhoods, our city’s families and our children’s exposures to poverty, gun violence and racism.

Our children carry all of these burdens to school in their “invisible backpacks.”

That’s why, in our second decade, JPEF has decided to support our teachers and principals to promote best practices to advance educational equity.

Through our Teacher Leadership Initiative and our School Leadership Initiative, we support teachers and principals to adopt trauma-informed practices that make students feel safe and ready to learn, to use restorative justice practices instead of punitive practices that deprive students of learning time, to foster culturally inclusive classrooms and to give all students the rigorous coursework they need to succeed in college and careers.

We are proud to partner with Duval County Public Schools and local charter schools as well as local nonprofits and academic institutions in this work. At the University of North Florida, for example, the Holmes Scholars program is preparing teachers from underrepresented backgrounds to work in Duval County.

There is also a role for our community to play.

For too long, we have piled more and more responsibility on the shoulders of our educators as we have shortchanged them of resources. Right now, we have a stark choice: we can let the problem get worse, or we can stand up for equity.

Every other big urban school district in Florida has asked voters to approve more funding. Now, we desperately need voters to approve a half-penny for public schools at the ballot this fall.

Meanwhile, our state education funding is still down. Year after year, districts around the state have unsuccessfully asked the Legislature not to roll back the required local effort, so that funding for schools could rebound. Now, with tax revenue plummeting from coronavirus, the situation could get much worse.

As our partner in trauma-informed care, Callie Lackey of Hope Street Inc, has said, our public school educators are first responders to our children. They don’t just teach students — they clothe them, feed them and counsel them.

But they cannot do it alone.

Public education is inherently racial justice work. If we’re serious about making this moment a movement, now is the time to better invest in public schools.

Rachael Tutwiler Fortune is president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

 

Kevin Gay: Jacksonville must lead the way against the addiction of racism

This guest column was published in the Florida Times-Union on June 13.

To make this time of racial reckoning more than a moment, Jacksonville must seek to understand how racism affects every aspect of daily life and is embedded in every system in our society. To that end, community leaders are speaking out on racial disparities across sectors, how they’re working to close them and what it will take to build a more just city. This is the first of four or more columns.

In tumultuous times such as these, we cannot ignore injustice or wish away racism and bigotry. Now more than ever, we must confront hatred and uphold one another in times of great division and inequity.

The senseless killings of George Floyd, Steven Taylor, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are our most recent examples, in a far-too-long-list-of-examples, that illustrate the hate, racism, unfair system of interlocking barriers, threats, and mistreatments that exist in our communities.

Brutality after brutality, indignity after indignity, and denial after denial have been perpetrated against people of color for far too long and people are fed up. And they should be. We all should be. But we can’t let our sense of outrage be driven by a sense of hopelessness. We must build a resilience of hope.

Knowing that I will never be able to fully understand the pain of racism, I turned to my team yesterday and asked them to help us start an open dialogue, hoping to peel back the layers of anger, hurt, shame, fear, and mistrust that have been building for far to long in the foul infection of America’s racist wound. Their stories of mistreatment, their words of heartache, and their faces of pain tore at my heart.

My colleagues and friends were brave and vulnerable and shared their lived experiences. One recalled his first memory of racism from when he was just 7, describing how men threw a can of tobacco spit at him from a passing car while yelling the “N” word. Another told us how she sent up a prayer every time her son goes for a run, asking God to bring him home safely. And yet another told us the horrific story of how his grandmother cried after his uncle was bludgeoned to death by Jacksonville police officers when he was younger.

As we pressed deeper into the infected wound that is America’s prevalent racism, more searing pain and hot anger spilled out. But as with any serious infection, this sort of debridement is needed to promote healing.

Our communities will never heal so long as the sickness of racism continues to spread while ineffective bandages are placed on top to hide what is festering beneath. We must continue to press into each other and listen to each other’s experiences, as painful as it may be. The pain is important because no one can sit comfortably with pain. Pain moves us to action. And action is what we need now to stop the sickness of racism.

I am beginning to believe that America is addicted to racism. Like with any powerful addiction, racism has it “fixes.”

