Injustice and Hope 51 Years Later


“How does it feel reading ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’ as a Birmingham native?”

Sitting at a dinner table in Aspen, Colorado this question seemed absurd. Even though I grew up near Birmingham, hearing stories of Birmingham, I never knew that Birmingham. I felt just as removed from the history of that letter as the Alaskan man who asked the question.

Of course that’s not true. I will never be removed from that history. Nor will the Alaskan Native. The history of The Civil Rights Movement—the history of Birmingham—profoundly shaped the national and world conversation. We are forever touched and molded by that conversation.

This was why at a gathering of national leaders dedicated to addressing the cycle of generational poverty, we were all required to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Once acknowledging the extreme disconnect of discussing poverty surrounded by multimillion dollar vacation homes, we began to see the power of this transcendent document in all of our work and lives. From the Brooklyn mother waiting on the call to say her son was finally released from an 11-year prison sentence to the national foundation president, each leader used the language of Dr. King throughout the conference to describe the vast opportunity gaps in our communities that stem from race, gender, and wealth inequality and how we are to close them.

The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham was honored to be among the leaders invited to the 2014 Aspen ThinkXChange: National Forum on Two-Generation Solutions hosted by Ascend at The Aspen Institute. Our work in Birmingham that empowers women and their children in the move beyond poverty was met with praise and challenge.

The gathering gave The Women’s Fund the opportunity to share our work that creates an intergenerational cycle of opportunity for low-income American families, especially those headed by single women. We shared how The Women’s Fund is growing the two-generation approach, which provides opportunities for both a mother and her children at the same time. We shared how The Women’s Fund  is moving beyond the traditional grantmaking system by bringing together post-secondary education/job training, affordable quality child care, transportation, and social support systems. Through our unique Collaboration Institute initiative, we have provided the time, space, and resources for Birmingham organizations to combine programming to more deeply impact women and children’s educational and economic success. Intergenerational poverty is a complicated issue. It requires compounded solutions.

Our ideas and initiatives had the chance to interact with how other agencies across the country are addressing our nation’s widening opportunity gaps. Our work will grow as we incorporate lessons learned by our colleagues in the field. Our work will become more meaningful as we again turn inward to better listen to the needs of our own community.

Most importantly, we were reminded that we are not alone in these struggles or potential solutions. Just as each person does not live in isolation, nor each organization work in isolation, solutions will not succeed in isolation. We were challenged to make this happen.

On the final day of the conference Ascend released the report, Top 10 for 2-Gen, which outlines six principles and ten specific policies to guide two-generation approaches. The recommendations span early education, post-secondary education, economic assets and health and well-being. These policies are strongly supported by the American public according to a 2014 national poll by Lake Research Partners. According to the poll, 89 percent of Americans favor two-generation programs to raise families out of poverty, and 70 percent would strongly favor the approach even if their own taxes were increased. Moreover, support for the ten policies cuts across party lines, gender, race and geography.

It was evident in my return to “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” that Birmingham has come a long way in addressing the injustices faced by so many of its citizens. It was also evident that Birmingham remains unjust for many still.

As The Women’s Fund works with and on behalf of the 41% of Birmingham-area single mothers who live in poverty, we are strengthened by the national network working with us. We are further strengthened by the leaders, organizations, and community members in Birmingham committed to increasing the access to opportunity for our most vulnerable populations. Birmingham still contributes to the national conversation.

Birmingham remains testament to Dr. King’s proclamation that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

 

Published Thursday, October 30, 2014