For Millions of Low-income Workers Left Behind by Public Transit Systems, Every Day’s a Snow Day

By Courtney Hutchison, PolicyLink

The record 100-plus inches of snow that has pounded the Boston metropolitan area this winter has brought the city’s ailing public transportation system to the forefront of the public debate as more than a million workers struggled to get to work in the aftermath of repeated transportation system shutdowns.

Story after story in the news has featured images of long lines of weary commuters, decrying the unacceptably long and inconsistent snow day commutes, but for the millions of Americans living in neighborhoods cut off from reliable, affordable public transportation, a two-hour commute prey to delays and inconsistent service is a daily occurrence. For these Americans, every commute is a “snow day” commute.

The media attention garnered by these snow-related transit shutdowns — and the sudden support for a multi-billion dollar revamp of Boston’s rail system — is testament to a disturbing trend in transportation decision-making all over the country: short-term failure of usually-reliable transit makes national headlines, but the ongoing neglect and disinvestment that characterize routes serving low-income communities goes unmentioned.

Neighborhoods that are cut off from quality public transportation are disproportionately low-income communities of color, highlighting the widespread, but often overlooked racial and economic discrimination that affects so many public transportation systems in this country. In Boston, it’s the divestment in certain bus routes that results in longer commute times for low-income communities and communities of color. A 2012 analysis found that even among the city’s bus commuters, Black residents spent an average of 80 minutes more a week commuting to work, often due to multiple transfers and long wait times.

In New Orleans, it’s the bus systems serving low-income and communities of color that ten years after Hurricane Katrina have never been restored. In Detroit, it’s the $137 million transportation project serving only those in the city’s business sector that will leave car-less low-income populations stranded in the city’s outskirts. Similarly, in Nashville, a $175 million investment for a Bus Rapid Transit project will service mainly wealthy, white neighborhoods, while ignoring low-income communities of color like North Nashville.

These are just a few examples. All over America, transportation systems are failing the communities that need them most.

Building equity within our transportation systems is about more than addressing gaps in service, it’s about creating transportation systems that connect people to opportunity — whether that be a job, a better school for your kids, or vital community resources like health care or grocery stores. These are building blocks of a thriving community, and ensuring that public transportation systems work for everyone will make for healthier, safer, and more economically stable communities for entire cities and regions.

As this snow-induced transit crisis in Boston has shown, making any kind of large investment to transportation infrastructure is often an uphill battle, and one that takes a surge of political will to usher in updates and repairs that in some neighborhoods have been sorely needed for decades.

That is why the Transportation Equity Caucus, a diverse coalition of over a hundred organizations, works continually to put racial and economic equity at the heart of local, state, and federal transportation decisions. Toward this end, the Caucus awarded six grantees last week with funds to educate, advocate, and host convenings to enlist support for equitable transportation policies in their communities.

Because we shouldn’t have to wait for a crisis to start a serious conversation about transportation and the way it shapes the lives, and futures, of families throughout the nation.

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President Obama Announces Proposed Retirement Savings Protections

President Obama announced new protections for retirement savers today, stating that Americans who work hard to put away money for retirement deserve peace of mind knowing that the financial retirement advice they receive is sound. The proposed rule is good news for many hard-working low- and middle-income Americans who struggle to save for an independent and secure retirement, only to have their pockets picked by the financial professionals they turn to for advice.

Less wealthy savers have the most to gain from the new Department of Labor rule. It would require all financial professionals to put the interests of their customers first when providing retirement advice. Currently, small account holders are more likely than wealthier people to get their advice from brokers, essentially salespeople, who are legally permitted to put their firm’s bottom line ahead of maximum returns for their customers.

Because they already struggle to set aside adequate retirement savings, women and communities of color in particularly are hard hit by predatory industry practices that, according to a new report by the Council of Economic Advisers, cost retirement savers $17 billion dollars a year in lost savings.

With so much money at stake, financial firms are fighting desperately to block the policy. To make their efforts appear more respectable, they have argued their efforts are motivated not by self-interest, but by concern for smaller-dollar and minority savers—and that financial firms will only serve these groups if they remain free to profit at their expense. This is a lot like the arguments we heard from the mortgage industry a decade ago, while it steered creditworthy borrowers into predatory home loans. Hard-working Americans deserve a better deal.

Today’s announcement is an important step toward ensuring that all retirement savers—not just the wealthy few—get sound advice from financial professionals who are legally required to put the customer’s interests first.