America’s racist “fixes” occur with each horrific injustice which feed the dark, insidious habit of hate. We get our “fix” during moments of omission when we ignore our racist past and hide our racist present. Our “fixes” have been our broken criminal justice system that over incarcerates and unfairly targets minorities. And as with all addicts there are enablers. America’s racist enablers are each of us who sit silent and fail to stand up to a system that allows racism to prevail.

Several of my colleagues and friends shared that their hearts have become so hurt by racism and their skin has become so thick to withstand strike after strike, that they didn’t believe that now would be any different. But we can’t let our sense of outrage be driven by a sense of hopelessness. We must build a resilience of hope.

At Operation New Hope, we believe in the power of HOPE above all things. We believe communities are stronger and safer when we choose HOPE. We believe people can transform their lives when given HOPE. We all must stand tall in the face of any injustice we see. We must speak up and be champions of HOPE.

Over the past 20 years, our work in Jacksonville’s urban core has been committed to addressing the systemic changes needed to address systemic racism. First with our efforts to address the disproportionate homeownership issue in our own community, we built high quality affordable housing.

Through this work, we found that many in our community face a multitude of barriers because of a prior criminal record. This realization helped birth our Ready4Work initiative that has now helped over 7,000 men and women touched by our horribly broken criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color.

Our actions speak to the unique role that nonprofits can play in driving social change. While we may not have the resources or the power of government, we can identify and act on solutions when others fail to do so. We can lift up the voices of others to fight injustice. And we can bring together different partners in our community – employers, government and justice officials, religious organizations and service agencies - to help solve some of the biggest challenges we face.

As with all addictions, we must first admit that we have a problem. I call on all of us to press into the pain, root out the infection, and admit the addiction.

We MUST honor the value of every person and stop allowing black and brown lives to matter less!

We MUST lean into pain and invite vulnerable conversations with those with lived experiences.

We MUST talk to our families about what is moral in this moment.

We MUST not sit silent while racism is spewed right in front of us. A simple “not appropriate” is all it takes.

We MUST demand our local leaders speak the truth about why people are protesting and demand they make changes to unfair policies.

This is what building a resilience of hope looks like. Join us!

Kevin Gay is founder and CEO of Operation New Hope.

 

Darnell Smith: Poverty is concentrated in Jacksonville neighborhoods.

This guest column ran in the Florida Times-Union on July 5, 2020.

Out of 20 kindergartners living in a poverty-stricken Jacksonville neighborhood, only one child, statistically, will escape poverty in their lifetime. One child.

What about the other 19 innocent faces in that neighborhood? Wouldn’t it be better for us all if they, too, escaped poverty and had an opportunity to attain a higher education, supply our workforce, own a home and pay taxes? Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

The effects of poverty are traumatic. The ongoing stress induced by unstable homes, crime and food insecurity due to unemployment or low wages seep into a child’s mind every single day they spend in poverty. Mahatma Gandhi said it best: Poverty is the worst form of violence.

Our local business, civic and community leaders have a collective responsibility to address poverty because it holds back our city and its people from reaching their potential and achieving the ideals we all share.

No one person or organization created poverty and no one person or organization will solve it. I call on the concerned citizens of Jacksonville to eliminate the monster of poverty that reflects our lack of commitment to equality for all. We can bring about the change we wish to see in the world by allowing Jacksonville to become a model for the world to see.

We must first accept some harsh truths about our city. Poverty impacts 135,000 residents in Jacksonville, 46,000 of whom are children.

This means 14.5 percent of our neighbors live in poverty, which is higher than both the state of Florida (13.6 percent) and the U.S. (11.8 percent) overall.

But poverty does not inflict its damage equally. Our black residents suffer from poverty at a rate more than double that of our white residents, and these disparities show up in our neighborhoods.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, if you lived in the neighborhood of Ortega – which is 96 percent white – in 2017 your life expectancy was 13 years longer than if you lived in the neighborhood of Durkeeville, which is 99 percent black. Ortega and Durkeeville are approximately 8 miles apart.

Why does an Ortega resident enjoy 13 more years with their grandkids? What happens in those eight miles? Why does a ZIP Code determine life expectancy?

We know from the data that poverty persists through generations. We also know that wealth persists through generations. This presents us with an opportunity – if we can work toward ending poverty, we can work toward building and sharing wealth.

