By Wenimo Okoya, Associate Vice President, Healthy and Ready to Learn Initiative, Children’s Health Fund
As a Black woman and an educator, I have been feeling many emotions since hearing of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Primarily despair, grief, rage, and exhaustion.
I look at my community and see so much beauty, vibrancy, and life. I am the aunt of four Black nephews, and when I think about what is being done to us and what it means for them, I am filled with heartache and a heaviness I can’t clearly express.
At any other time, these horrors would be devastating enough. But this trauma is not new, and these murders came at a time when we were already in a state of grief and pain from disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the forefront of my heart and mind, as a former teacher who still works with children and schools as the head of the Healthy and Ready to Learn initiative (HRL) with Children’s Health Fund, is agony over how Black children are processing the tragedy and stress of this moment.
Children’s Health Fund serves children living in marginalized communities across the country. More than 80% of students who attend HRL schools are living below the federal poverty threshold.* Ninety-nine percent of them identify as Black or Brown. These days, I’m thinking most of these kids, many of whom are also experiencing other injustices as a result of structural racism. The last few months have been an onslaught of traumatic events that are shaping so much of how they understand the world and their place in it.
In the face of the pandemic, these children have been struggling through the shortcomings of virtual learning while their families battle food insecurity and financial strain. Since a conversation with a friend, I have become keenly aware of how messages on the news must be affecting the children and young people we have worked with over the last decade or so. They have been hearing how they, their caregivers, and loved ones, are more likely to be infected and die from coronavirus. And amidst these immediate threats from COVID-19, they are now seeing videos, images, and reports of people who look like them and their loved ones being murdered while doing seemingly safe things: running, shopping, being at home. How does that impress on a developing child’s sense of self-worth, health, and wellbeing?
Children are perceptive, observant, and sensitive to their surroundings. This violence and community devastation can be deeply traumatizing to any child, but especially to Black children whose families and communities are bearing the brunt. The realities of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and the messages and images depicting their brutality, shape how Black children see their surroundings, their safety in the world and, more importantly, how they perceive themselves and their value. Black children are already impacted by generations of racial trauma. It scares me to think about the short-term and long-term mental health and physical health impact this moment is potentially having on these young, innocent minds.
With every national injustice and tragedy, Black children are hearing that they are the most expendable, the least protected in our world. They need more messages of their #BlackGirlMagic and their #BlackBoyJoy: celebrations of their full humanity and worth outside of dehumanizing stereotypes.
I know it’s not possible, but I wish it was in my power to protect all of these children and to dismantle the systems that have created this phenomenon. Being an educator, I think about how we can respond to the tragedy of these times in a way that is more than reactive. What does it mean to protect our children when we know the trauma they are experiencing now is compounded by similar injustices experienced by their parents, grandparents, and through generations?
For me, the answer lies in healing. And to heal is to acknowledge there was a wound in the first place. We must give both children and caregivers space, support, and tools to cultivate joy, self-worth, and care for themselves and their communities. And we must put our resources into impacting the root social causes of health inequities and trauma, which lie in “social determinants of health,” things like poverty, housing, punitive school systems. Working from a place of hope and restoration, we must focus on things that will give children inspiration and full knowledge of their value and beauty. If we continue to only react to the symptoms of trauma and devastation, the system will be working against us.
We cannot do this important work without allies. Thank you for your past support of our work. For considering being a supporter. And for simply caring and being aligned in hearts and minds.
*For a family of four with two children under the age of 18, the poverty threshold set for 2019 is $24,600.