OP-ED: Zimmerman Verdict a Catalyst or Catastrophe?

Alicia Newton
Alicia Newton

I was returning home when the breaking news alert flashed over my phone. Zimmerman found Not Guilty. I stared in disbelief at the news flash. A sickening feeling set in. I just did not want to believe this was happening. My heart cried out for Trayvon’s mother and father. How will they survive this? Then my thoughts went to my own black sons who mercifully survived being teenage black men in America.

I kept looking at the phone expecting more information. My unlimited web feature was not working. I called three people and nobody picked up.  Looking for disconfirmation of the breaking news report; all I found was George Zimmerman, not guilty.

I did not watch the Zimmerman trial. The entire situation struck too close to home. For a parent of a black child, specifically a black male child, this trial pulled the scab off of painful memories. Memories of times when my own children were not the recipients of routine white privilege.

Just today someone I coach was telling me about her young black man.  Seventeen years old, newly minted drivers license, he got pulled over by the police, subjected to a breathalyzer and issued a speeding ticket for driving eight miles over the speed limit, 42 mph in a 35 mph. This mother was expressing her fear for her son and sense of helplessness to protect him. I so identify.

Black, young and male in America means you will not get a break. Your conduct will be examined, evaluated, and questioned constantly. No boyish impulsiveness for you. The consequences of such juvenile pranks won’t get you sent to the principal’s office. It can send you to jail, or, in Trayvon Martin’s case, get you killed.

As tragic and heartbreaking as Trayvon Martin’s murder is, if it ignites a discussion and positive action to end stereotyping, racial profiling and civil rights violations based on race, then his parents will hopefully find some solace that their son did not die in vain.

While the courtroom in Sanford, Fla., refused to allow discussion of the real issues here – racial profiling, civil rights defilement and laws that exonerate such behavior – my hope is that enough of us are sufficiently sickened to take action. All of my fiends – white, black, Latino, whatever – all are mortified by what happened in Sanford.  A 17-year-old is dead, this generation has their Emmett Till, a nation is stunned and many of us are grieving. But will it be enough?

My heart and prayers go out to Trayvon’s parents. No parent should have to bury his or her child. To my brown babies, I pray you will find the hope, strength and perseverance to thrive, endure, and walk in your dignity and brilliance. I pray that God will protect you because as a society we have failed you.

Click here for more of JJIE’s coverage of the Zimmerman verdict

Voter Fraud or Voter Suppression

Not too long ago in the South, where I live, and in much of the rest of the nation, a voter didn’t need to worry about carrying identification to the polls on Election Day.

My, how things have changed. Today, voter ID laws have spread across the nation like kudzu, from Alabama to Alaska.

But coming from Georgia (a state with something of a record of disenfranchising her people) I have to ask: Is voter ID needed to prevent voter fraud or are these laws a way to suppress the vote?

There are reasons to suspect the latter. Did you know that many voter ID laws include a provision for free ID issuance.  I discovered that Georgia provides for this. So last week, I went to the state’s Department of Driver Services (DDS) to ask for a free state issued ID just to test the system.

There was no free ID choice on the list of documents one could obtain and the clerk had no idea what I was talking about. I was given a voter registration form and was told if I fill that out, that maybe I could obtain a free ID that way.

Let’s just assume one could unravel the free, versus $20 cost of a voter ID card (the website of the state’s Department of Driver Services does say that, if qualified such a document does exist). What else does one need to obtain this ID? Let’s start with the first acceptable document listed, a birth certificate.  In the state of Georgia, a birth certificate cost $25.00. Hospital birth certificates are not acceptable; it must be certified or original.  I’m already confused. I mistakenly thought the hospital birth certificate was original.  Now $25.00 might not be much for some, but for many students and low-income folks this is equivalent to a poll tax.

So, forgive me, but I’m not seeing how anything here is free.

That, of course, hasn’t slowed the states in the mad dash toward voter ID.

Amid allegations of voter fraud, 34 states considered photo voter ID legislation in 2011. Eight states enacted new laws, and five governors vetoed photo ID.

