Most of us are compelled to work in afterschool programs because we want to empower youth, nurture young talent, even level the playing field. Despite doing this important work daily, we are painfully aware that the conditions of schools, neighborhoods, and economies just never change.
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.
At their core, afterschool programs work to bridge gaps in an inequitable education system, providing quality offerings that otherwise would only be available to our youth’s wealthier peers. Through youth voice, we build power among young people to bring them closer to true self-determination. But trying to rectify inequities in an inherently inequitable system is a Sisyphean task and the rock will never get up the mountain until there is change in the systems themselves. To ensure this movement results in policy that delivers justice, a more equitable distribution of resources, and true liberation, we must work together, as a whole system, amplifying the demands of people impacted most and holding elected officials and decision-makers accountable to them.
With fiscal year transitions and budget approvals upon us, agency leaders must stand in solidarity with movement leaders and take swift action. The values shift in this moment is palpable and budgets are values. But how? I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I am working with a coalition of 17 afterschool agencies in Los Angeles and this, so far, is what we have done and learned.
TAKE DIRECTION FROM ORGANIZERS
In this moment, with the swell of support from the public, we know that change will be the result of years and decades of the tireless efforts and sophisticated strategies of Black leaders. To be clear, we are not here to co-opt this movement, but contribute to efforts to bring codified change in policy that will deliver greater investments to historically underresourced communities — in education and housing and healthcare, and with them, a more equitable society.
If you aren’t already connected to organizers leading this change, find them on Instagram. Follow your local Black Lives Matter chapter or organizations like Youth Justice Coalition, Students Deserve, LA Voice, Community Coalition, and the People’s Budget Coalition in Los Angeles.
IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS
Understand the goals and take stock of the assets you have to forward them.
In our initial statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I asked our team of 550 staff members how they wanted us to support the movement. A site coordinator wrote to me:
“I know very recently we were part of an organized coalition of groups advocating for after-school funding — I would love to see even more continued unity among our partners/allies regarding support for this movement. 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.”
I believe that I am in service to those closest to the work, and I respected him calling me in. Afterschool organizations have valuable assets. We have the strength of parent, youth, and staff voices. We have the privilege of knowing policy makers and funders. We have the data that proves success. We must be ready to leverage those assets. We began with political pressure.
ANSWER THE CALL
The next day, buoyed by this clarity delivered straight from the front lines, I invited a few colleagues into a frank conversation about budget reform and test their willingness to engage. Real change is messy but leaders, especially white leaders like myself, need to acknowledge that some of our ways of working: reflecting on best practices, seeking perfection, or “handling the politics” are done from places of comfort and 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, the facilitator of The New Fund sent a call to action about the People’s Budget LA, calling for public comments at the upcoming LA Council Budget and Finance Committee meeting. It gave us a platform, a deadline, and a tactic all in one.
HONE YOUR MESSAGE
But using the language of organizers is important. BLM rightly advocates for an upstream approach that nurtures and uplifts communities, moving away from a punitive system. When surveying communities, youth programs are always high on the priority list and thought leaders of the movement like Professor Melina Abdullah to neighborhood council are vocal that specifically afterschool programs can help make communities safe. In California, we are fortunate that the voters recognized this in 2002, through the ASES program, where the first S stands for safety!
This includes Defund the Police. While potentially uncomfortable, those words are precise and intentional, and using them is a show of solidarity against brutality and in favor of community investment.
BUILD A COALITION
Over the next 48 hours, 16 organizations had joined mine to sign on. With collective strength, people felt safer, not fearing political fallout individually, but instead standing together.
A couple of folks did tell us this was “too political.” But, frankly, this moment requires moral courage, and I was proud to stand with so many who exhibited 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, alongside community organizers who have pushed for so long. We must do dedicated service to communities — not to systems, not to politics, not to ego — to make this change happen.
We must continue to apply pressure on decision-makers and the public — a full-court press that, as our staff member pointed out so powerfully, we know how to do when our inadequate dollars to support communities are at stake. Why wouldn’t we do it when liberation is 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 comfort for the liberation of those we are charged to serve.
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.
Our coalition of organizations includes:
For breakfast, I had coffee, coffee, followed by coffee.
This piece is excerpted from a piece that originally appeared on Medium. Read it in its entirety here.