“In America, after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and a sense of security,” said President Obama, who stressed retirement security as a vital component of our country’s economy. “The strength of our economy rests on whether hardworking families can feel secure.”

In this short video, the Department of Labor breaks down this retirement savings issue:

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Why We Must Confront America’s History of Racial Terrorism

In the period between the Civil War and World War II, nearly 4,000 African-American men, women, and children were lynched in the American South during our country’s shameful era of racial terrorism.

Today, the violence and horror of these murders may have been erased from civic memory, but a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, released last week, urges America to begin a conversation about this history of horror and the injustice and anguish that it bred. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” examines how this era of racial terrorism shaped the geographic, economic, and political conditions of African Americans in the 20th century, and how this period’s legacy of racial inequality persists today. The report highlights how problems shaped by this period of racial terrorism are especially apparent in today’s criminal justice system, where people of color disproportionately experience excessive sentencing, capital punishment, and police abuse.

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“Lynching in America” is the product of the Equal Justice Initiative’s multi-year investigation into lynching in the 12 most active lynching states during the period between the Civil War and World War II. Between 1877 and 1950, the report documents 3,959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The report found at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported in the most recent comprehensive research done on the subject.

Lynchings were not uncommon, isolated events solely carried out by extremists and vigilantes. Rather, the report details how terror lynching was widespread, many times committed in front of officials and the entire community in broad daylight. The report describes how lynching of African Americans was racial terrorism, a phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation, and one that was widely supported or tolerated by government officials and the community. Victims of terror lynchings were not convicted of any crime; in fact, many times they were tortured and murdered in front of spectators for committing seemingly harmless, innocuous offenses such as bumping into a White person or not addressing someone properly.

Although episodes of lynching were widespread, barbaric, and abominable, not a single White person was ever convicted of murder for lynching a Black person during this period. No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in our country. “Lynching in America” argues that this speaks to our country’s collective failure to value the Black lives lost in this period of racial terror.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of Equal Justice Initiative. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

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Education Advocates Work Toward Building a ‘Great Future’ For Children in Colorado

By Tara Yarlagadda, Field Associate

On an unassuming thoroughfare, surrounded by fast food joints, a strip mall, and a series of chain hotels, no one would have guessed that major progress in education equity was taking place on the 11th floor of the Denver Cherry Creek Marriott hotel. More than 150 parents, teachers, superintendents, legislators, community activists, and other education advocates gathered there on January 30 for the 2015 Great Futures Statewide Education Organizing Conference, which was co-sponsored by the Great Futures Coalition, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and Great Education Colorado.

Over the course of the day, advocates heard from a variety of empowering panelists and speakers, including a parent discussing the need to redress educational inequity in Latino communities by training more teachers of color. The need to find common ground between parents on the Common Core State Standards was also brought into the conversation during the panel discussions.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund also had the opportunity to moderate and participate in a panel discussion with the thought-provoking title “Are We Getting Every Student Ready for the World?”  The answer was somewhat disheartening, as advocates responded with a resounding “no, not yet.” However, panelists did present hopeful and tangible solutions to the problems facing Colorado’s schools. After a series of hearty panel discussions and presentations, activists broke up into a variety of workshops in which they spoke with legislators and talked about leading education campaigns.

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The Great Futures Colorado Campaign is a project of Great Education Colorado, an organization whose motto can best be described as “grassroots powering education.” The brainpower behind Great Education resides in the basement of a small building in a residential neighborhood in Denver, where a set of determined women work to pave a better future for Colorado’s students by activating grassroots efforts and stimulating investment in the state’s schools and universities. To give a snapshot of what went into making this conference a reality at the Great Education headquarters: In the span of an hour during the day before the conference, one staff member was printing out name labels, another was accommodating last-minute registration requests from eager attendees, while another was preparing table arrangements. Volunteers were prepping packets at light speed while cutting ribbons and preparing lanyards.

All of this energy that went into the conference was directed toward a single common goal: to provide public education supporters with the knowledge, motivation, tools, and camaraderie they need to advocate together effectively to ensure that every student graduates ready for the world.

It was a grand undertaking, to say the least. But I can unequivocally say: they succeeded.

I had the privilege of working alongside the wonderful women of Great Education in preparation for this conference, and I was blown away by their dedication to ensuring that every student leaves school ready for the world that lies beyond. At a time when K-12 students need more resources than ever and adequate standards and tools to measure their success, Great Education is doing its part to make sure that the children of Colorado get a fair chance. The Leadership Conference Education Fund is proud to work with Great Education in this campaign for educational equity.

