Sower’s Seed Lecture: Gloria Guard ’67
Gloria Guard is President of the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Read more about Gloria!
February 11, 2009
I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the trustees, alumnae, faculty and students of Trinity Washington University for inviting me to speak to you today. I am humbled to be counted among the distinguished women who have been a part of this wonderful event. I would be remiss if I did not thank my family, the People’s Emergency Center family, my colleagues, neighbors and my community, and the thousands of homeless women and children who have inspired me and kept me going over the years.
It is difficult to convey how much it means to me to be here in the nation’s capitol speaking to you. From the time I was twelve through to my last day at Trinity, I lived in the DC area with my parents and siblings. My Dad got a job working for the U.S. Senator from Kentucky, who needed a “tobacco guy” – someone on his staff who could be an expert on agriculture and tobacco, one of Kentucky’s premier products. So we moved from Louisville to D.C. and I ended up at Trinity. Unlike many of my classmates, we weren’t wealthy, but we were comfortable and my parents could pay for my education and school loans as long as I was a “day hop.” You know I was Class of ’67, but just to give you some historical context, I was sitting in sophomore philosophy class, with Sr. Helen James, when a student came to the door to tell us that JFK had been shot!
Those were tumultuous days. The Civil Rights Act had been passed six years earlier by Congress (my dad made sure that we saw the final vote in the Senate – he told us “you are watching history being made”). But the legislation didn’t mean that society had changed. So the Civil Rights Movement had taken to the streets and everyday citizens were going to make sure that the promise of equal rights and equal opportunity would become a reality.
When I was sitting where you are now, the concepts of opportunity and equality, of justice and fairness, of real equity without discrimination, took shape and form. The grassroots political leadership merged with the crucial ideals I had grown up with in my family, and had learned about at church and school. All of a sudden those hopes and dreams moved to action. I am not sure if you realize this, but you are sitting in exactly the same spot that I was sitting in – literally and figuratively in the late 1960s. My job today is to tell you that it’s time for you to move to action.
Ah, the ’60s and ’70s. It was so exciting and energizing. Everyone was swept away in the drama and the spirit. When my family first came to D.C. in 1956, D.C. was a quiet little southern town, until the movement catapulted D.C. into a new stratosphere. One where each of us felt like we could make a difference, be a part of something much larger than ourselves, participate, engage, and be filled with a unique kind of joy and satisfaction. (If you want to see a living color example of what it was like then, go see the movie “Talk to Me.”) It is very difficult for me to put that feeling into words. For me it is an incredibly warm filling up of my spirit which cannot be replicated with the other joys of my life that are more individual and personal. There’s just something amazing and unique about being a part of social change. At least one of the special things about this is that I am so keenly aware of being a part of a larger community, a larger energy that is dedicated to doing the right thing, to moving our generation and our world forward.
Each of you has had a taste of this feeling. I know that because all of you were right here, mere blocks from the political center of our nation, when the most exciting presidential race in decades was run, and won, by a leader who has called all of us to work toward social justice and social change. When you went into that voting booth and voted for Obama, didn’t you feel like I did, that you were part of dozens and hundreds and thousands of people who felt the same way you did and who were voting at that moment? If you did, you got your first taste of the feeling of being a part of social change.
I will spare you more details about the late ’60s and early ’70s, about the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam, and women’s movements. Suffice it to say that I went to rallies and marches, heard Stokely Carmichael at Howard, learned to play Joan Baez songs on my guitar, and stopped marching when my two babies came along. We were charged up about our country, what was wrong with it, and the power we felt first hand about what could be accomplished if we banded together to make real change.
But lately, when I look back on the past 40+ years, I am just really disappointed in us, in our country, because of our unrealized dreams. We changed laws, policies, stopped the war, and said out loud that the poor, minorities, women, gays, and the disabled should have equal opportunities. But much of that enthusiasm was washed away in the ’80s and ’90s. Two solid decades of Me First, and Cash is King, turned back the tide of change. I had hoped that we would have made even more headway but the battle against self-serving, materialism is uphill. In many, many ways the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has grown – astronomically. As a country and a community, we started to care only about ourselves and stopped caring about us. We became a society that never asked what we could do for our country and only asked what others could do for us.
Service to self eroded service to our community. Thus, today, for working and poor people in the United States, things are comparatively worse than they have been for decades. Here are just a few “factoids” comparing life now to when I was at Trinity (data gathered from numerous sources are listed in References at the end of this paper):
- In 1969, the richest 1% of households earned less than 10% of the nation’s total income. Now, the top 1% of households received more than twice that share – over 20% – of US income (CBPP, 2008). Following this top 1% shows that in 2006, their average incomes increased by $60,000 in one year, while the rest of us (the lower 90%) had increases of $430.00. Income concentration at the top of the socioeconomic scale is higher than it has been since before the Great Depression (CBPP, 2008).
