I’m grateful for a powerful new book, Girls In Justice by artist Richard Ross, a follow up to his moving earlier Juvenile In Justice, which combines Ross’s photographs of girls in the juvenile justice system with interviews he gathered from over 250 detention facilities across the United States. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the deeply disturbing photographs speak volumes. Ross uses the power of photography to make visible the hidden and harsh world of girls in detention. These heartwrenching images coupled with the girls’ ages and life stories should move us to confront the cruel and unjust juvenile justice system in our nation. These girls are ours: our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our daughters and granddaughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces — and, for some young children, our mothers. Girls In Justice begs the questions—why are so many girls, especially girls of color, confined in our nation’s detention facilities, and what are we as a society going to do about it?
The President’s budget released this week proposes billions in critical new federal investments for 2016 and beyond to improve the life chances of millions of poor children. It also would prevent more harmful budget cuts in cost effective child investments while providing essential new investments to decrease the morally indefensible number of poor children (14.7 million, 6.5 million of them extremely poor) desperately in need of hope and help.
It is a national moral disgrace that there are 14.7 million poor children and 6.5 million extremely poor children in the United States of America – the world’s largest economy. It is also unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat to our future national, economic and military security.
Poverty hurts children and our nation’s future. This stark statement is backed by years of scientific research and the more we learn about the brain and its development the more devastatingly true we know this to be.
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. Not too many years ago, Dr. Kirtley Mather, a Harvard geologist, wrote a book entitled Enough and to Spare.
“If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
For many, the start of a new year is a chance to turn over a new leaf and take a hard look at the gap between who we say want and need to be and who we are. As a nation it’s time to close our hypocrisy gap in the treatment of our children and value and protect our children—all of them. We need to examine with urgency how we treat our children and the gap between what we say and what we do.
In a world rife with war, religious, racial, gender, sectarian, and political strife, when so many children lack safety, enough food, shelter, health care, and education and suffer unthinkable losses of parents to disease, violence, and war, I hope this New Year will bring adults closer to our common sense and moral responsibility for children’s well being.
After all the shopping and preparation for celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, I hope we will stop and sit and think more deeply about their meaning in our over commercialized, trivialized, mass selling mania for and to children and deeply stressful time for so many. The poor baby in a manger is lost along with the poor babies crying out all over America for food, shelter, safety, and education in the jingle of cash registers, and the Christian belief that God entered history as a poor child is drowned out in the jungle of commerce and advertising.
As 2014 draws to a close, I wanted to celebrate four great rainbows for justice who passed away this year but left us a much better people and nation. My brother-friend Dr. Vincent Harding, much loved historian, theologian, social justice activist, and visionary, never lost sight of the “beloved community” his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed our nation and world could become. A close confidant of Dr. King, he helped draft several of Dr. King’s most important speeches, including the landmark 1967 antiwar sermon “Beyond Vietnam.” His books include the powerful essay collection Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, where he reminded us that too many of us enshrine Dr. King the dreamer and ignore Dr. King the “disturber of all unjust peace.” On his 81st birthday Dr. Harding told a Children’s Defense Fund audience that he believed America was a wounded nation, but still remained convinced we could become a more just nation if all of us committed ourselves to healing America and pushing her to live up to her creed.