Science, Hope, and the Future of Our Children

Professor Emeritus Robert Block had intended to call his presentation to the 25 by 25 early education conference “Science, Hope, and the Future of Oklahoma.” But then he saw the front page of the day’s Tulsa World. Next to the World article “DOC Seeks $1 Billion for Next Year: Agency Says It Needs to Build Two New Prisons” was the story headlined, “Okla. Leads US in Education Cuts.” So the Past President of American Academy of Pediatrics, renamed the address, “Oh, My Goodness!”

Clearly these sad stories are intertwined. One reason why Oklahoma is ranked the second worst state in terms of women’s welfare is that we are first in the world in incarcerating women. And 2/3rds of incarcerated women are single moms.

Over-incarceration is one reason why Oklahoma is tied for first in children who have survived four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and one reason why Oklahoma County is the 17th worst county in terms of economic futures for poor children. That’s four points below Baltimore County. The prospects for poor boys in Oklahoma County may not be much below than those in places like Baltimore; it’s the futures of girls that lag even further behind. Cuts in state education spending of 28% per student make it impossible to fund the classroom instruction which could provide a path out of generational poverty.

Tragically, Oklahoma is not alone in undermining the ideal of offering a healthy and fulfilling future for all of our kids.

Dr. Block began his talk by quoting Walt Disney, “All adults were once children.” Historically, Oklahomans have endured disproportionate toxic stress created by extreme poverty and trauma. Now we understand the cognitive science which explains how the damage done by ACEs is passed down through the generations.

However, this knowledge has not prevented the state from making brutal cuts in public services. We’ve had world historical disasters after world historical disasters imposed on so many Oklahomans. Now we are inflicting tragedies on ourselves.

The purpose of 25 by 25 is to raise Oklahoma to the top 25 of the states in children’s well-being by 2025. The coalition draws upon state-of-the-art science and meaningful metrics to convince voters and lawmakers that such a goal is doable and to do whatever is necessary to reach it. A key to success is building the four Cs: nurturing Competence, Confidence, Connections, and Character.

Enlightening the public and the state government on the damage being done ACEs is the first step. We must now invest in PACEs, or Protective and Compensatory Experiences. This requires high-quality and appropriately funded early education, cross-generational family services, and a team effort by adults to mentor our children, and teach them resilience. As was explained, how high you jump doesn’t matter as much as how well you bounce.

This analogy is equally timely for our voters and lawmakers. It’s awful that we’ve cut services in such a brutal manner, but it’s time to move beyond the blame game and invest in our children’s future. The conference prompted me to write something that I’d never done before, using a military metaphor in calling for a new mission.

We Baby Boomers were taught that during the Great Depression the U.S. had starved our armed forces as Hitler was rising to power. Consequently, our unprepared army found itself battling totalitarian forces that often were better at offence, defense, and other aspects of ground combat. However, there was something fundamental about American democracy that saved us. In contrast to our totalitarian opponents, when American officers were killed or wounded, enlisted men stepped up and took charge. The enemy might have been better at following orders, but our culture bred resilient citizens who took responsibility in a moment of crisis.

Similarly, workers stepped up and reengineered their assembly lines. All types of American ingenuity helped create the economic and military powerhouse that won the war. And the triumph of democracy sparked three decades known as “Pax Americana” when an unprecedented percentage of people shared in the “American Dream.”

When my generation was young, survivors of the Great Depression and war veterans were determined to provide us with a better future. Kids like me always had plenty of adult mentors. Too many of today’s children lack the loving guidance that was offered to Boomers.

Today’s political combat isn’t as lethal as a world war, but it often seems like political institutions are being overwhelmed. Oklahoma’s and other state’s political establishments may have shrunk government to the point where it can now be strangled in the bath tub. As is true in so much of today’s systems, our politics are stalemated and too many of our children are neglected.

But 25 by 25 exemplifies our best qualities. Broad and deep coalitions of nonprofits and grassroots partners are rising to the occasion. A nonviolent citizens’ army is taking responsibility. Just as in the post-war era where survivors of the Great Depression and WWII veterans nurtured my classmates and me, volunteers are rushing to save our children’s future.

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