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  ·   By Kristen Weber,

I came back from Asheville, N.C. energized and renewed after having the opportunity to attend and speak at the recent W.K. Kellogg Foundation 2015 America Healing Conference. Attended by more than 500 community-based leaders, advocates and scholars, America Healing was an opportunity for the Center to link up with like-minded organizations similarly committed to making racial equity a reality by dismantling systemic barriers for children and families of color.

The theme of the conference was “All Children Must Thrive.” I was asked to speak on a panel “Changing Narratives and Reality,” where we discussed the narratives of resilience in the face of injustice, creativity in confronting obstacles and thriving in the midst of struggle as essential to building intra- and inter-community commitment to racial healing and racial equity. The cutting-edge research on implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat is teaching us about the power of narrative to create bridges between racial healing and structural change. Those words create a framework for how to act on and shift the narrative, shaping the way we make connections between race, neighborhoods and wealth.

Take “distressed community,” for example. We’re all guilty of sometimes using frames like that, as a shortcut among people who know what we’re talking about. But when presented to policy-makers, media and others equipped to make decisions and influence others about the places where people with low incomes live, “distressed” connotes a lot about race and summons the implicit biases that only serve to reinforce the barriers that children and families of color face.

The same goes for popular terms used to describe American Indians, undocumented residents and people who identify outside dichotomous gender labels. The panel then was essentially about fashioning The Narrative with the voices of the unheard, organizing and creating spaces for people of color to tell their own authentic stories and the powerful use of the media as a medium for taking back The Narrative.

I spoke a lot about how this taking-back process is critical in our work in child welfare and juvenile justice. For the better part of a decade these systems, and partners like the Center and other organizations, have been creating strategies for change, but too many children and families of color still emerge from their experiences with these systems with worse outcomes than others. That’s because for too long the model we’ve used originates from thoughts like “What’s wrong with the children and their parents?” and deficit-based descriptors. Well-meaning but ultimately harmful policies result from that thinking. And in turn, they disrupt families more often than necessary, institutionalize more black and Native American youth than others and ignore the power structures that create unemployment, poorer health and lower educational attainment.

Instead, the Center seeks to change the narrative from “What’s wrong with the children and their parents” to “What’s wrong with the systems that serve them?” This narrative change is a common thread in our work, such as:

  • The Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, which recently conducted a national scan of efforts to reduce racial disparities in outcomes among children, youth and families of color.
  • Our Institutional Analysis process, which helps agencies examine themselves and diagnose the factors contributing to poorer outcomes by children and families of color.
  • Our public policy work, which calls upon legislators and policy-makers to use the levers at their disposal to create accountability and concrete results when it comes to the outcomes experienced by all children and families.

In fact, every team at the Center is guided by principles of racial justice and authentic constituent voice.

Narratives are powerful, but they are built rather than born. The reality is that the face of the nation is changing, and our institutions must change with it. Telling the story the right way is a fundamental part of this change process.

The narrative needs to come from the individuals caught up in the system and not from the perception of the institutions. This holds the system accountable to the individuals, and in turn creates solutions to best serve the population the system intends to help.

Kristen Weber is a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy.



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