The Path of Totality (August 2017)
Earlier this week, the youth at Cornerstones’ Laurel Learning Center gathered in a park near our childcare center with their safety glasses and appropriately chosen snack of “Moon Pies” to watch the total solar eclipse. This first in a lifetime experience made summer learning a breeze as children, youth and adults alike eagerly planned for the moment the moon would pass over the sun in rare and perfect alignment. Teachers, counselors and parents – we all recognized this unique opportunity to be part of the conversation by creating a safe space for observation and learning.
So why then in 2017, when history and data are in plain view do we still find it so hard to talk about race and structural inequity?
How do we as teachers create safe spaces for our children to talk about Charlottesville, or honor without rationalizing through our own lens the lived experiences of those who grapple daily with the moments when the “isms” – race, ethnicity, religion, birthplace, age, gender, identity – make you the target of someone’s bigotry or hatred? How do we come to terms with the impact of our own biases, or our own place in “privilege” politics as described by Richard Reeves in Dream Hoarders?
While these conversations may be hard, I know that I have personally let too many moments pass, eclipsed by the fear that my words will not do justice to these issues, that I might (continue to) offend, or that we are not ready as an organization for the sharp scrutiny of an equity lens.
The moment is now. Cornerstones’ board and staff have acknowledged the need to act, to do more to confront the systemic barriers that keep people from securing stable housing, finding meaningful work and seeing their children succeed. Above all, we must put community members at the center of those conversations and check our need to help and feel good about our “charity” against the work that will drive justice and change.
Cornerstones has been deeply engaged in leading and shaping conversations for decades – our mission grounded in the inclusive language and equity principles of Reston’s founder Robert E. Simon. Will those principles be in evidence as Reston considers the redevelopment of the Reston Town Center and its mandate to rebuild the Embry Rucker homeless our community demanded to meet needs 30 years ago?
As a proud contributor to the Fairfax County Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness, we have reduced homelessness by 42% since 2008, but have fallen short in how we will answer the question of disproportionality. African Americans are just 9.6% of the total population of Fairfax County, but represent 43% of singles and 58% of families who are homeless today. That means reversing decades of policies or practice and making the commitment to bring new housing and employment opportunities to people who have had doors slammed shut.
Cornerstones reached a milestone in 2015 when it doubled its own stock of local, affordable housing, but we would need to double that again year after year to meet the projected 3,000 new households with extremely low- and very low incomes who will be working and living in the greater Reston-Herndon area over the next 15 years. Will we make room?
Despite a thriving local economy and school system ranked at the top nationally in terms of overall achievement Fairfax County’s Equity Profile and the Child Opportunity Index tell us the same story of glaring disparities that divide among racial/ethnic and geographic lines. The good news is that Fairfax County is doing something about that with the One Fairfax Initiative, and Cornerstones is a leader in redefining our community’s commitment to help every child succeed through the Opportunity Neighborhoods collaborative and the Connections for Hope Partnership of government and nonprofit partners in Herndon.
Reston’s Opportunity Neighborhood or RestON brings together residents, students, business and sector partners to create well-being for all children and youth by addressing barriers to their success, increasing opportunities and building the resiliency of their families.
Whether it is in the areas of health, early childhood development, school and job readiness, safety, community engagement or advocacy, an Opportunity Neighborhood is about communities identifying priorities and working together toward positive change.
That work is being informed by community members, with leadership from Neighborhood Ambassadors, and support from a diverse group of allies. The Ambassador program engages community members as volunteers to reach out to other parents, guardians and youth on a one-to-one basis, particularly at neighborhood–based venues such as community centers, schools, houses of worship and civic associations.
In addition to having a hand in creating a safe, prosperous and inspiring environment for all children, youth and families, Ambassadors will receive a modest stipend and know the joy of developing new skills and building new friendships. To apply or learn more about the Neighborhood Ambassador Program, visit www.cornerstonesva.org/rest-on.
As we look to our future, it is with the sure knowledge that Cornerstones is standing with its community in the “path of totality” where everything is perfectly aligned for the conversations that are long overdue.
Kerrie B. Wilson