It was in August 2004. I had traveled to Washington, D.C. to produce an interview with Justice Ruth Ginsburg at the U.S. Supreme Court for Columbia University’s Oral History Office. I was looking out the window of my very comfortable, business-class hotel, just a few blocks from the nation’s Capitol. In fact, I chose the hotel because of its location in the heart of America’s politics and power. I’d just finished one of those breakfasts where an English muffin and juice costs about ten dollars. From my window, I could sense something was amiss. The front of the hotel had uniformed doormen hailing a steady flow of cabs for an equally steady flow of men in suits but it also had a constant stream of men and women, a few with toddlers in tow, milling around. They all looked like they were wearing five layers of clothes. The women were black in a sea of white prosperity and one small group in particular, a woman with two toddlers pushing a shopping cart loaded with bags and personal possessions, telegraphed “homelessness”, something light-years away from my modern room with its wide-screen TV and room service.
When I exited the hotel for my day’s work, I asked the doorman where these people were coming from. He pointed around the corner. I followed his directions, walked about 20 feet and when I turned the corner, was confounded to find myself on what seemed another planet altogether. Less than 50 yards from a world of wealth and prosperity was the entrance to a homeless shelter. Eventually, I would learn it was the largest shelter of its kind in Washington and home to an invisible population of children caught in their parent’s poverty, born to poverty and consigned to poverty, all within an easy walk of the Capitol Rotunda.
That night, I called home and told my wife and filmmaking partner, Georgia, about my discovery. For years, we had been interested in making a documentary about the welfare of children in America and when I described my day’s discovery, I was unwittingly setting something in motion. Within weeks, Georgia would be back in DC with a camerawoman, producing a week- long, no-budget shoot about children on the streets of D.C. Georgia was determined to get inside the shelters (and she did) to talk to homeless families and children and learn as much as possible about why they were homeless, what help is available to these broken families and single mothers , most importantly, how being homeless affects the children.
Georgia needed help, of course, to make this filming happen, and a community of people quickly emerged who were ready to lend a hand. She stayed for next to nothing at the Seminary of the National Cathedral, where she also heard an impassioned plea from Marian Wright Edelman for more funding to meet the crushing needs of inner city children. Her Children’s Defense Fund provided contacts, information and advice for the shoot, and almost immediately Georgia met and instantly befriended a young social worker, Jamila Larson, who spent every minute of her work and personal life trying to help poor children and their families get through each day and writing and writing and writing about it – sending her thoughts out to anybody who’d read them.
There would be many other people along the way to producing America’s Child. The film itself was never completed, because we failed to raise the money, and that’s another story. But today, we begin a new feature at Media Voices for Children and we’re calling it America’s Child, to remind all of us that these children, though they may be invisible to us, are our responsibility too and we owe them a legitimate chance at childhood.
In a decade of promise, when America has elected its first black President, it’s surely time to help the mostly black children who struggle on cots in adult shelters, living a transient life, where they’re simply pushed aside. The richest country on earth should do more for these children and all of the 1.5 million homeless children across our nation. We will use America’s Child as our way of introducing you to homeless and poor children in America, the people who advocate for them, the programs that work and the issues we’ve set aside for so many years while fighting the war on terror. Look for more in the months ahead.
This Week at Media Voices I’m pleased to welcome our friend Jamila Larson as a guest contributor. For fifteen years, both as a social worker and as a permanent volunteer, Jamila has worked hands-on with the children she writes about in Coming of Age – Homeless in Our Nation’s Capitol.
Jamila now runs The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, an innovative program that brings play and much-needed creativity to children in shelters all over the city. Her program is expanding, and I urge you to visit their website and make a donation to support this wonderful model program. For background, we post the report America’s Youngest Outcasts, from the The National Center on Family Homelessness and we offer this link to the Cradle to Prison Factsheets developed by The Children’s Defense Fund. Here you can look up how poor children fare in your home state measured by poverty, access to health care, exposure to violence, child welfare, education, juvenile justice and incarceration. It won’t surprise you that poor children grow into poor adults and that children of color in America are still those most likely to end up poor and filling the pipeline to prison.
February 14th is Valentine’s Day and many of us will reach for chocolates to show our Valentine that we care. Tim Newman of the International Labor Rights Forum has a different take on chocolate. In Broken Hearts on Valentine’s Day, he describes the ten years of delaying tactics used by the chocolate industry to avoid seriously confronting child labor in the cocoa fields of West Africa, where 80% of our cocoa is sourced. For more background, we also post Anita Sheth’s article, Such a Long Journey, about trafficking of children to work in the cocoa industry. Industry response is available at the websites of The International Cocoa Initiative and The World Cocoa Foundation.
Finally This Week at Media Voices we move to another highly personal contribution, this from our First Lady, Michelle Obama, as she launches her initiative to prevent childhood obesity. In her video remarks, she speaks in her role as the mother of young daughters, trying to introduce them to a healthy diet and lifestyle. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership of the William Clinton Foundation and The American Heart Association, one child in three (ages2-19) are obese. Weight-related illness costs taxpayers 61 billion dollars a year. At empowerme2b.org, young people speak for themselves about healthy diets and exercise and offer each other support and information they need to take charge of their health. As usual, we could learn a lot by listening to our kids.