By Guest Blogger Julee Brooks, Woodcraft Rangers
(Note: To read my full article, click here.)
To me, publicly-funded afterschool programs work to bridge gaps in an inequitable education system, supplementing with quality programs and building power among young people. Afterschool programs empower youth, nurture young talent, even level the playing field, but despite doing this important work daily, the painful truth is that conditions of schools, neighborhoods, and economies just never change.
Trying to rectify inequities in an inherently inequitable system is a Sisyphean task until there is change in the systems themselves. So, we find ourselves, though well-intended, propping up a system that still doesn’t equitably serve all the people in this country. As agency leaders, we are witness to, and work daily against, the pressures, politics and punishments of this inadequate system. We recognize our own vulnerability in the face of scarcity, and we stand on the thin edge of demanding change while fiercely gripping the ground beneath us.
With municipal budget season upon us, agency leaders must stand in solidarity with racial justice movement leaders and take swift action. The values shift in this moment is palpable and budgets are values. But how? With a coalition of 17 afterschool agencies here in Los Angeles, so far, this is what we have done or have learned. (See below for a full list of agencies.)
TAKE DIRECTION FROM ORGANIZERS
With the swell of public support, change will be the result of decades of the tireless efforts and sophisticated strategies of Black leaders. We are not here to co-opt but to contribute to ensure codified change in policy that will deliver greater investments to historically under resourced communities — in education and housing and healthcare, and with them, a more equitable society. If you aren’t connected to racial justice movement leaders already, read, listen, follow. Find your Black Lives Matter chapter or organizations like LA Voice, Community Coalition and the People’s Budget LA. And Listen.
IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS
Understand the goals and identify the assets you have to forward them. In our initial BLM solidarity statement to staff, we asked our Woodcraft Rangers team what actions they wanted from the organization. A site coordinator responded:
“I know very recently we were part of an organized coalition of groups advocating for after-school funding…The lack of adequate funding for social programs in under-privileged neighborhoods is exactly the kind of racial injustice these protests are all about. Given our connections within the city, we have a unique opportunity to catalyze meaningful change through a powerful unified demand for justice and reform.”
My work is always defined by those closest to the work, and I respected him calling me in. Afterschool organizations have valuable assets -- strength of parent, youth and staff voices; privileged access to policy makers and funders; data illustrating success – and we must be ready to leverage them. We began with political pressure.
ANSWER THE CALL
The next day, I invited a few colleagues to test their willingness to engage in budget reform and its messiness. Leaders, especially white leaders like myself, need to acknowledge seeking perfection or “handling the politics” is often in service to the system itself, not to those we are charged to serve.
It is budget season in America and the clock is ticking. The next day, I saw a call to action about People’s Budget LA, calling for public comments at the upcoming LA City Council Budget Committee meeting. It gave us a platform, a deadline and a tactic all in one.
HONE YOUR MESSAGE
Using the language of organizers is important. However, the frame is easy for afterschool as BLM advocates for an aligned approach of nurturing communities and advocates are vocal that afterschool programs make communities safer. This includes Defund the Police. Potentially uncomfortable, these words are precise and intentional. Using them shows solidarity, against brutality and for community investment.
BUILD A COALITION
Within 48 hours, 16 organizations had joined mine to sign onto the letter. With collective strength, leaders didn’t fear political fallout individually, but stood together. A couple of organizations declined deeming the letter “too political”. Frankly, this moment requires moral courage, and I am proud to stand with so many exhibiting it.
TURN UP THE VOLUME
The letter made our case, opened the door and framed the conversation in solidarity. While the next steps are unfolding, it is imperative for leaders who hold positional power, especially white leaders, to push hard, with community organizers who have pushed for so long.
We must continue to pressure decision-makers and the public — a full-court press that, as our staff member pointed out so powerfully, we do when our inadequate dollars to support communities are at stake. Why wouldn’t we do it when lives are at stake? This is a moment of reckoning. For our society where Black lives have not mattered, for systems that have not served Black and Brown children, for leaders who have not been willing to risk their own comfort for the liberation of others.
I, for one, am committed to doing the continual soul-searching this moment requires. To evaluating how I am complicit in upholding systems that oppress. To evolving my understanding of what solidarity means. To taking every next action that is required because Black Lives Matter. I firmly believe that until there is racial justice in this country, we cannot deliver on the promises, no matter how well-intended, we make to the youth we serve.
Afterschool leaders, I am calling you in to join me.
Julee Brooks is the CEO of Woodcraft Rangers, that has served Los Angeles youth since 1922 and currently provides afterschool programs to over 15,000 young people annually. She brings 20 years of experience in service to youth in youth development, arts education and human services. She is a Kentucky native and mother of two boys.
List of Supporting Agencies: Woodcraft Rangers, After-School All-Stars Los Angeles, LA’s Best Afterschool Enrichment, Heart of Los Angeles Youth, Los Angeles Education Partnership, The Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health, TXT: Teens Exploring Technology, arc, Para los Ninos, Inner-City Arts, EduCare Foundation, Boys and Girls Clubs of Carson, GAP:Gang Alternative Program, LACER Afterschool Programs, A World Fit for Kids, KYDS, and Team Prime Time Afterschool Programs.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.