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Survey: Some Americans Still Very Uncomfortable with LGBT People

On the same day that Alabama became the 37th marriage equality state, and just weeks after President Obama called marriage equality a “civil right” in his State of the Union address, new polling released by GLAAD offers a sobering reminder: many Americans are still uncomfortable with LGBT people.

Based on two surveys conducted in late 2014, “Accelerating Acceptance” reveals that – while a majority of Americans support the protections that accompany same-sex marriage, a third of those polled said they would be uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding, while 43 percent said they would be uncomfortable bringing a child to one.

Beneath marriage equality’s recent progress is “a layer of uneasiness and discomfort,” the executive summary says. “While the public is increasingly embracing LGBT civil rights and equal protection under the law, many are still uncomfortable with having LGBT people in their families and the communities where they live.”

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So where do we go from here?

“Closing the gap to full acceptance of LGBT people will not come from legislation or judicial decisions alone, but from a deeper understanding and empathy from Americans themselves,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of GLAAD, in a statement on Monday. “Accelerating acceptance will require the help of not just LGBT people, but also their allies – everyday Americans who feel strongly and take an active role to make sure that their LGBT friends and family are fully accepted members of society.”

Click here to read more of the survey’s findings.

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One Way to Help Combat Anti-Semitic Violence Worldwide

By Milan Kumar, a Spring 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Amidst a rise in anti-Semitic violence around the world, the United Nations General Assembly hosted a plenary meeting last week to discuss the best way to respond to the violence. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, gave remarks at the meeting and focused on the importance of responding to anti-Semitism with diversity.

“I am here because anti-Semitism is not a problem just for Jews,” Henderson said. “It is a problem that threatens our fundamental human rights, and challenges the essence of our democracies. It is everyone’s responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, and all forms of racism, bigotry, intolerance, and xenophobia that hold our societies back from reaching their full potential.”

This U.N. General Assembly meeting comes after a delegation of civil and human rights advocates attended the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin in November. The delegation included leading Jewish, Muslim, Latino, African-American, Asian American, women’s and LGBT civil rights leaders to encourage the OSCE member states to do more to protect minorities from religious, racial, ethnic, homophobic, and xenophobic hate crimes.

The delegation highlighted the success of their inter-faith, inter-racial coalition in the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in 2009, and urged OSCE nations to follow this model with respect to anti-Semitism in Europe.

“We have come to Berlin to demonstrate our solidarity with communities facing anti-Semitism and bigotry and to exchange models for successful inter-racial, inter-faith coalitions. Our experience is that broad, inclusive coalitions can galvanize public support and a more accountable and responsive government approach,” said Henderson, head of the delegation.

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Parents and Teachers Join Forces for #AllStudentsMatter Day of Action

By Milan Kumar, a Spring 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On Wednesday, the day of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s first hearing on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights hosted a day of action called #AllStudentsMatter to ensure that all students have equal access to a quality education.

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The hearing focused on the effects of standardized testing and the need for accountability in our nation’s public schools. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, testified at the hearing and stressed the importance of protecting the rights of minority students, low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, and other underserved students.

“Education is even more important today than ever before. A high school diploma is just not enough to access the jobs of today and tomorrow. Students now need postsecondary education or further training after high school,” Henderson said in his testimony. “[W]e cannot ignore the fact that state and local school financing systems have been unfair and inadequate. We know that money spent wisely can and will make an enormous difference in the ability of high-poverty schools to prepare our students for college and career.”

After attending the hearing, more than 40 parents, principals, and community leaders gathered for the #AllStudentsMatter day of action, which included meeting with their home-state senators and staffers to encourage a strong federal role in education. Parents and other advocates came from Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.

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Participants had two main asks: the continuation of annual testing to track student progress, and accountability and increased transparency in the use of Title 1 funds, which are meant to help the most underserved communities.

Why is a strong ESEA needed? Latasha Gandy from Minnesota said that, “As a parent, it’s important to keep track of how my children are doing in school and I am not the only parent that feels this way. The annual testing required by the federal government is needed to ensure we know where our children stand every year. As a community, we have to protect the civil rights of all students and ensure they have access to a quality education.”

Jesus Carillo, a Colorado parent and advocate, shared a similar view. “I don’t think states should be left on their own to keep track of how students and schools are performing. ESEA showed us what the achievement gaps are, and now we need to take responsibility—all of us—for closing them.”

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