Organizations such as The Advancement Project, ACLU and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) report such laws systematically disenfranchise low-income, elderly, disabled and student voters. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, reports more than five million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year.

Organizations such as True The Vote dismiss these reports. This group argues that voter fraud is rampant and we need these new laws to protect fair free elections.  True The Vote began during the 2008 election cycle of the Harris County, Texas Tea Party organization. Last year New Hampshire’s speaker of the state House Bill O’Brien was videotaped addressing a Tea Party Group saying students lack “life experience” and “just vote their feelings.” He said “they’re “foolish, voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do….”

Alas, all those youthful ideals! The end of Democracy is certainly here!  All those damn kids voting. What happened to nonpartisan agreement and support of, we don’t care how you vote, just vote?

Exactly what problem does voter ID fix?  Let’s be clear, the only type of voter fraud voter ID laws would fix is fraud occurring at the poll itself, someone pretending to be someone else.

So how often does that happen?

In a briefing filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the Crawford v. Marion County Election Board case, the state of Indiana failed to justify Indiana’s photo ID law. Out of almost 400 million votes cast in general elections alone since 2000, the briefs cite one attempt at impersonation that was thwarted without a photo ID requirement. The Brennan Center for Justice, reported, it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.

So what impact do all these restrictive voter ID laws have on voters?

The National Urban League named voting as the top issue for African Americans. Under these new laws 25 percent do not have valid Voter ID .

The William C. Velasquez Institute reported “A significant decline in national Latino voter registration in 2010 which may diminish the size of Latino voter turnout in November 2012 by more than a million votes.

According to the myriad of lawsuits being filed, low-income constituents are adversely impacted.  In April 2012, a national voting rights groups secured a landmark settlement with the state of Georgia to ensure that voter registration is offered to all public assistance applicants. And in May 2012 a Federal Judge in Louisiana rules the state must at least offer voter registration to public assistance clients.

Members of the American Association of People with Disabilities visited the Tennessee state capitol in January to complain that the state’s new voter identification law is unfair to the disabled because many disabled people do not drive, they are less likely to have a photo ID, and they would find it especially difficult to go to a driver license center to get a state-issued government ID.

Who are the people whose votes are suppressed with these new voter ID laws?  The poor, people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities, and let’s not forget those foolish students who lack life experience and vote their feelings.

An Unjust Solution

Not long ago in Georgia, a six-year-old named Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken from her elementary school to the local police station. The school chose to do this, instead of sending her to time-out, or home to her parents or to the principal’s office.

Zero tolerance in our schools has become an excuse for a blatant abdication of leadership, fairness, compassion, and common sense. When children are arrested for being children (Salecia apparently had a temper tantrum, something the local police in Millidgeville, Ga., figured out after they all went down to the station) who is impacted, what are the implications for our future, and what can we do?

Increasingly, it is children with disabilities and minorities who are impacted the most. A study released by the Department of Education in March of this year confirmed that African American children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who are white. More than 70 percent of school-related arrests or those referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Children with disabilities are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. Aided by the excuse of zero tolerance and increased police presence in our schools, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have become the unjust solution to routine disciplinary problems.

Our future well being as a nation is at stake. At a policy briefing hosted by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) about over incarceration and its negative impact last year, Matt Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, “The harms of suspension pale in comparison to the harms of arrest. A first-time arrest doubles the chances a student will drop out. A first-time court appearance quadruples them.”

When students drop out, the human resource, what that student could have contributed to society, tends to be lost. The economic impact is devastating. We spend far more to incarcerate than we do to rehabilitate.

I remember being arrested in high school in my junior year and being too embarrassed to return to that school. I’m not saying I should not have been arrested; I failed to appear in court for a drug possession charge. However, the police had a choice, my home address as well as my high school address was on file. The following year, I dropped out of high school totally.

Salecia’s parents Ernest Johnson and Constance Ruff asked the same questions. In a video interview, Salecia’s mother, who only has access to a pre-paid cellphone, said her phone was out of minutes and that is why she did not receive the phone call from the school.

