I am unapologetic about my love of sports and especially the Olympic Games. In my mind, the Olympic Games epitomize sporting competition within a global context that offers world-class athletes an equal opportunity to compete. The Olympic athletes and what they accomplish – win or lose – inspire me to do great things for my family and my community of Indianapolis.
As an African-American woman, I watched and experienced the London 2012 Olympic Games through a personal trifocal lens that simultaneously clarified and amplified my pride for my country, my pride as an African-American, and my pride as a woman. Gabby Douglas' performance during the Olympic Games to become the first African-American and first woman of color in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics is profoundly inspirational. NBC commentator Bob Costas nailed it when he noted that "Much of America has fallen in love with Gabby Douglas. Also safe to say that there are some young African-American girls out there who tonight are saying to themselves, "Hey, I'd like to try that, too."
I have visited numerous Indianapolis public, private and charter schools, and meet with countless dedicated teachers. Many of these teachers are as expert in teaching greater Indianapolis youth as the best of Olympic coaches. Furthermore, students in these schools are awesome, hard-working, and no doubt deserve more of the headlines and attention. That is why, in the aftermath of the Olympics I am confident that there are aspiring, young African-Americans girls and boys who are thinking: "I'd like to try that too."
Which leads to this poignant question: What are their chances to try? Despite the emergence of new, stunning role models in the likes of Gabby Douglass, a review of the status of African-American children in our country leads to one conclusion - the odds are incomprehensibly small. Through no fault of their own, too many African-American children are laden with a perverse handicap that adversely impacts their opportunity to try and consequentially, their ability to succeed.
The handicap is poverty and in this great country of ours, it disproportionately affects African-American children. The Children's Defense Fund reports that in 2009, African American families with children had median incomes almost half those of White families (African American families with children was $33,915 and $61,775 for White families with children). There were more than four million African-American children (more than one in three) living in poverty. Forty-two percent of African-American children under the age of five are living in poverty compared to 14 percent of white children. Moreover, African-American children are more likely to be uninsured and in poor health.
I have had the opportunity to meet and work with African-American parents and care-givers who live and work in Indianapolis. As a result, I can unequivocally report that poverty does not destroy love. African-American children are dearly loved and treasured. However, it is apparent that educational enrichment activities, including the ability to participate in sport and physical educational activities are mere pipe-dreams due to a lack of participatory opportunities for disadvantaged African-American children.
A heightened focus on access to quality schools and enhanced test scores are good and necessary. Setting lower expectations for some groups of students is not the answer. Moreover, laying the blame at the feet of teachers and administrators is misplaced. Poverty undermines a teacher's ability to teach, a student's ability to learn, and a young person's opportunity to participate in out of class activities such as music, arts, and sports. The stark reality of poverty's devastating effect on African-American children cannot be overlooked.
Indiana is a great state and here in Indianapolis, there is a myriad of noteworthy agencies and organizations continuing to fight the "good fight" to offset the effects of poverty and enhance educational opportunities for children and families. However, a "good fight" must be a fair fight. But let's not turn our backs on the stark reality that race and class matters.
The future of our state’s economy rests on our successfully providing all of our children, and especially those burdened with poverty, an opportunity to try and to succeed.
In the words of an outstanding educator and inventor, Booker T. Washington, "Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way." Education, labor, government, and private industry leaders must successfully work as a team, and effectively and efficiently implement uncommonly innovative practices to address the ways poverty undermines educational opportunity and student learning.
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