- Income inequality skyrocketed after tax changes in 2006. The poorest fifth of households received an average tax cut of $20, which raised their after-tax incomes by about 0.3%. The richest 1% of household received an average tax cut of $44,200, raising their incomes by 5.4% (CBPP, 2007b).
- It’s not just how much households bring in; the differences in wealth/income become much more dramatic when you look at where national income has trended. Over roughly the past 40 years, corporate profits have risen as a percentage of national income, while employee wages and salaries have fallen dramatically.
- Income disparity is only a part of the picture. According to the Government Accountability Office, only 546 (8.6%) of the 6,350 senior executive positions in the US were held by African Americans in 2006. Hispanics were even more underrepresented among senior executives, with just 229 (3.6%) of positions (Hemingway, 2007).
- Not only do we now have more poor children in this country (between 1969 and 2006 the percentage of American children living below the federal poverty line grew from 13.8% to 16.9%). Think about it, that’s almost one out of every 5 kids. But more importantly our children are much worse off than their cohort group from the ’70s, and much much much worse off than their higher income counterparts.
- Very young children (3-5 years) living in poverty are much less likely than non-poor children to be able to recognize the letters of the alphabet, count to 20 or higher, write their names, or read. The school readiness of children living in poverty declined from 23% to 19% between 1993 and 1999, while the school readiness of non-poor children increased from 40% to 45% (Child Trends, 2000).
- White, non-Hispanic children are more likely than African American or Latino children to have three of the cognitive/literacy skills necessary for school readiness (Child Trends, 2000).
- While the gaps between the health of more and less privileged children have decreased over the past 20 years, low-income populations and communities of color continue to experience worse health outcomes across a broad spectrum of illnesses. These negative health outcomes include infant mortality, low birth weight, asthma, obesity, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and suicide.
As you can imagine, every possible indicator of well-being correlates directly with income. Whether you look at infant development, low birth weight, literacy, success at the job, safe housing, educational attainment, access to arts and culture, or quality of life, you will find that children, parents, families, neighborhoods, and communities that are poor are significantly worse off than they were years ago. This “shouldn’t” be true. Not when we have benefitted from decades of scientific, medical, technological, and educational advances. When I was in college I would never have imagined anything even remotely close to the internet. Even though ENIAC was invented the year after I was born (invented in 1946), 20 years later when I was at Trinity, there were no computers in most work places, no such thing as a “personal” computer, no place to go to learn about computers. When we thought “computer” we thought Star Trek.
So, what’s the problem here? That we can move from ENIAC to Blackberries to IPhones but we cannot figure out how to live together in a just world? Where children in the richest country in the world sleep in homeless shelters, go to bed hungry, while their little minds are starved and begging to learn, and their homes and neighborhoods are too often filled with trauma and violence?
As I said a few minutes ago, I think that the problem lies with each of us, and with me and my colleagues, and the generations between. The pursuit of our every personal whim and need and desire has left our brothers and sisters out in the cold. Not only did my generation have Martin Luther King and JFK, we also had corporate and business leaders who were honest, celebrities and athletes who were pure of heart, and uncorrupted politicians. The people we looked up to were, by and large, ethical, and they shared the basic values that our families held. The ’80s and ’90s gave birth to the criminal leaders of Enron, super-athletes who use drugs to win, Hollywood stars who vie for the most thin and/or the most undressed, the Bernie Madoffs who defraud the wealthy, elected officials who blatantly abuse their offices, and predatory lenders who sell unaffordable mortgages to the unsuspecting.
So what does this mean for you? I think it is up to YOU to change all of this. And I believe you can. I want to challenge you today. Our nation is clearly at a crossroads: Will we move blindly forward on our individual paths, thus moving our communities toward greater disparities in wealth, health, knowledge and success? Or, will you be part of the solution? Can you commit to join together to rebuild our communities, strengthen the fabric of our society, and work together to see our many promised policies become a reality…to become a nation of opportunity where everyone can prosper?
I believe we are capable of such a commitment if we focus on potential and we have a clear vision. I see potential everyday in the young mothers who come to PEC, where I work. I see it in my neighborhood in West Philadelphia. I am inspired and renewed each time untapped potential is realized.
Allow me to share a story with you. These are Rachel’s words:
Fifteen years ago I had a serious drug problem and three sons that were caught up in the madness. That was not unusual growing up in my neighborhood. Some people can turn to their families when times get tough. But most times addiction is a family disease and many in my family were caught up too. There came a point when I realized that my kids could no longer suffer through my addiction – the way I was living was no good for me, or them. I knew that I had to stop using drugs – and I did! I stopped using and went to PEC and stayed there for 16 months, and I enrolled in every program I could. They had a program for women on welfare like me who wanted to become employed. Before becoming addicted to drugs I worked as a data entry operator and I knew that I needed to brush up on my skills before becoming employed again. I was a little scared at first but then I saw people in the program just like me. They helped me with everything – resumes, cover letters and practicing interviewing skills, childcare and career clothing for job interviews.