Just as I believe there were alternatives to coming to school and arresting me, Salecia’s parents want to know why the police did not contact someone else on the emergency list, such as her sister Candace. Salecia’s parents report their child is now having nightmares and waking up screaming, they are “coming to get me.” As statistics confirm, school arrests increase dropout rates, increase future incarceration rates and in some cases, like Salecia’s, causes psychological trauma.

Schools as gateways to prisons must be dismantled. Zero tolerance polices impose severe punishments, regardless of circumstances. In Connecticut, a bill has been introduced requiring formal agreements detailing roles and responsibilities for police officers stationed at schools. The bill is an attempt to stem the tide of inappropriate arrests of students.

There are models of public education that have said yes to education, yes to inclusion, and yes to excellence. Andrew Jackson, a public elementary school in Chicago has closed the opportunity gap. Nearly 70 percent of students are Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, black or Hispanic. Yet, there is almost no achievement gap between groups of students in reading and math at Andrew Jackson. The school reports a very different pattern around school suspension rates than the rest of Chicago Public Schools (K-8) – less than one percent of African-American and Hispanic students received an out-of-school suspension.

This is a call to community action. Our legislators, administrators and concerned citizens must work together. Parents cannot protect their children from misguided disciplinary actions alone. Teachers cannot cope with disciplinary challenges alone. The police are ill equipped to adjust their training for a school setting; and we are all subjected to the lethal stereotypes that constantly bombard us falsely, casting people of color as dangerous and violent. Couple this with inflexible polices and our future — for surely our children are our future — is in peril. We cannot get so desensitized that we fail to speak up and speak out.

Addiction, Recovery and the Dangers Young People Face Today

Robotripping, dank, bath salts, spice, triple C’s, skittles, Roxies, Oxys, Xanibars, K2, if these names don’t sound familiar, the current trends in juvenile drug abuse are as surprising to you as they were to me.

A recovering addict myself, I was alarmed to learn what kinds of drugs are being used by our youth today.  The drugs are mostly synthetic, increasingly lethal, tend to require medically supervised withdrawal, and, in many cases, are undetectable by drug test.

In 2010, SAMHSA reported 10.1 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 were current illicit drug users.   That same year, the rate of current illicit drug use was higher among young adults aged 18 to 25, stood at 21.5 percent.

The rate of binge drinking in 2010 was 40.6 percent for young adults aged 18 to 25. Heavy alcohol use was reported by 13.6 percent of persons aged 18 to 25.  According to the CDC about 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks. The National Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse reported 42 percent of college students report binge drinking in the previous two weeks.  All of them do not go on to become alcoholics. But enough of them do so that support systems in our schools and colleges are implemented

Detox, treatment, and on-going relapse prevention that includes 12-step meetings have been the path to freedom for thousands on the road to recovery. For many teens in recovery, returning to school means returning to the same environment they drank and used drugs in; a vulnerable position for someone new in recovery. Some communities are responding with Sober High Schools and many colleges have Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRC’s).

Dr. Kitty Harris, Director, Center for Study of Addiction and Recovery, Texas Tech University said recently that “going to college in early recovery is almost impossible without support.”

During a recent conference called Understanding and Responding to Young Adult Addiction and Recovery, held at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Dr. Steven Lee, Program Director for Adult Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Services and Young Adult Addiction Services at Ridgeview Hospital in suburban Atlanta, said “I have never seen anything like what I have witnessed over the last five years. More kids are using opiates, withdrawal is riskier and I have seen more children die.”

Education, a staunch repudiation of denial, community, and systems that support on-going recovery are needed to thwart these deadly threats to our children. Drugs, cheap drugs, are available in our homes (prescription medication), on-line (bath salts, K2) at the local head shop, and in our schools.

