The Penn Futures Project is an ambitious and unprecedented initiative by three professional schools at the University of Pennsylvania—the Graduate School of Education, the School of Nursing, and the School of Social Policy & Practice–to collaboratively address pressing social issues that affect Philadelphia’s most vulnerable young people and their families.
Since the onset of the pandemic, politicians, Hollywood actors, and ordinary citizens alike have reminded us that “We are all in this together”. The statement is meant to calm fears and reinforce the idea that a united front is better than our individual desires—a kind of gestalt moment when we aim to see the whole and not simply the parts. Despite the strength of this statement, any observer would also have to take note that we have all been in this differently as well, not in the past two months alone but over generations.
After weeks of the pandemic, news reports highlighted what health and social science researchers have studied and known for years—that health disparities between people of color and whites persist and are inextricably linked to systemic barriers, educational and income inequality, and discrimination in America. Whether we can see the conditions of our community members, we can all imagine families trying to combat the coronavirus in their small apartments that often house two and three generations of the poor. A mother may be required to share a bedroom, not only with her child but with others as well. In addition, people of color are disproportionately represented as essential workers and do not have the luxury of working from home and sheltering at home. Yet, despite the acknowledgement of the devastating effects of inequality and racism by some political leaders, no one has defined a clear pathway to change.
The past two months have made the intractability of racism increasingly hard to ignore. We replay the voice of the preschooler who watches her father, Philando Castile, killed by police without apparent provocation and who, then, comforts her mother; the story of the young woman in Louisville, Breonna Taylor, who lost her life as police bashed in her front door and shot aimlessly into the dark; the news account describing the young Black man on a jog in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery, who is killed by two white men; the Black man in Central Park, Christian Cooper, a bird watcher, who after asking a white woman to put her dog on a leash (as required by law) is accused by the woman of threatening her in a call that she made to the police; and George Floyd, whose story was recorded and has unleashed decades of frustration and anger. As these events were occurring, so were many others that are local to communities and that will never be chronicled but that African Americans, whether living in middle-class or poverty-stricken communities, know ever so well.
As faculty co-directors of Penn Futures, a collaborative effort of three schools—Education, Nursing, and Social Policy & Practice—and as researchers who have worked to eradicate the disparities and the systemic racism that re-inscribe those disparities, we write in solidarity with our colleagues, students, communities, and friends who want to effect positive change. We write to acknowledge these distressing events over time and to share our deep hurt for the pain of the families who suffer. We also write to declare as have others our commitment to the fight—to eliminate the overt and nuanced systemic barriers, healthcare and educational disparities, structural inequality, and acts of racism that make prisoners of African Americans and other people of color from the moment of their birth throughout their lives. When we calculate the risks to which young children are exposed, the most dominant is related to their race and poverty, with African American children being over-represented. For far too many of us, there has been neither peace nor justice.
Over the coming months, we will heighten our work with our colleagues in the three Schools and the University and with local policy makers. Most importantly, we will partner in genuine ways with communities who are at the center of our mission in Penn Futures and of our own personal and professional commitments. We will embark on a trajectory to listen and to use the knowledge we gain from listening, to act in partnership with communities to name the problems explicitly and to address them. In doing this, we can match our outrage through caring, healing, taking responsibility, and working to effect change—to act without fear and with our intellect and our hearts. The present is a critical moment to reflect and then to act while we acknowledge that “we are all in this differently”, but “we are all in this together”.
Vivian L. Gadsden (Graduate School of Education)
Terri Lipman (School of Nursing)
Faculty Co-Directors, Penn Futures