My life kept getting better in some ways but there were still many rough spots. I still seemed to attract men that were not on the same path as I was. At this point I had another son and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I got a job and a section 8 apartment and time went by. Today I live in a wonderful three story house that I bought through PEC’s homeownership program.
My four sons are doing very well in school. They are honor roll students and my oldest son will graduate from PennState with a B.A. in 2010. The second oldest is at the same college, and doing well too. My third is college bound as well. He graduates from high school this year. For 12 years I have been employed in a job that I received as a result of my training at PEC. Becoming employed full time made a tremendous difference in my life and the lives of my children.
I am so proud of my boys and I get satisfaction out of my job each day. But the thing that brought me the greatest joy happened several years ago. Because I own my own home, which is a three story Philadelphia row house, I was able to take my mother into my home and care for her when she got sick – the same way she cared for me when I was a little girl. My mother died in my home, with her family around her. After a pretty tough start, I can say now that I have become the woman that I was raised to be – responsible, successful, a great parent and a loving daughter.
Rachel lives in West Powelton. She moved there after we started our neighborhood revitalization in the 1990s. Like Rachel, West Powelton has changed. Instead of 80 boarded up empty properties, there are now 196 new units of housing. Instead of trash strewn ugly lots with abandoned cars and drug dealers, kids now have three playgrounds and inviting community open spaces to play in. Instead of homes with porches that are falling down and lackluster storefronts, homeowners and business owners have inviting facades, new roofs and welcoming lighting. As of yesterday, 138 neighbors have computers in their homes, are trained to use them, and have very affordable, high speed access to the internet. And, the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor is cleaner, safer and more attractive than it has been in years. With the help of many neighbors, generous contributors, passionate staff and the City, significant investment can be seen on just about every corner because neighbors and business owners now think of our neighborhood as a “community of choice” where people want to live, work, and thrive.
I’ve shared Rachel’s story with you this afternoon for three reasons.
First, because it is a story about what can be accomplished when we work together to support our fellow human beings.
It’s also a great example of the geometric power of healing. Rachel’s four boys are on a path to outdistance their Mom, getting their B.A.s and maybe on beyond that. I know them and they are all solid. They have sound social values and will pass those along to whoever they meet in their work lives and of course, to their children. They are the living proof that generational poverty and distress can be turned around.
Third, Rachel’s story illustrates the many ways in which all of our lives are inextricably connected. Regardless of her past, today Rachel and her counterparts are as much a part of everyday life as you or I. Our graduates are standing in front of you at the ATM, or behind you at Target, they are working at the US Airways customer service counter, and serving you coffee at Au Bon Pain. Others are caring for nieces and nephews in childcare centers, sitting next to you at Church, or next to your parents at Trinity’s graduation, or caring for your neighbor in a nursing home.
Last night there were 1,263 Rachels in Philadelphia, and another 587 in Washington D.C. … and that’s not counting their children, or the single homeless guys.
So what! So, this:
Now is the time to make a decision.
Now is the time to make a commitment to social justice.
Now is the time to get involved.
You might think that working with someone like Rachel takes time, money, lots of staff and programs, and that it didn’t happen overnight. You are right. But let me give you a few examples of one person making a difference with just a few minutes or hours.
After the Vietnam War was over, the U.S. brought thousands and thousands of Southeast Asians into the country. Most were taken to refugee camps first, and then brought to the U.S. according to the legal requirements. Pennsylvania, Texas, California and Florida received almost 100% of the refugees because they were airlifted into four U.S. Army bases in those states. I was right out of graduate school working for Pennsylvania in the Welfare Department which had the responsibility for the refugee program. It was paid for by the U.S. – then the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) which is now called Health and Human Services HHS. My boss found out that there were hundreds of children in the camps without parents. Their parents were dead, lost, or otherwise missing. No state or private agency in the U.S. would accept the children because no one was sure of the liability. Who was responsible for those kids? Who would pay for their care, their medicine, who would put a roof over their head??? He knew that I had a degree in Law and Social Policy and assigned me the task of doing the legal research. This is before Lexus-Nexus and computers. I spent hours in the State Law Library and wrote a memo saying that there was no special case law or legislation assigning responsibility for unaccompanied minor refugees, thus, absent a specific directive, these children would fall under the auspices of the child welfare system in whatever locality wherever they landed. So, Philadelphia County would be legally responsible for kids who came into Philly. To be really honest, I was totally insecure about my memo and shocked when my boss used it to call Joe Califano, then Secretary of HEW under Jimmy Carter. Using my memo, he convinced Califano to review the matter. About six weeks later, we got a call from HEW staff attorneys saying that our opinion was correct. They issued a regulation ordering states and localities to accept unaccompanied refugee minors, spelling out how they should be cared for, etc. A few hours of my time in a dusty law library paved the way for all those orphaned kids.