How do you know if a child is using drugs or alcohol? The nature of addiction is insidious and shrouded in denial making detection and diagnosis difficult. However, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence there are some behavioral, physical and psychological signs to pay attention to:

Physical and health warning signs of drug abuse

  • Eyes that are bloodshot or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal.
  • Frequent nosebleeds — could be related to snorted drugs (meth or cocaine).
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
  • Seizures without a history of epilepsy.
  • Deterioration in personal grooming or physical appearance.
  • Injuries/accidents and person won’t or can’t tell you how they got hurt.
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
  • Shakes, tremors, incoherent or slurred speech, impaired or unstable coordination.

Behavioral signs of drug abuse

  • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school; loss of interest in extracurricular activities, hobbies, sports or exercise; decreased motivation.
  • Complaints from co-workers, supervisors, teachers or classmates.
  • Unusual or unexplained need for money or financial problems; borrowing or stealing; missing money or valuables.
  • Silent, withdrawn, engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors.
  • Sudden change in relationships, friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies.
  • Frequently getting into trouble (arguments, fights, accidents, illegal activities).

Psychological warning signs of drug abuse

  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden mood changes, irritability, angry outbursts or laughing at nothing.
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity or agitation.
  • Lack of motivation; inability to focus, appearing lethargic or “spaced out.”
  •  Appearing fearful, withdrawn, anxious, or paranoid, with no apparent reason.

Our youth in recovery face unique challenges. Getting clean and staying clean must be navigated around the joy seeking rite of passage adolescents and young adults experience. Peer acceptance, sorting out identity, having fun, and reconciling the wreckage of addiction to move forward must be addressed to embark upon a sustainable road to recovery.

The data from the existing programs are phenomenal. Dr. Harris reported a 97 percent recovery rate in the fall 2011 CRC students. Both Texas Tech and Kennesaw State reported higher grade point averages among CRC students versus the general student body.  Why all colleges do not have CRC’s and why more sober high schools are not in existence is evidence of the deep denial around this challenge. The statistics speak for themselves.

Detection, diagnosis, treatment, and long term support networks in our schools, colleges, and 12 step programs are our best defense against this scourge that is threatening, growing, impairing and killing our children.

The Tragic Case of Trayvon Martin and the Danger of Stereotyping


Trayvon Martin (left) and George Zimmerman (right)
Trayvon Martin (left) and George Zimmerman (right)

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good … he looks black,” George Zimmerman told a police dispatcher on Feb. 26, 2011.  Moments later he shot and killed an unarmed, 17-year-old.

Trayvon Martin is the latest fatality in the deadly, insidious disease of stereotyping young black males as “dangerous.”

“I will never look suspicious to you, even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers,” wrote Michel Skolnik, who is white, in a commentary about the Trayvon Martin murder.

You are right Michel. White young men, no matter how many piercings, how baggy the pants are, tend to be seen as possibly mischievous or youthfully exuberant, but a threat? No. So what was Trayvon Martin’s crime?

In his final phone call to his girlfriend, according to Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, Trayvon could be overheard asking Zimmerman, “Why are you following me?” Zimmerman could be heard replying, “What are you doing around here?”

So it seems Trayvon’s crime was existing.

The alarming degree of danger young black males are exposed to is, in part, attributable to a lack of common sense, the unrelenting depiction of young black males as criminals, and a legal system that marginalizes black life. Zimmerman has yet to be arrested.

As the mother of two black sons, I personally know the vulnerability and dark cloud of suspicion young black men experience regularly. Adolescents suspended from school more often than others, pulled over by the police more often, and viewed as guilty until proven innocent more often.

Most of us will never kill another human being when our feelings and prejudices escape our subconscious. All of us must examine, expose and dialogue about these stereotypes. We must come out of denial about the influence of stereotypes in our lives, examine our thoughts, check our feelings and be deliberate in our actions.

Trayvon Martin committed no crime. He was just a young black man who went to the store to pick up some Skittles and a drink and now he’s dead. The shooter is free. The public is talking. The investigators are investigating; but what will we learn?  How do we protect our black male children in a society that marginalizes them?

Treating each other with respect, with the care and compassion we would want, or we would want our own children to receive, takes a consciousness of love and a refusal to let the lies, characterizations, and stereotypes win. Black young men are not by nature violent. It is our responsibility to take action to change ourselves and our society.

