As we paused this week to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his incredible legacy, we also paused to consider all of the work that still needs to be done. Fifty years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into Law. Half a century later, we know the importance of this act and how it helped define so many of the gains for communities across the United States. The Civil Rights Act helped define our collective national identity. And yet, as we said goodbye to 2014, we were forced to look at the structural inequity that continues to define the lives of whole communities. We were made to see over and over again how this work of civil and human rights continues to need our diligence and commitment. We see that we are from the Beloved Community that Dr. King so beautifully spoke of time and again.
As AFF digs deeper into our new program areas, we see this work as part of our mission and vision for a more just society. Earlier this month, Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation and I co-authored the following letter to inform our communities of our personal and institutional commitments to equity and social justice in our grantmaking and continued engagement with our grantees.
A New Year’s Reflection on Ferguson and Staten Island
The holiday season—from Christmas through the first few days of a new year—is a time when many of us pause, visit loved ones, recharge and reflect. As we turn with hope and optimism toward the year ahead we must not forget the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Nor must we forget that there are whole communities in the United States that are not always protected by our laws. Our justice system has profoundly and systematically failed them, depriving them of a fair shot at success.
The Surdna Foundation and the Andrus Family Fund are saddened by these deaths and others like them that are avoidable. We care about and advocate for just and sustainable communities. We care about the well-being of communities touched by our work as well as people in communities we may never know. And we care about the men and women in uniform, like New York City Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who are called to protect our communities and all too often killed in the line of duty. Because, we know that all of our futures are inextricably linked.
However, we know that caring is not always enough. We stand in solidarity with organizations advocating for reforms to the juvenile and adult justice system, and underscore their efforts to remind Americans that some of the most revered institutions in our democracy are unfairly impacting the life experiences and opportunities of people of color.
Through the work of the Andrus Family Fund (AFF), an independent grantmaker launched in 1999 by the Surdna Foundation, for example, we are challenging the “school-to-prison pipeline,” wherein a disproportionate percentage of young people of color are isolated, punished and pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
We believe everybody deserves more than one chance at a successful life, so AFF’s work helps to ensure that young people, including those in or aging-out of the foster care system, or impacted by juvenile justice systems, have another opportunity for a positive future.
Working with partners like the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, a collaboration of foundations focused on changing conditions for young people of color, AFF is helping to create a pathway to a more stable and sustainable life. Partnerships like this and many others are connecting young people to the caring communities, proven services and vital skills that they so sorely missed earlier in life.
We believe that reform of the juvenile justice system is imperative, but that the enormity and complexity of the challenges highlighted by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner demand that we work on multiple fronts. To address a series of interrelated and systemic challenges, Surdna and the Andrus Family Fund are working each day in partnerships with many outstanding organizations and inspiring leaders toward fostering just and sustainable communities in which people participate in creating their own futures. And, where they have essentials upon which to build those futures, including access to quality jobs, a working infrastructure including reliable transportation, a healthy environment, opportunities for creative expression and cultural nourishment.
We strive toward a more equitable society, and to get there, understand that we must pursue social justice in all that we do.
President, Surdna Foundation
Executive Director, Andrus Family Fund