Only three weeks ago, a young intern named Leslie, had a similar experience. She’s getting her MSW and must intern at a non-profit several days a week. In October, we assigned her to do the research on a special data source that counts children in schools all across the country. We wanted to know several things: 1) were homeless kids in school counted? 2) How are they counted? 3) Is anyone looking at their grades, attendance, etc so as to inform social workers and teachers about any possible special needs? She found out that there is a collection of information that the schools are mandated to collect. She also found out that other states and localities do collect information about homelessness though Philadelphia did not. She then spent four months writing reports, memos, letters, emails, position papers and policy briefs spelling out what was needed, why it was needed, that it would cost nothing, and that it would yield important information and potentially yield more funding for Philadelphia schools. Leslie was successful. She managed to get through to this huge bureaucracy and they actually are making the change as of this June.
Whether just on your own, or as part of a larger group, you can change the world. Besides doing good work, like teaching or being a social worker or becoming a community doctor or lawyer, and feeling good about yourself, there are a bunch of other positives about working for social justice.
In this economy, it is highly likely that many of you will not be making any or much money anyway, so you might as well enter the non-profit world of feeling good, doing good, and earning peanuts.
Non-profit work – be it volunteer or salaried – allows you to be entrepreneurial and creative. Keep in mind that KIPP schools that are a huge success were started by a couple of Teach for America kids with no experience but tons of creativity and energy.
Maybe the best reasons to dedicate yourself to good works are the amazing people you will meet. You will enter the world of so many people with the same vision as you, and they are a happy and good looking bunch. Many are also single…you know where I am going with this.
Seriously, the networks of your colleagues will be so much more interesting than the Bar Association’s Committee on Corporate Governance, or the Plastic Surgeons of America’s Annual Golf Outing. Not only are we in the social justice world more fun and more well rounded, we also end up in lots of very interesting, very unexpected places. I’ve been to Black Baptist Churches and Reformed Jewish Congregations, to urban community colleges and Ivy League business schools, to City Hall, the State Capitol, and to the White House (and not on a tour!!). I’ve spent time with Mayors, Governors, Senators, Scottish Royalty, and judges of all sorts, corporate VIPs, Steven Spielberg and Lily Tomlin. I rode in the presidential limo with George W. Bush and bent his ear about welfare reform. I actually was able to change the law, a tiny bit, so that welfare recipients could have the same kind of time off work as everyone else.
If I have one message for you, it’s this – just do it! Get out there and make a difference! We need you. And you need to do this for yourself. I see it in your faces and your energy. I think you are capable of doing what we (Class of ’67) and our colleagues and indeed your parents and grandparents couldn’t do. You can level the playing field and be part of a tidal wave of change.
Child Trends Databank. (2000). Early school readiness. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/291.
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (2007a, Mar). Share of national income going to wages and salaries at record low in 2006: Share of income going to corporate profits at record high. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.cbpp.org/8-31-06inc.htm.
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (2007b, Dec). Income inequality hits record levels, new CBO data show. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.cbpp.org/12-14-07inc.htm.
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (2008, Oct). Average income in 2006 up $60,000 for top 1% of households, just $430 for bottom 90%: Income concentration at highest level since 1928, new analysis shows. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.cbpp.org/3-27-08tax2.htm.
Food Stamp Participation data from SNAP: www.fns.usda.gov/pd/SNAPsummary.htm
Hernandez, D. J., & Macartney, S. E. (2008, Jan). Racial-ethnic inequality in child well-being from 1985-2004: Gaps narrowing but persist. Foundation for Child Development. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from http://ncmhd.nih.gov/child%20health.pdf.
Hemingway, M. Z. (2007, May 15). Little progress in hiring minority executives. Federal Times [online edition]. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.federaltimes.com/index.php?S=2752676 (article no longer available).
National Low-Income Housing Coalition. (2006a). Out of reach 2006. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.nlihc.org/oor/oor2006/.
National Low-Income Housing Coalition. (2006b). Recent data shows continuation, acceleration of housing affordability crisis. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from www.nlihc.org/doc/RN06-05.pdf.
The State of the Nation’s Housing; Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Available at www.gsd.harvard.edu/jcenter.
US Census Bureau. (2007, Sept). Historical poverty table 3: Poverty status of people, by age, race, and Hispanic origin 1959 to 2006. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Jan 30, 2009 from http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/rdp03.html.