If life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness do not apply to all of us, it does not apply to any of us.


Tattoo you? Beware the Dangers

Did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo request a new sterile needle and individual packets of ink when she got her elaborate body art? As the debate rages on, whether tattoos and body piercings are vehicles of self-expression or body mutilation, body art is on the rise. And chances are, not everyone is practicing safe tattoo.

According to a 2010 Pew Research survey 38 percent of millennials (that’s the term demographers like to use to – loosely — refer to those born between 1980 and 2000) has a tattoo, and for most, one is not enough.

OK, I don’t have one, but I’m a little older. You could say, though, that the tattoo thing is hitting close to home for me. My 14-year-old godson asked for one for his 15th birthday. I was concerned about the process and his exposure to hepatitis C (HCV) infection, so I was motivated to look into risks and preventative measures.

Just how safe are tattoo parlors I wondered. Most states do have codes that specify rules and regulations for tattoo/body piercing establishments and artists; but enforcement seems to be hit or miss. I had a talk with a local code enforcement employee here in Georgia, who asked to remain anonymous. The officer told me there is no current code enforcement of tattoo/body piercing establishments in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, although officials are working on parameters now.

With an estimated 3.2 million chronically-infected persons nationwide, HCV is the most common blood borne infection in the United States with an estimated 17,000 new cases each year. What was really alarming is three-fourths of people with HCV do not know they have it.

Tattoos and body piercings puncture the skin with a needle which is one of the ways HCV is transmitted. According to the CDC there is no definitive evidence for an increased risk of HPV infection when tattoos and piercings are done in professional parlors, but the risk of infection is significant – especially among high-risk groups — when tattoos are applied in prison settings or by friends.

Definitive evidence or not what we do know is young people like tattoos and body piercings. Going into an establishment and adhering to the following precautions can mitigate possible risks:

  • Make sure the artist is using brand new sterile needles for each client.
  • Do not use ink from an ink receptacle that may be shared by other clients
  • Ensure you are receiving ink from individual packets that are opened in your presence
  • If you and a friend are getting a tattoo together the same rules apply. No sharing.
  • Vaseline and other ointments should be applied with new tools. Ointments should not be applied by the artist’s hand.
  • Non-disposable tattoo equipment should be sterilized by an autoclave and not an ultra sonic cleaner or by simply washing with rubbing alcohol. An autoclave uses super hot steam under high pressure to clean and kill germs.
  • Getting a tattoo while in prison, or at a friend’s house, significantly increases your risk of infection

I suspect additional information will emerge as data collection methods become more sophisticated and testing becomes more prevalent. According to the CDC’s Viral Hepatitis report, 2009 was the first year case-report data for hepatitis C was included into the report. Inclusion of this data represents an important first step towards national monitoring of the prevalence of viral hepatitis in the United States.

Food is Fundamental, Only Don’t Ask Newt Gingrich

On January 21 Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Primary. But he did it, in part, by using racist rhetoric, characterizing President Obama as “the best food stamp president in American history.” Since then, he has continued to drive this distortion hoping it will somehow resonate with voters. It’s not likely to work, because most Americans understand that food is fundamental. Presidents do not put people onto the food stamp rolls. People, predominately people with children to feed, become eligible for food stamps.

The food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, is a critical safety net for families living in poverty. SNAP eligibility rules require that participants be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Recent studies show that 49 percent of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households. In total, 76 percent of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent go to households with senior citizens.

Newt Gingrich’s attempt to paint Obama as the president who oversaw the largest increase of SNAP participation is inaccurate. It was President Bush, not President Obama who has that distinction.  This stands to reason, as it was during President Bush’s administration that our country’s economy plummeted.  Newt Gingrich’ race-baiting tactic is repugnant, of course, and he is just flat-out wrong.  As Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) so eloquently voiced on the floor of The U.S. House recently, “Hunger is color-blind. Of recipients whose race we know, 22 percent of SNAP recipients are African-American. And 34 percent are white. Hunger knows no race, or religion, or age or political party.”

