During Black History Month, Celebrate, Reflect and Take Action

Feb 16, 2018

Juanita James, CEO & President
Fairfield County’s Community Foundation

Originally published as an Op Ed for Hearst Connecticut Media.

Each February since 1976 our nation has celebrated Black History Month. It is a time to reflect on the achievements of Black Americans and to acknowledge the central role Americans of African descent have had in shaping our national identity. However, while we celebrate and reflect, we are also called to consider today’s realities and to ask ourselves whether more needs to and can be done to enable Black Americans to fully participate in the American dream.

Juanita James, CEO & President, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation

At Fairfield County’s Community Foundation our research reveals deep, persistent opportunity gaps that illustrate the profound racial and socio-economic inequalities in our region. Fairfield County has both some of the United States’ wealthiest and poorest citizens. The 2016 Fairfield County Community Wellbeing Index, commissioned by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation in partnership with DataHaven, shows a county growing both more racially and ethnically diverse yet ever more segregated by income. According to the Community Wellbeing Index, for youth below the age of 17 in Fairfield County, 36 percent of Black Americans and 30 percent of Latinos live in poor neighborhoods, compared to 1 percent of whites.

We know that neighborhood segregation and income inequality are not conditions without consequences. The life outcomes for Black and Hispanic children raised in low-income communities directly reflect the disparities of their experiences compared to white children raised in higher income communities. In Bridgeport, for instance, graduation rates are at 72 percent – a full 23 percent lower than in Greenwich – and students of color lag 33 percent behind white students in English proficiency.  In Fairfield County as a whole, while we’ve seen a dramatic narrowing of the gap between the number of Hispanic opportunity youth, defined as youth between the ages of 16-19 who are neither in school or employed, we have not seen a similar narrowing of the gap between Black and white opportunity youth.

While these statistics reveal deep disparities in our region, the underlying social problems to which they connect are not impossible to solve. And there is no better time than Black History Month to double down on efforts to close opportunity gaps and for each of us to think about what role we might play in identifying and implementing solutions.

Our Foundation works in partnership in with the nonprofit, education, government and business sectors to create opportunity by pursuing strategies, including evidenced-based grant making, advocacy, scholarships and other programmatic interventions, that shape pathways to education, careers, stable housing and economic security for underserved populations. For example, to address disparities in educational attainment and high school graduation rates, we fund Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Teachers (TSTT), an organization that has recruited and trained more than 150 culturally diverse teachers and placed them in low-income communities where they can make a unique difference. Research has shown that schools with teachers of color can improve graduation rates for students of color by 34 percent. To reduce the number of opportunity youth who are neither in school or employed and to close the gaps by race in this population, we have partnered with Domus, a nonprofit with the mission to create the conditions necessary for high-need youth to succeed in school and in life. Domus has received more than $3.3M in funding from the Foundation to build capacity and expand its services.

In partnership with Cradle to Career collective impact initiatives, we are committed to continuing to invest in this hard but necessary work. With that goal in mind I invite you to consider joining us in our efforts.

Valarie Shultz-Wilson, CEO & President of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut

My colleague, Valarie Shultz-Wilson, CEO & President of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut, which empowers communities and helps low-income residents of Southern Connecticut improve their economic conditions, notes, “to leverage that power, we’re going to have to work collectively.”  Reflecting on her own experience as a nonprofit leader, Valarie also observes, “the need is greater today than when I started this job 12 years ago… and we know a lot of the programs that are on the chopping block will continue to impact our community.” In times of severe federal, state and local budget cuts, partnership, collaboration, philanthropy and volunteerism will be ever more essential to keep the momentum going to fuel the economy of social good.

To learn more about how you can get involved with the work of the Foundation, establish a philanthropic fund or connect with one of our grantee or partner organizations, please visit our website: fccfoundation.org.

We can all play a role. We can all be leaders in our communities. This Black History Month, celebrate, reflect on, and honor the legacies of historic changemakers by taking action and getting involved. “History is made by those who show up.” So, let’s show up together; make history; and chart a course for a promising future for all in Fairfield County.

Together we thrive.