S. E. Williams | Contributor
On the heels of the National Black Child Development Institute’s (NBCDI) Annual Conference, the organization’s Senior Vice President of Policy Cemeré James, granted an exclusive interview to the Black Voice News.
Part 1 of this two-part series talked about the organization’s mission and centered on the conference’s focus on important issues related to the 2020 Census. An equally important priority at this year’s session was rooted in concern over the number of Black girls being pushed out of the education system. A 2017 report by the National Women’s Law Center advised Black girls are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school than their White counterparts.
The same year a study by the Center on Poverty and Inequality confirmed a disturbing fact—Black girls according to the researchers, are subject to “adultification” by many Americans. In other words, they are perceived as less innocent and more mature for their age from ages five to fourteen. Respondents were more likely to say that Black girls, compared to their White counterparts, need less protection, to be supported less, to be comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics and know more about sex.
This may partly explain why across the nation Black girls are pushed out of schools at such high rates.
School “push-out” is when a student is encouraged by school officials—sometimes after a series of suspensions—to leave before graduation.
NBCDI conference attendees wrestled with this issue. “We have a national initiative, “Delivering on the Promise,” James began adding, “We can advocate all day long for high quality education and we do. Of course, we do as an organization. But if they are being kicked out of the classroom and getting a clear message that they are not welcome in education spaces, then we are not delivering anything.”
James continued, “We are sleeping on the promise. Data says that [Black] pre-school suspensions are higher than recent high school rates on suspensions and expulsions and by not having a strong response to that then we are really sleeping on the opportunity to insure access to education.”
It is important to note the suspension/expulsion dilemma for Black children begins long before high school—it starts as early as pre-K.
In December 2017 a Civil Rights Data Collection Survey found Black children represented only 19 percent of the preschool population, yet they made up 47 percent of suspensions. They are 3.6 times more likely than White preschoolers to be suspended.
Alarmingly, Black pre-school girls are suspended at a higher rate than any other group. In 2017 for example, they represented 20 percent of the female preschool enrollment population but were 54 percent of female suspensions.
“It is just one of the ways Black children are continuing to be disenfranchised,” James stressed. “And this is at every level. We know anecdotally that even those who are spending lots of money on education for their children still face the issues of suspensions and expulsions, even across socio-economic levels within the Black community this is a very common issue.”
According to James, over the past two years when NBCDI has had a general conversation on the issue of school push-out, the focus and research funding has been aimed at Black boys. “Now, we are shifting that focus.”
Black boys traditionally received more attention in part because there is a perception that while Black girls may experience meanness, Black boys experience violence. Now, as James pointed out, “With our camera phones we are seeing that is not the case. Your 14-year-old daughter is just as likely to be body-slammed by the police when she is wearing a bathing suit, as her brother may be.”
“One of the things we talked about during the conference,” she continued, “is that it is problematic the way the media talks about and messages around Black girls and pushes toward stereotypes. But I think that everyday people posting videos on YouTube has brought attention to the issue that Black girls are not safe—they are just as unsafe as Black boys.”
Townhall Discussion on School Push-out of Black Girls
NBCDI held a town hall discussion on this important issue. One of the ways they approached it was to reduce the amount of time the group spent in a larger forum where everyone comes to the mike and comments because, “We know that we hear each other, but that doesn’t necessarily drive action.” So, they chose to use a different format. “We actually had people sit in rounds for this town hall.”
The groups were organized by locations. “The biggest delegation was from Chicago,” she explained, “but if nothing else, we organized by region. They reviewed a couple of articles, one of them specifically around school push-out.”
As part of this process the organization Community Organizing Family Issues (COFI), led a “community visioning session” with the conferees. According to James, “So, they could map-out what is possible when they get back to their communities.” Participants were also asked to submit the action items they identified so NBCDI can track them.
James planned to follow-up via email and provide an electronic version of the community visioning tool so attendees will have it. NBCDI encouraged participants once they returned to their communities to meet with their affiliate or the local NAACP or church group to ask them for some time to really lay out a plan for Black girls. NBCDI further encouraged them to keep in contact with the organization so they will know what their plans are.
We Must Continue to Track This Data
“The Obama administration really brought attention to the data on suspensions and expulsions,” James explained. “Now, we have the current administration that is actually taking away data points,” she advised with concern. “That will be the next big thing we will be taking on,” she explained. “There is a push [by the Trump administration] to stop collecting data at the pre-school level that is disaggregated by race.”