Hunger in America is real.  Programs such as SNAP, WIC, free- and reduced- school lunches, and summer feeding programs exists because there is a need.  These are not fraud-ridden systems somehow sucking the life out of our budgets as some politicians would like you to believe.  According to a recent USDA analysis, SNAP reached a payment accuracy of 96.19 percent in 2012 (the highest ever achieved by the program).  Trafficking rates — the number of benefits exchanged for cash — are at 1 percent, according to 2008 statistics, the most recent available. There is always room for improvement, but the integrity of the SNAP program is solid.

As evidenced by no subsequent primary wins, America is not buying Newt Gingrich’s assault on children, families, disabled, or our senior citizens.

In a recent NPR interview, correspondent David Welna spoke to Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama, and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. Per capita, Sessions’ Alabama is one of the top food stamp recipients in the nation; so is Louisiana.  Sen. Sessions said, “I think it’s a policy of the administration, just get money out of the door to try to stimulate the economy, and not look closely at who’s getting it and why they’re getting it.”  Sen. Mary Landrieu said, “It is blaming the victim, and it’s making a mockery of some of the most important, I think, social safety net programs in the country.”  Welna asked about government freeloaders?  Sen. Landrieu responded by suggesting Congress should “take away the special tax loopholes for the rich.”

Candidate Gingrich would never advocate for that. Take away tax loopholes for the wealthy? Blasphemous indeed. Hungry children, being hungry, families living from paycheck to paycheck, having a language barrier that limits your ability to navigate our system, being part of the working poor, struggling to find a job, or experiencing financial fear, all these are beyond the realm of reality for Newt Gingrich.

No, he can more easily identify with his patrons such as Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who donated 5 million dollars to Gingrich through a super PAC. Then his wife Miriam, quickly followed with a 6 million dollar donation. This was just before the South Carolina primary and we know who won the South Carolina primary.

Two Candidates Out of Touch With the Struggles of Ordinary Americans

Back in the fall, a recent college grad named Adam Valdez spoke at a press conference in Atlanta put on by Jobs With Justice, an organization that is part of a larger movement working towards social and economic justice. During his short speech, he talked about a mountain of student loans and a desert of decent paying jobs.  Then he mentioned, “wage slavery.”

He was just one kid, on one block, in one American city. But he was hitting on a reality facing so many young people today. There aren’t many jobs out there and the ones they can find hardly pay a living wage.

I’ve been thinking about Adam Valdez the last few weeks as I’ve watched the leading GOP contenders for the nomination — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich –- attack each other. There has been much talk of tax returns, lobbying and which one pulled down the larger pay check. But so far I haven’t heard anything about helping young people get jobs or help for millions of children who live in poverty.

When two candidates engage in this kind of talk — against a backdrop of an excruciatingly slow economic recovery, job outsourcing, a crumbling infrastructure, unstable gas pump prices, and an already frayed social safety net of food stamps and extended unemployment benefits — then they are out of touch with the reality many American families face every day.

Here’s some reality for you: Last semester at the community college I was attending there was a table set up for students to educate themselves on how to apply for food stamps. It also had information about which farmer’s markets were offering two-for-one deals.

So, with visions of college students applying for food stamps, I hear about candidate Gingrich’s $500,000 jewelry bill at Tiffany’s. Is it any wonder that a lot of people — especially those who can’t afford even to think about going to Tiffany’s — feel there is something of a gap between them and the candidates? And what is this rhetoric (again from Newt Gingrich) about the “Food Stamp President?” I can only conclude that such a comment is intended to inflame anger, divide the nation and divert discussion away from the vast divide between rich and poor in this country.

And yes, there is an income divide in our nation. According to the Children’s Defense Fund and the Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey, in 2009, 15.5 million children -– more than one in five –- were poor. Can Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich identify with 15.5 million poor children, particularly black children who are three times as likely to be poor than white children? Who knows, maybe they can, but they certainly do not give the impression they can, or that they even care.

