Thompson: Making a plea for Detroit's children

Bankole Thompson

There was a lot of energy dissipated in voicing opposition to the Detroit Police Department's recent curfew for children under age 17 for the Ford Fireworks and the River Days Festival.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was among prominent groups that led the charge, letting us know the constitutional sins of the Detroit police in rolling out a curfew that had great temptation for abuse.

Several leaders, including some on the Detroit City Council, condemned the curfew, warning that it would sow seeds of discord in police relations with the community. Another pointed argument was that children in Detroit will be subjected to unequal treatment by police if they are denied the right to enjoy entertainment in their own city.

Agreed. But looking back at the rage and energy directed toward DPD, why haven't we deployed the same zest and energy to address childhood poverty in Detroit?

Bankole Thompson

Today, the majority of children in our city live in unbelievable poverty. The Detroit News reported back in February that about 60 percent of kids in this city were living in poverty as of 2012, citing numbers from the Kids Count report, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The study, funded in part by the Skillman Foundation, found that poverty among children in Detroit had increased 34 percent since 2006.

That statistic is enough to declare a state of emergency in Detroit.

What is preventing us from galvanizing support and raising awareness around the critical issue of poverty?

I don't recall any major press blitz or awareness campaign launched throughout the city after the Annie Casey Foundation released its report.

Where was the uproar from the city's massive religious communities?

The same kids we sought to protect in the campaign against police curfew are the same kids living in a damaging lack of basic necessities of life.

How do we expect to grow Detroit and guarantee a future for the city if our children continue to slide into preventable poverty?

We should not only be concerned with momentary issues that would give us camera visibility and dousing coverage in the media. We should be proactive in addressing a growing cultural divide: the poverty of children in Detroit.

Our civic leadership should be engaging in informed debate about public policy and the many dimensions of poverty ravaging our children. That leadership should be providing physical resources as well as support systems to close the well-being gap for children.

"I think our leaders are disconnected and oblivious to the magnitude of parentless children and the continued breakdown of struggling families who are in poverty," said Saba Gebrai, program director of the Park West Foundation, which provides resources for young people aging out of the foster care system in Wayne County. "The level of poverty is continuing to put more of these kids in the foster care system, or worse they are ending up in the streets."

Gebrai, a longtime Detroit advocate, said child poverty is under the radar partly because adult interest in children is not there.

"There is no will for a long-term investment in children in a meaningful way. ... We have to be less selfish and make a long-term investment in our collective future," Gebrai said.

There is a direct correlation between poverty and education. Studies upon studies have shown that the reading proficiency of children is directly tied to socioeconomic conditions. In most cases, children from high poverty areas perform less in reading at third grade level than their counterparts from affluent communities.

Kinita McDaniel, standing with daughter Melody, aids Lillie Taylor and daughters Ny’Lay, left, and My’Lay via the Park West Foundation, which offers resources to people aging out of foster care.

So what kind of Detroit can we envision for children when we raise so much hell around a curfew, but cannot demonstrate public and righteous indignation on poverty? Why don't we go to go work on an issue that is a major determinant of whether children in the city will turn out to be productive or not?

We can't expect the Detroit Public Schools to function effectively and be a school system that Detroiters are proud of when the very education system that is supposed to serve Detroit kids is not prepared to serve them well.

Even as the district goes through a leadership and financial rigmarole that is not turning out for the better, with mounting deficit upon deficit, Detroit's most precious population deserve the best from all of us.

The innocence on the faces of those 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children growing up in Detroit and caught in the barricades of abject poverty, beckons on us to speak and strive for them.

The clock is ticking.

How about instituting a Detroit Kids Count campaign that underscores the importance of guaranteeing that children in this city do not wake up hungry or go to bed without nourishment?

"Opportunity Detroit" should also mean opportunity for its children to thrive with the necessary structures of support so they can be ready for a competitive world.

If you were mad at the police administration for trying to impose a curfew on children, you should be even madder that those same children are living in conditions that none of us would want for anyone we love.

Gebrai said we are creating more problems by not being part of the solution.

"Don't be surprised about these kids acting out because they are mad that downtown is looking fabulous everyday when they can't get anything to eat. No one is teaching them values and morals."

Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, captured the urgency of this moment with this aphorism: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."

You know that's true. So, let's get to work on behalf of Detroit's children.


Bankole Thompson is host of "Redline with Bankole Thompson" on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column will appear Thursdays in Think.

Bankole Thompson, the former editor of the Michigan Chronicle, brings his voice to The Detroit News as a contributing columnist. He will write about a variety of topics affecting Metro Detroit in a weekly column appearing in Think.