“This is not surprising,” James acknowledged. “But it is extremely disheartening for us because it is the data that we use to drive the conversation.”
This is the administration’s second action in this regard. There was a national survey of parents where they were asked about their engagement with the suspensions and expulsions of their young children in pre-school. The administration previously proposed doing away with this data point.
“Data from parents is so important because we don’t really know the full extent [of the problem] when we are relying on data from the schools.” James gave an example. “A school can say, ‘we didn’t expel that four-year-old, we just told the parent that this wasn’t a good place for him and strongly suggested this school just wasn’t a good fit for their child’s needs.’Or, ‘We didn’t turn away that little Black child with a disability. We simply said, hmmm, we just don’t have the equipment they need.’ We would have no way of knowing they had equipment for other kids—just not them.”
James emphasized the administration taking away that question means we are not hearing directly from the parents about their experiences. “Now we are only relying on data from the schools—we must depend on them to report it and report it accurately.” Therein lies the difference and the problem. “And on top of that,” she reiterated, “now they are trying to take away the data from the schools as well.”
“Maybe that’s something we are going to have to take on for ourselves.” James stressed as she explained how when proposals are made by the administration to do away with something—like this tracking for example—organizations like NBCDI react to such changes by writing comments in response to the proposal.
“Writing comments to say we use this data to fight for equality,” James stressed before asking rhetorically, whether this is something this administration wants to hear? And, Do we have any real power?”
She further noted how doing a media campaign around this concern may help their case because it could signal to people who want to do away with these data points to say, “You know what? Race doesn’t matter to us either.”
Noting the difficulty of the issue James cautioned, “I don’t want to be completely negative about it. I’ve been thinking about what we should do, and I’ve been thinking that Black PhDs and Black researchers must come together and start having conversations about how to fill the gap. It is something we are planning for next year’s conference. We are having conversations with people who have the funding to support these next steps.”
Of course, having the level of funding the federal government has and the reach [capability] it has is completely different. But James was not deterred and emphasized how the Black community must get organized and do something. Also, some states are responding on their own. “The state of Illinois for example, is going to start to collect this data even if the federal government isn’t. I think one of the things we’ve done to adjust is to push forward more state-based work.”
Illinois has passed legislation to collect more data regarding suspensions and expulsions around race in their pre-schools. Some states were already stepping up even before the federal government declared it was going to do away with the last data around preschool suspensions and expulsions.
“I think for your everyday community members getting involved on the issue, it is important to know the organizations that are doing the work in your community. The onus is on us to know the Black Association of Pediatricians in our neighborhood. The onus is on us to reach out to the PTA. The onus is on us, and these conversations are happening. Our affiliates are acting, but I think they also need more attention and more support. Learn who is doing this work in your community. What child advocacy organizations are doing this work in your community and reach out to help,” she encouraged.
James acknowledged these issues seem very complicated; it seems like it’s too much. “But it doesn’t hurt to reach out to the Urban League. It doesn’t hurt—even if you are not in the faith-based community—to know what faith communities are active and get involved in their social justice ministry.”
She acknowledged that sometimes people may get the sense that ‘this isn’t happening for Black children and families’ and people feel like throwing up their hands instead of saying to themselves, ‘If I care, other people must care.’
Once again, she stressed, “Find the organizations that are taking action and get engaged with them.”
Another point James continued to drive home is that as a parent you have rights. Understanding those rights is important. It doesn’t matter whether your child goes to a traditional public school, a public charter school or a private school. You have the right to ask for the data. You can say, ‘I would like this school to share with all the parents the data on your suspensions and expulsions.’ Or, ‘I would like you to start to track that data by race.’
James offered other recommendations including asking your child’s teacher/school to tell you about their discipline practices. Ask them how they approach discipline. Ask the principal or teacher to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’book ‘Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys,’ and make an appointment to come back and discuss what they learned about Black males.
Another option to consider is an approach being taken by the NBCDI affiliate in Cleveland. It will be doing a screening of ‘Push-out’ which is a documentary about school push-out focused on Black girls.
“We are continuing to push the conversation forward, James stated adamantly. “We just cannot let up.”
The Crown Act
Conferees were also asked to review an article about the Crown Act, a California law championed by California Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) which addresses the issue of hair discrimination.
“NBCDI is now a formal partner of the Crown Act and we encouraged people to sign a petition to continue pushing the Crown Act forward [across the nation].”