During one of the CNN debate’s in January, Mr. Romney scolded the other candidates, saying that he was the only one who lived on the “real streets of America.”

I’m sorry, but the man has addresses on at least eight streets. None of them are on mine or on the street of 99 percent of the rest of us.

Sure it’s the political season when candidates say rude and insensitive things. Eventually, when they stop talking only to the base, their tune may change. But in the minds of the people who struggle every day, these two candidates will be remembered as indifferent and be seen as swimming in the sea of entitlement.

Josh Harvey-Clemons and the Role of Grandparents Everywhere

Josh Harvey-Clemons, the No. 2 outside linebacker prospect in the nation, and the No. 1 overall prospect in Georgia could have his pick of colleges to choose from when he graduates high school this year.

The 17-year-old, 6-foot-five, 200-pound senior, from Valdosta — down in south Georgia — finished the 2011 season as the Region 1-AAAAA defensive player of the year, while also being named to the first National All-State team.

But this talented teen has narrowed his choices to three schools. So, for the next few days, head coaches Mark Richt at the University of Georgia, Will Muschamp at Florida and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State will be suffering some anxiety as February 1, National Signing Day, approaches. [Update: Josh signed with the Georgia Bulldogs.]

In the world of college football in the South (it’s a religion down here if you didn’t already know) these are three very big, powerful and influential men.

There are, however, bigger, more powerful people in Josh’s life who are going to have more influence over where the boy goes to school than anyone.

And that would be Woodrow Clemons, his grandfather and Vanessa Clemons his grandmother.  Together, this family and their community took on the statistics that show that grandparents, as primary care givers, are a risk factor to a child’s wellbeing.

When both of Josh’s parents died — his dad when he was 6 and his mom when he was 12 — Woodrow and Vanessa took over the parenting and have raised, by all accounts, a fine son.

Woodrow Clemons has instilled a humble spirit as well. Josh told the local press that, “my granddad always taught me to never brag on myself, always let others do it for you.”

Of course he would say that about his grandpa. But what do others around Valdosta say? I made a few calls and eventually got through to Coach Terry Quinn, defensive coordinator at Lowndes High School’s Viking football team.

“One or both grandparents attended all of Josh’s football games, home and away,” said Quinn. “Josh also played basketball for four years and ran track for three years. His grandparents were there.”

That’s some dedication, especially when you consider that Josh’s grandmother is an elementary school teacher and Josh’s grandfather runs a bail bond business. Both are working, all the time.

And it’s not just sports where they have helped out. His grandparents have obviously instilled in Josh a desire for excellence, an intense work ethic and commitment to the importance of education. He’s a solid 3.0 student.

Josh Harvey Clemons is just one of 1.7 million children in the United States being raised by a grandparent.

Woodrow and Vanessa might make it sound routine, but raising a grandchild isn’t as easy as sacking a quarterback when his pocket has collapse.

My best friend is Margo raising her grandson. He is the light of her life, but she is 60 and, well… try keeping up with a teenager when you are 60.

Mitchell is 15 and like most 15 year olds, peer acceptance and his busy social calendar can present challenges to whoever is looking after him. The importance of education is paramount, so Mitchell attends a better high school which is not in his neighborhood.  If he misses the bus, guess who takes him to school?  He’s a track star, so guess who attends the track meets?  Since he is mischievous, like most adolescent boys, guess who mediates all of his conflicts?

Some evenings I call my friend just to check in. The other night I rang her, knowing she had worked all day. It was already nine p.m., and she told me she had to pick up Mitchell at 11 p.m.

Now that may be par for the course when you are in your 30s or even 40s, but when you are 60 it is a herculean effort.

Most grandparents are not raising their grandchildren because that is what they choose to do in their golden years. Every grandparent does not score the winning touchdowns like Margo and the Clemons. There are fumbles, interceptions and personal fouls. In most cases something happened to change their status from grandparent to primary caretaker. Death, incarceration, drug abuse, abandonment, poverty and divorce lead the list.

