Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join the Attorney General in opening the 3rd Annual National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. Officially formed in 2010 at the direction of President Obama, by the Departments of Justice and Education, this Forum brings together a wide constituency -- mayors, Members of Congress, and individuals from across the United States -- to build a national conversation about youth and gang violence. The Forum is designed to increase awareness, drive action, and build local capacity to address the impact of violence on young people more effectively. It models a new kind of federal and local collaboration, encouraging its members to change the way they do business by sharing common challenges and promising strategies and engaging in comprehensive planning and coordinated action.
The Forum is an important reminder that we are strongest when we work together with dedicated partners around the country. By working hand-in-hand, not only with our partners on the state and local level, but with the faith-based and non-profit communities, the private sector, and most importantly with the individuals and families that live in these communities every day, we can maximize what we achieve to keep our children safe. Here’s what I shared with Forum participants today:
Good morning, everyone. It is such a pleasure to be here.
Let me start by saying thank you to the Attorney General for his extraordinary leadership, not just on this issue but on so many issues. This is a man of great passion, and great heart, and great commitment, and we are a better nation because he is serving as our Attorney General. Thank you so much.
I should also thank the mayors here today from around the country. I had the privilege of serving as the President’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and I thank you for your leadership of America’s cities and in the way you help lead our country. It is this partnership that we value so much, and we’re so grateful for your leadership.
I also know we have some members of Congress here as well, and we thank you for being here and for your commitment.
And I’d like to recognize our federal partners who have been critical partners in this important work. You heard Karol, the first speaker, talk about breaking down silos and how important it is for federal agencies to be working in a collaborative way. This is something we take very seriously in this Administration. We have big challenges to meet, perhaps none greater or more compelling than the challenge that all of us are gathered here today to discuss.
I have the great privilege in leading the Domestic Policy Council and working with this really extraordinary Cabinet that President Obama has assembled. Starting with the Attorney General, but also including people like Secretary Duncan, Secretary Donovan, Secretary Foxx, and Secretary Sebelius to name just a few. The level of commitment from all of them around the table to make sure everyone is working in collaboration, that their teams are working in collaboration, that we are crossing boundaries to make sure that every dollar, every ounce of our commitment counts so we’re really moving the needle for people – this is an extraordinary thing, and it’s reaping benefits. But, we know we have a lot more to do. So I’m grateful to them, and I’m grateful to their teams who are here and a part of this effort.
That’s the thing that brings us all together, that we know that identifying and preventing youth violence before it starts requires a team effort and means we have to be working across boundaries and dividing lines to make sure we’re giving it our all.
That’s why, in 2010, President Obama directed the Departments of Justice and Education to launch the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, so that we could better coordinate federal efforts to make sure we’re better serving our kids.
This effort is particularly important to the President because youth violence hits close to home. You’ve heard him talk about his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. It is home to some of the most regular and most fatal gun violence in the country. Across the country, he and the First Lady have comforted too many families devastated by the effects of violence. This is personal.
So, he has set the tone from the top that ending the plague of youth violence must be a priority – you’ve heard him talk about it, and you know that’s coming straight from his heart.
When we see violence strike a community, our hearts break every time, especially when there are children involved. But we also see that every act of violence alters a community, undermines its sense of security and stability, reinforces a lot of negativity when what our kids need is a positive influence. They need opportunity, and they need hope, and they deserve those things.
We’re seeing this in the District of Columbia now as D.C. recovers from the effects of the Navy Yard shootings. There are families really struggling, really suffering, and as a community we are really struggling. And it makes you wonder how many times that tragedies like this are going to remind us of the necessity of action before Congress gets to work on this in a serious way.
Even as we know we must continue to press for action, and you know the President will continue to press for action, the President also believes that no law or policy or even package of policy proposals can prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.
There is so much more that we can do make sure we’re investing in education, making opportunity real in communities across the country, and creating a sense of optimism that can help stop violence before it develops.
That starts with standing with children at the earliest age and stage of life. It starts at home, with parents who read to their children, and spend time with their children, and instill a sense of curiosity and love of learning that will last a lifetime. It begins with an early childhood education, which is why the President has invested in child care, and in programs like Early Head Start, Head Start, and education home visits that help prepare our kids for success.
And it continues when our children enter school. That’s why the President has proposed a state and federal partnership to provide every four-year-old with access to a high-quality Pre-K program. This is something this administration is fighting for and we’re determined to achieve it.
We know that every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by conservative estimates – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia and Oklahoma – by the way these are states with Republican leadership, this is a bipartisan issue – students don’t just show up in kindergarten and first grade more prepared to learn – studies show they grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, even form more stable families of their own. Just this week, we have had confirmation from the business community, which weighed in in support of the President’s Pre-K proposal, and from childcare and health advocates they have demonstrated that they are all in – working as our partners to make this commitment a reality.