We can help many children escape poverty and watch them flourish as leaders, teachers and doctors who help their own kids flourish, and in turn help Jacksonville flourish.

The diverse voices on the streets of Jacksonville are demanding action, not words. They are demanding more than just fair treatment. Where do we start?

We start by addressing our poverty issue. We are all affected by poverty, from higher crime rates, increased medical costs, persistence of homelessness, to talented and promising young people not having the means to reach their potential.

Addressing poverty leads to a better life for us all, not just those who currently live below the poverty level. The policies we support and vote for have consequences that can either perpetuate or alleviate poverty.We address poverty through a committed, long-term focus on education (Pre-K through careers); housing; community health; and financial opportunity.

We must dedicate intellectual, financial and physical resources (private and public sector) to ensure that neighborhoods like Durkeeville reflect the quality of life similar to that in Ortega and beyond.

Creating economic mobility for all must be a primary focus of our city. A priority that is funded, measured and managed with the fervor of building a great city.

To address poverty is to ignite hope, encourage dreams and facilitate opportunity. Isn’t that what we want for ourselves? Then I hope we want it for our neighbors, as well. That is the model city that Jacksonville can become when our leaders focus on ending poverty.

Darnell Smith is North Florida Market President of Florida Blue.

 

Eric Mann: CEO of the YMCA says we must act to address inequities in health.

This guest column ran in the Florida Times-Union on June 18, 2020.

In less than three months, our nation experienced two critical events that will forever change the trajectory of modern history.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the horrific killing of George Floyd, the most recent in a series of high-profile murders of black men and women in the last 45 days, has underscored the systemic racism and seismic health disparities that persist within our communities.

The pandemic, which according to the CDC, has killed a disproportionate number of black men and women and put many more out of work, highlights the pronounced gaps in access to quality health care, education and economic opportunities.

Since the 1960s, urban planning mechanisms and policies have helped perpetuate a cycle of oppression by ensuring Jacksonville’s poorest communities lacked access to well-paying jobs, affordable housing, quality schools and accessible health and wellness resources. This cycle continues today.

In communities across the United States, including here on the First Coast, it is easy to distinguish between areas that have benefitted from high levels of public and private investment over the years and those that have not.

According to the Florida Department of Health and a from UF Health Jacksonville, residents living in Health Zone 1 (the urban core and surrounding areas) experience high — if not the highest — levels of crime, infant-mortality, chronic disease, obesity and poverty. Over 76 percent of residents in Health Zone 1 are black.

While there are many historical and contextual factors that contribute to systemic oppression, the First Coast YMCA is keenly focused on ensuring health equity across every neighborhood. We want every resident to live their healthiest life regardless of what they look like, where they’re from and how much money they make.

But, the Y cannot do it alone. Community collaboration is critical to bridging the gap in health disparities that exist between ZIP Codes. This is why the First Coast YMCA has partnered with our medical community to integrate medical and community health into a total wellness resource.

For example, the Y has partnered with Baptist Health, Brooks Rehabilitation, Flagler Health+, Florida Blue and UF Health to make a wide spectrum of services accessible to the surrounding community. A YMCA membership is not required and many of the services provided by on-site clinical professionals, including health screenings, are available at no cost.

We have six Healthy Living Centers locations across the First Coast with two more opening before the end of the year. Two of these centers, in partnership with Baptist Health, are located at the James Weldon Johnson Family YMCA and YMCA at Baptist North and reside in ZIP Codes with majority black populations. Both centers work to address obesity, high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes.

Breaking down systemic racism and oppression is no easy feat. Tackling just one social issue won’t break the cycle. It will take all of us — First Coast residents, community leaders, businesses and elected officials — to have real conversations on how to create lasting change and ensure equal opportunities for every community.

We can start by looking beyond our own backyards and investing in the communities that need it most. The First Coast YMCA is ready to continue to be a willing partner in this journey to end health disparities.

For more than 110 years, the Y has been inspiring a brighter and healthier future for all in Northeast Florida. Our cause is strengthening community. No matter the challenges, we believe that together, we can and will create a better tomorrow for everyone who calls the First Coast home.

Eric Mann is CEO of the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast.

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