I discussed this growing parenting phenomenon with another women whose mother raised her sister’s children because her sister was on drugs. She shared with me that, “Momma let them get away with so much; partly because she felt guilty about her daughter abandoning her children for drugs, and partly because Momma was sick herself. She just didn’t have the energy.”

Three million children in the United States do not live with their parents. Fifty four percent of these children live with grandparents. The dialogue, resources and support for grandparents raising grandchildren is splintered and not reaching many families. A network of services is needed.

Grandparents can access specific resources by state here. Your rights as a grandparent and advice on issues ranging from the law to finances are available from many sources including Grandparents.com. The AARP’s Grand Families guide also provides comprehensive information for grandparents grappling with this monumental life change.

I applaud grandparents like the Clemons and Margos who raise their grandchildren and give them as much love, commitment and support as they can.

They do it — just like most grandparents — because they wouldn’t have it any other way.

It can, to say the least, be a tough road for someone getting on in age.

The African Proverb, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” speaks to the importance of connecting family and community to help protect, guide and raise healthy children, including awesome outside linebackers.

Giving Workers a Good Tip and a Living Wage

Imagine your wages frozen for two decades at $2.13 per hour. No, I am not talking about a Third World sweatshop. The kid who put your groceries in the car, the waitress who served you dinner at your favorite restaurant last week, the guy or girl who vacuumed out your car at the car wash. All these are tipped workers and their wages in the United States have been frozen for 20 years.

Passage of The Wages Act (HR 631) would make progress in closing the gap between tipped workers, many of them young, and all other workers.

A few days ago, amongst the food, fun and festivities of Martin Luther King Day, in Atlanta, I spoke to the celebrants about HR 631. Many were astounded that tipped workers make so little base pay. But many others know the truth all too well. One young man promptly corrected me when I mistakenly said “wages frozen at $2.16.” He said “$2.13, I work at the Waffle House.”

With 13 million workers the restaurant industry employs a huge number of young people. This group of tipped workers has been devastated by stagnant wages and the current economy. Nearly 15 percent of all waiters and waitresses live below the federal poverty level, compared to less than 6 percent of the workforce as a whole.  The impact on people of color is significantly worse. According to the Census Bureau, 22.3 percent of African-American tipped employees and 18 percent of Latino tipped employees live in families below the poverty level

While employers are supposed to make up the difference between tips and the minimum wage, most workers rely on their base wage as their source of steady income. Tips fluctuate based on the economy, season and shift.

Charmaine Davis, the director of the Atlanta Chapter of 9to5, a community organization that supports economic justice in the workplace says, “This legislation would restore the value of the minimum wage for tipped workers at 60 percent of the federal minimum wage.”

Both of my sons have worked tipped jobs in the food service industry at various times during their college and high school years as have I.  

I remember getting fired as a barmaid when the proprietor found out I was underage. Meeting new people and never knowing what the customers would be like from day to day was an aspect me and my youngest son enjoyed; however we all agreed the pay was pitiful. Our family worked those jobs at some of the most financially challenging times of our lives. For many in the food service industry this is a life-long occupation. Housing, food, utilities, clothing, education, transportation and all the other necessities of life, depend on fluctuating tips and a $2.13 per our job.

If passed, the Wages Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) will:

  • Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees from the current level of $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment.
  • Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees to $5.00 per hour one year after its enactment
  • After the second year, restore the tipped minimum wage to its original rate of 70 percent of minimum wage (as enacted during the 1930s) but no less than $5.50 per hour

Prior attempts to raise the hourly rate for restaurant workers have been unsuccessful. The original Wages Act, HB 2570, was introduced in 2009. It died in committee.

Members of Congress have not frozen their own wages. In 1989, Congress passed an amendment allowing for automatic raises, unless they specifically vote to reject a raise for that given year.

As Dr. King said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.”

Be a drum major for justice, support the Wages Act.


In the interest of full disclosure I volunteered with 9to5 to collect petition signatures for the passage of HR 631 at the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King National Day of Service in Atlanta.