So that’s a great start. But the fact of the matter is that, even if we set up our children to learn from day one, if the walk to school involves passing boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots and other economic blight, our children remain at risk.
That’s why, since the day we came to Washington, the President has instructed his team to stay laser focused on doing everything we can to improve the economy, create jobs, and invest in our most struggling neighborhoods.
The Obama Administration has put a particular emphasis on battling persistent economic distress, helping chronically impoverished communities renew themselves and get back on the path to prosperity and stability.
That’s why in his first term, the President asked his Cabinet to work together, developing Promise and Choice Neighborhood grants that rebuilt the most distressed communities and ensured that kids had the educational opportunities they need.
And that’s why the President has now proposed combining a number these community development programs to create “Promise Zones” because we believe that with a coordinated revitalization effort, we can help these communities reduce crime, build more affordable housing, address education and quality of education in our schools, and reignite local economies.
The President is committed to “Promise Zones,” and he talked about this in the State of the Union Address, to invest in twenty of the hardest hit communities across the country in a way that unifies the work of federal agencies and really helps these communities find their tipping points, so that they can get on the other side of them and opportunity can be available in these communities again.
At the end of the day, what we’re aiming for is to build strong communities, where kids are getting the support and guidance they need, and where all Americans who are willing to work hard have the chance to get ahead.
Because in too many of our communities, young people feel that no matter how hard they study, no matter how hard they work, their destiny was predetermined by where they were born. And the economic reality is, what the statistics show, is that your zip code is often the most important deciding factor in determining what kind of opportunity you have in this country. This is not okay. This is something we have to change.
There are entire neighborhoods where young people don’t see an example of somebody succeeding. And for too many young boys and young men, in particular, they don’t see a father or grandfather setting an example as a family man, a community member to be held up and respected. This is something we can do something about.
But we don’t have to settle for that. We can’t settle for that. The President won’t settle for that. What we need is kids who can imagine a life beyond their street; young people who believe that their hard work in school is actually going to pay off, and that opportunity will be available to them. We must make opportunity available to them.
And if we can build those ladders of opportunity, then we can make sure that everyone in America grows up with that fundamental building block of success – hope for their own future.
Now, let me close here with a little story.
Earlier this year, the President visited the South Side of Chicago, where he first got his start in public service. He met with a group of young men participating in a school-based counseling, mentoring, and violence prevention program called “Becoming a Man” or B.A.M. – an extraordinary program that has reduced violent crime by 44 percent among its participants.
In fact, I understand that a former B.A.M. participant is on one of the panels today. Darren, please stand up and be acknowledged – we’re so glad you’re here.
Some were in the B.A.M. program by choice, having realized that without help they were headed down the wrong path. Others were in the program to avoid suspension or getting kicked out of school. But I can tell you that no one joined up because he thought he was going to meet the President of the United States or get invited to the White House, which is what happened at the end of their meeting.
True to his word, President Obama invited the young men to the White House in June. For many of them, it was their first time outside of Chicago.
Early in the day, someone asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The collective answer was some mixture of shrugs and mumbles, with a couple volunteering maybe they’d be a teacher or policeman – examples of successful careers they saw in their daily life.
At the end of the day, after meeting Secret Service agents, hearing from government officials, and hanging out with the President, they had changed their tune. Asked the same question, everyone suddenly had an opinion, an idea. They were going to be Secret Service agents… professors…Marines and Air Force pilots. Their dreams had grown.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the impact of just one day, although it was a pretty great day for us as well as the young men who participated. The road ahead for these boys is hard, and obviously we can’t replicate this experience for every young man, but what we can do is strive to bring that sense of opportunity and hope to every young man and woman all around the country.
Because that’s what will make the difference. As a mother, I do not accept that when it comes to young people, violence is inevitable. I do not accept that we should be living with the statistics you heard from the Attorney General, that 60% of young people in this country are affected by violence. We don’t have to watch our kids be hurt by this situation. As you all know, there is another way.
If we can help our kids get the start they need…if we can help communities that are struggling rebuild…if we can make sure that every American believes in their own shot at success because we make that shot at success real, then, together, we can reach our goal of making every community in this country is safe. And we can give our children the future that they deserve.
I’m so grateful that you’re gathered here to do this work, and we’re so grateful for the work of your government partners, but we’re especially grateful for the work you do with communities all around this country.
We know we can’t be successful in meeting the very ambitious goals the President and the Attorney General have set out for us without you and what you do.
So thank you so much, not just for the hard work that got us here, but especially for the hard work ahead. We have so much to do and we’re so grateful to you for doing it.
Thank you very much.