Atlanta's legacy includes generations of successful African-American entrepreneurs, educators, artists, politicians, entertainers and other professionals. In fact, many people call our community a Mecca for African Americans who have embraced or desire to embrace a bright future.
Unfortunately, this same community includes a legacy in which one in four African-American women and girls faces generational poverty.
Recently, The Atlanta Women' s Foundation (AWF) commissioned The Schapiro Group to research the causes of generational poverty in the five-county metro Atlanta area. The resulting report shines a spotlight on this issue, its contributing factors, and ways our community can collaborate more effectively to make a difference -- ways to build the capacity of women and girls facing poverty in this community so they can sustain themselves and enjoy their lives, rather than "just getting by" from day to day.
As a result of this research, AWF is strengthening its focus areas to include early intervention: focusing on and funding the multi-layered needs of women while they are still girls. Ninety percent of brain development occurs before age 5. Children learn lifetime habits for health, nutrition and exercise before they ever begin school. By focusing more of our resources on "younger women" (girls), we hope to also ensure long-term success for adult women.
To cite just a few of the highlights from our recent research:
1. Formal Education is a foundational issue, yet high school graduation rates were just 52 percent in Atlanta Public Schools in 2011. By intervening early – supporting organizations which provide enhanced resources for girls and by setting high, yet realistic expectations for success -- we can help more young women move from elementary school to college or technical programs. This, in turn, will make it more likely that they will have careers where they earn a viable salary. Part of this success formula includes supporting early childhood education programs that also provide childcare for working women beginning in infancy. Studies by Hart and Risley show that when a girl in poverty hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a girl from a more affluent home, the child in poverty will likely continue to operate at a deficit throughout her educational lifetime.
2. Informal education is equally important. Too many girls and women living in poverty do not have a "tool kit" of basic life skills to be successful. This tool kit has to be focused on early intervention and on enhancing strong reading and spelling skills, financial management acumen, and support to effectively manage stress and family relationships. The women interviewed for our research said they would also like to learn more about parenting skills, career planning, etiquette and "dressing for success." They talked about the benefits of relationships with successful role models and mentors to help them see new possibilities in life and to receive advice and support. The women in poverty we interviewed want more for their children and their lives -- but often are at a loss about how to even begin the process.
3. Healthy living, including teen pregnancy prevention and avoiding risky, impulsive behavior must also be addressed early. Long before girls become teenagers, they need information and support to build self-confidence. They need to be able to say, "yes" to options that break legacies of generational poverty. Many girls also need support to effectively address mental and emotional challenges that put them at risk for substance abuse and violence. Healthy living also impacts girls' success economically and socially, and ideally can extend to the rest of their families.
The Atlanta Women's Foundation is focusing on these and other issues highlighted in our research report by enhancing its grant criteria and collaboration with other community partners. We are The Atlanta Women's Foundation, but more money alone will not eradicate poverty for girls and women in this community. We need to enhance our partnerships with those of you who work on the front lines to eradicate poverty in Atlanta. We encourage you to support our efforts by:
1. Obtaining a copy of our research report to read it in its entirety
2. Supporting the foundation's work by determining how to best collaborate with us, including contributing to our efforts, and
3. Logging on to www.atlantawomen.org for more information.
We look forward to working more closely with you to move Atlanta's women and girls who live in poverty from struggle to success. Please join us!
Danita V. Knight is the chairperson of The Atlanta Women's Foundation. The Foundation has invested more than $12 million in Atlanta nonprofit organizations working to end the generational cycle of poverty for women and girls. For more information or a copy of the research, visit www.atlantawomen.org.