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Strengthening the Safety Net is Critical

April 12, 2013

By Silvana Straw, Senior Philanthropic Services Officer at The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

“I ride the bus, and on a Saturday morning you listen to teenagers talk about which of their friends got shot the night before—who died—who’s still walking around with a coat that has blood from one of their friends on it. And it’s a casual conversation to them, and I’m going crazy inside listening to them because it’s not normal, it shouldn’t be normal, but it is for them…” ~ Kyle Dargan

Photo credit: Kyle G. Dargan

Too many young people in the region lack quality education, safe neighborhoods, safe schools, health care, jobs, stable homes, and housing. And it has been this way for way too long. Too many young people are not being given the chance to reach their full potential—and as a result, they drop out of school, are unemployed, go on to live unfulfilled lives, go to jail, or are victims of violence. Too many young people are dying and have been dying for way too long. In many parts of DC, such as Wards 7 and 8, violence continues as opportunities decline and basic needs such as food, shelter and housing are not met. I am sad to say that conditions for many of DC’s young people have not really improved in the over 20 years that I have been a program officer, youth mentor, and advocate. DC has the third highest poverty rate in the nation. Funding cuts to the safety net* continue to rise. Youth homelessness continues to rise.  Despite the fact that education can lift people out of poverty, the District’s K-12 public school system has shown modest gains in producing high school graduates at only 61% in 2012.  As of January 2012, there were 1,014 homeless families in DC (an increase of 46% between 2008 and 2011 and an additional 19% between 2011 and 2012) and at least 1,880 homeless children.** Over the course of a given year, there are more than 1,600 homeless youth in DC —  far exceeding the 223 beds specifically reserved for homeless youth.**

There are a number of strong youth and safety net advocacy organizations in the region that The Community Foundation invests in and partners with. These organizations fight to preserve public safety net dollars and resources; end homelessness; improve public policy; improve coordination and create alignment across public, private and nonprofit sectors to improve education and career outcomes for youth; increase the percentage of youth who graduate from high school ready for post-secondary opportunities; improve the safety net service delivery system; and increase awareness about safety net and youth issues. These organizations understand that young people need and deserve the opportunity to work in partnership with adults to influence policy, decision-making, and resource allocation in the public and private sector. There are also many strong youth and safety net organizations providing direct service to residents of Wards 7 and 8. But these organizations need more resources in order to meet the level of need in the community and to fix a broken system.

The disparity in our city, the divide between the have and the have-nots, is what drives me to do what I do. My work at The Community Foundation gives me the opportunity every day to help make connections between those with resources and those in need; to strengthen the safety net and improve food and housing security; to build awareness of and help alleviate human suffering; and to help people live better lives. A highlight among the mentoring that I have done over the years is the Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) which I created and co-led from 2001-2006. YPI received national recognition as a model civic engagement program and as the most diverse youth philanthropy program in the country due to its success in engaging diverse, low-income youth. As an artist, I have served as an instructor and mentor to young artists as a volunteer with various nonprofits. In 2011, I was honored to be one of the poets selected to present at a President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities special event organized by poet and American University professor Kyle Dargan at the Library of Congress as part of The White House Poetry Project.

I want to share a recent interview Bill Moyers did with Kyle. Several things struck me while watching this: How Kyle speaks from the heart about the negative reality of many young people in Southeast; How he is an example of one individual taking action to build awareness about the suffering of many people in Southeast; How poverty in Southeast is the elephant in the room of our Nation’s Capitol, an urgent issue that has been ignored for way too long. I also find it inspiring because it’s an example of activism through the arts. It captures how poetry moves through the city, sees everything, misses nothing, and shares the human face behind the statistics and the stories of those who may not think they are seen or heard or written about in poems.

The Community Foundation is working to help all people across the region achieve economic security and give young people the chance they deserve to succeed. In collaboration with our generous community of donors, the Foundation has increased opportunities for low-income youth to thrive; provided shelter, housing and food for hundreds of thousands of adults and children in need; prevented hundreds of people from losing their homes; helped hundreds of low-income workers launch careers and go to college; and helped preserve over $80 million in public funding for critical safety net services.  I’m proud of the work we do to help stop the suffering of people in Southeast and across the region; and to support critical services and advocacy. This issue calls for action by all members of the community and is too urgent for anyone to ignore.

Silvana Straw is Senior Philanthropic Services Officer for The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. She leads the Foundation’s Safety Net efforts including the Neighbors in Need Fund and works with our donors and Philanthropic Services clients to help facilitate their giving. For more information about our initiatives, investment opportunities, ideas on how you can give, volunteer, be a mentor, or be an advocate, please contact

*The safety-net infrastructure includes: direct service providers– nonprofits focused on meeting basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, housing, health/mental health care); public agencies whose mission is focused on the safety-net; and advocates working to ensure that the basic needs of low-income children, youth, and adults are being met.

**Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 3:48 pm

    Silvana and the entire Community Foundation team are deeply committed to changing the paradigm. They have a nuanced understanding of the struggles. They get it. Thanks to them for making a difference.

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