Personal Reflections from Karen Pittman on the First Week of 2021

Change the Damned Odds: Personal Reflections on the First Week of 2021

Karen Pittman, President and CEO, The Forum for Youth Investment

When my phone’s emergency alert alarm went off at 3 pm Wednesday, I knew it wasn’t a weather emergency. The Mayor was shutting down the city. I assumed that the violence many of us dreaded had started. It wasn’t until I finished my virtual meetings and turned on the news, however, that I saw the scope and seriousness of the events. It did not take long to process them: White nationalists had successfully breached the U.S. Capitol. I am still working to fully understand the motivations of the leaders – from elected officials to law enforcement – who fueled that rage and then let this happen. This was not a natural disaster. This was a man-made disgrace.

What I am really struggling with is how to respond to them. What can I do? What should I do?

On Monday, we released the official announcement that, as of February 1st, I will transition from my role as President and CEO of the Forum to a non-management Senior Fellow position. On Tuesday, I celebrated my 69th birthday. I spent Wednesday morning talking with staff about scaling back my responsibilities so I have more time for thinking, writing, and strategizing about how we – adults in leadership roles – “can dramatically change the odds for youth if we commit to upend inequities, embrace science-informed strategies, and accelerate progress.” This is the idea at the heart of the Readiness Projects.

48 hours later, I read the three phrases in this optimistic statement and thought: they are not in the right order. We cannot accelerate progress by using scientific findings to upend the inequities that stifle opportunities for young people who have been historically underserved by policy and practice until we change the odds that they, their families, and their neighbors could execute anything like the January 6th insurrection and survive. There is not a Black or Brown person in this country who took more than 30 seconds to see the footage and think – we would be on the ground. Knees to necks. And I expect that the contrast is not lost on White allies who joined the Black Lives Matters protest last June.

On February 1st, for the first time in almost 40 years, I will not have responsibility for a staff and budget. I do not have to speak as the leader of an organization. This move was designed to give me time for strategic reflection. The times, however, may demand more.

I started my journey from research into policy advocacy and practice reform at the Children’s Defense Fund, having been called into service by Marian Wright Edelman. Late last week, I took great comfort in the reflections posted by Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s wonderful new President and CEO, whom I had the honor of getting to know in St. Louis. I end this note with a quote from his powerful reflections on “The End of Innocence about America.”

“All our children, home for virtual instruction, watched on television today as violent, anti-democratic white supremacists were allowed to storm and briefly occupy the U.S. Capitol-just as they watched this summer as activists for racial justice were met with tear gas, shot with rubber bullets, and arrested. Today’s events in Washington, D.C. are clear examples of the existential threat and trauma of white supremacy to our children, our country, and the world. Images of the home of our federal legislature under siege by domestic terrorists signify the extent to which the future of our democracy is much more a contest over power than a principled debate about public policy.”

I believe in the power of public ideas. But I stand ready to be pushed out of my comfort zone and put to work in ways I have not imagined. As John Lewis said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”