James elaborated, “One of our researchers who focuses on Black children in a positive way—including building a positive identity for Black girls. Among the things she says is that they receive or draw a lot of strength from wearing their hair natural and that is a positive thing for us to support [in relation to Black] girls embracing who they are, in embracing their identity.”
Adding, “There is a positive correlation with their brain development when we affirm children’s identity.” Accordingly, by affirming their culture we improve how well they learn, James stressed. “I know, we know [this] implicitly but supportive research always helps. It was data from the Office of Civil Rights that brought attention to this.”
Other NBCDI Efforts
NBCDI’s programs are designed to support Black children and families. One of the programs offered by the organization is “Good for Me,” which is culturally responsive. Its activities are designed to teach children about fruits and vegetables and includes a cookbook that has recipes from the African diaspora that parents and children can cook together. “This is the type of focus we highlight at the conference,” she explained.
Transforming the Early Childhood Education Workforce
This year’s conferees were also introduced to NBCDI’s Responsible Transformation of Early Childhood Education Workforce initiative.
“There is more and more attention on early education and on the fact that learning really starts at birth,” she explained. James noted how the people who are educating and providing childcare for Black children aged zero to five should be well qualified educators.
“We know at the same time,” she continued, “that this workforce is largely women of color and what we don’t want to happen is to say, “Oh, the workforce needs to be better qualified. [However] we don’t want our Black and Brown educators to be disenfranchised in the process. We have so many people who have been in the field with our children for 20 or 30 years that may or may not have a high school diploma.”
James raised the need for a conversation about making sure there is a well-qualified workforce. “But,” she stressed, “we don’t want to displace Black educators and that is a conversation NCDBI has been leading.” The organization held focus groups on this subject during the conference and based on those discussions, will be writing up some recommendations.
When commenting about this issue she was adamant on one important point, “We are not against the professionalizationof the field. We [just] want to assure what happened in K-12—which is Black educators were pushed out when we did integration—we don’t want that to happen in early education.”
“The more there’s a tension on the field and the more that we seek to ensure Black children are well educated—doesn’t mean that we just decide overnight that we change the whole field, it would mean taking out people who do not have a bachelor’s degree and replacing them with those that do.”
The transition needs to happen over time she continued. “What we are hearing from people is that a person whose been in the classroom for 30 years can teach a person that comes in with the bachelor’s degree—we need both. “I describe it to people like culinary. If someone says to me “Oh, I have a culinary arts degree and they spent that whole time in the classroom and never spent any time cooking that wouldn’t be okay with us. And yet, you can get a degree in education—especially early education—without having spent time in the classroom.” I think there is something about improving that degree program to give more value to time spent as an educator and what you learn in that way.
The new NBCDI Fellows program is designed to address the lack of Black policy professionals who are informing policy at the national level. “When we have been at the White House; when we are at conferences; when you are hearing from people that inform the way that we think about policy for young children; the way that we advocate for young children, these are not Black professionals who are in high level leadership positions. The NBCDI fellowship program provides leadership development support and support around being policy influencers to Black professionals.
This year the organization’s first six fellows started the two-year program. James explained the need for the fellowship program.
“I might be reviewing legislation and thinking all the other advocacy organizations in D.C. have already looked at this. I’m sure they’ve insured that it will be responsive to the needs of Black children, children of color—I’m certain. [Afterall], these are people that I write papers with and speak with and we talk about racial equity.” Then according to James, she receives the legislation and she’s like, “Oh, no! This is not responsive—it is designed to advance early childhood education, yes; but they have not taken that next step which should be in locked-step. They have not insured that it advances racial equity and early childhood education.”
“So, the need is great,” she affirmed. The fellowship is a way to prepare more of us to be at the table and the need is huge because although we may have politicians of color when they need to know more about young children they are calling these organizations that may not be equipped to address the nuances for Black people and people of color. We need Black people who can speak the legislative language needed to ensure that Black children benefit as much as other children do.
In his keynote speech to this year’s NBCDI conference Dr. Eric Dyson discussed how important it is to affirm Black children because they are largely ignored in school. He re-appropriated the acronym NBCDI for his presentation as, “No Child Deserves Insignificance or Indifference.” Declaring Black Children do not deserve school systems that ignore them, and they do not deserve school systems that minimize them.
NBCDI is working every day to make the lives of Black children and their families better.
Header Photo: Cemeré James