BlackFem, Inc.: Building Opportunities for Women of Color

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Young girls participating in the BlackFem, Inc. program (BlackFem.org)

Women of color have higher college completion rates than their male counterparts, but have zero or negative wealth. How is this possible? Well, the current sociopolitical system in America is structured to continually oppress women of color. Since 2007, the median wealth for Black and Latina women is between $100-$120, which is devastatingly low.

Based out of New York, BlackFem, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to building opportunities for women of color so, in the future, they can attain and build wealth. Chloe Mckenzie, the 24 year-old founder and CEO of BlackFem, started this organization after witnessing flaws and gaps in financial services while working as a trader at J.P. Morgan. “I felt as though I was not serving in such a way that I could feel as though I was truly helping those less fortunate,” Chloe explains.  Her organization has dedicated programs for girls as young as 3, and women through adulthood.

One of their programs, Money Does Grow on Trees, is centered around saving and compound interest and is taught from Pre-K to 2nd grade. Each participant in this program opens a savings account by the end. One participant, Azariah, left this program knowing how to make a balance sheet and plan out what assets she will have when she gets older. I am pretty sure she knows more than I do about assets and compound interest. The knowledge she is acquiring through these programs is both important and beneficial to her success as she gets older. You go, girl!

The goal is not to make women of color rich, but to provide the necessary tools to break this cycle of oppression and to empower women and girls of color to believe they can be wealthy. Gaining these tools and resources in order to obtain wealth and financial knowledge isn’t just a personal gain, but a generational one. Many women who have participated in the BlackFem programs continually reiterate that this lack of access to financial tools comes from years of denied access for their parents, grandparents, and so on. By gaining this access, they can then pass this knowledge down to their children, so they can utilize these tools and lead a successful life.

BlackFem, additionally, has an At School After School program with a school bank. This program has three essential components: 1) The school bank, where students create student credit reports for their peers at school, 2) the school currency, which students earn as their credit score increases, and 3) the the school store, where students can use their currency to purchase things like school supplies and movie tickets. This program is designed to give the students a hands-on experience with balancing and budgeting money and credit that they have earned through class attendance and homework completion. BlackFem will be partnering with 20 schools in high-poverty communities beginning next school year. To learn more about the after school programs and how you could help, please visit their school offerings page here.

BlackFem’s goal is to help 5,000 women and girls of color by the end of 2017, but they can’t do it without your help. Please visit their website to donate or get involved through volunteering, sponsoring, or bringing programs to your local schools. Help these women and girls out there succeed and gain the financial literacy they deserve.

Follow them on Twitter and visit their website today!

Twitter: @Black_Fem

Website: http://www.blackfem.org

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Trump, Law & Order, and Record High Incarceration

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Inmates gather in the gym at San Quentin Prison due to overcrowding (Eric Risberg/Center for American Progress)

Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have done little to implement specific criminal justice policy, but their threats to undo Obama’s reforms are jarring. What we are seeing from the Trump administration is not surprising, many Republican presidents have a history of being tough on crime. President Nixon’s “war on drugs” agenda is most memorable, as he ordered for an outright war on drugs in inner-cities by implementing mandatory prison sentences and no-knock warrants, disproportionately effecting Black and Brown folks.

During Reagan’s presidency, his “tough on crime” rhetoric resulted in a sharp increase in prison population and incarceration rates. As a result, prison populations in the U.S. continue to increase at a rate faster than any other nation in the world.  However, Obama was the first president in 36 years to leave office with a lower federal prison population than when he started.

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Federal prison population (Pew Research Center/Vox)

During Obama’s presidency, he took executive action to pardon 1,324 inmates charged with nonviolent drug offenses and backed former Attorney General, Eric Holder, on his Smart on Crime Initiative, which placed pressure on federal prosecutors to stop charging low-level drug offenders. In 2010, he signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. This disparity explicitly targeted the Black community during the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” eras.

Obama stressed the importance of looking at drug addiction through the lens of a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. He often explained the hypocrisy in locking up children and individuals for low-level drug offenses, while many lawmakers have used drugs before–admitting his trial use of marijuana and cocaine. All of this was to stop prison overcrowding and put an end to oppressive laws that disproportionately targeted people of color.

Using 2010 Census information, the Prison Policy Initiative calculated that Black folks are five times more likely to be incarcerated than White folks, and Hispanic folks are twice as likely than White folks. Additionally, Black citizens make up 13% of the U.S. population but 40% of the incarcerated population. Hispanics only make up 16% of the U.S. population but 19% of the incarcerated population. This equates to 2,306 Black citizens incarcerated per 100,000 and 831 Hispanic citizens incarcerated per 100,000 people. The statistics for the White population, however, are frighteningly lower. Making up 64% of the population, White folks make up 39% of the incarcerated population, equating to 450 White folks incarcerated per 100,000. From a Vox study on FBI data on racial disparities in police killings, it was found that racial minorities make up about 34% of the general population but account for 62% of unarmed victims killed by police.

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Racial disparities in police shootings (Alvin Chang/Vox)

The Trump administration disagrees with many of the criminal justice reform laws passed by the Obama administration. Even though crime is at an all-time low, Sessions has made it clear that he believes the criminal justice system should not go easy on low-level drug offenders, and openly criticizes Obama’s decrees issued in response to violent police activity. As a result, Sessions has created a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which aims to increase prosecution and police force against violent crimes. However, it is still unclear what exactly this task force will do, but more details will be released on July 27th.

One positive policy in Trump’s criminal justice agenda is his commission to study the opioid epidemic, which is headed by Governor Chris Christie, who is known for treating drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. This newfound commission, when fully developed, has the possibility of helping those with severe addictions by providing them with rehabilitative services rather than issuing prison sentences. The only caveat is that this opioid epidemic is mainly affecting White communities. So, what does this commission task force mean to Black people?

D. Watkins–a prominent author and Professor at the University of Baltimore–came from a drug-laden neighborhood in East Baltimore. In a recent article published in Salon, Watkins remembers his early life as a drug dealer while addressing the current opioid epidemic in prominently White neighborhoods.

“White people and those in more privileged areas are starting to feel the same way. And even though I’d never wish that pain on anybody, I’m glad this problem is finally getting the attention it needs,” writes Watkins, while looking back on the crack cocaine epidemic and the Black communities that were destroyed. It is unfortunate that these problems are being addressed when the epidemic mainly affects White communities, but not when they effected Black communities.

Although this commission to end opioid addiction has yet to be fully developed, it is a start, at best. Unfortunately, Sessions does have the final say in all-things criminal justice related and he, historically, has a harsh stance against drugs. This is not to say Sessions does not believe in treatment programs, but he believes they come too late to solve the drug problem.

Time will only tell if these suggested programs will curb addictions, end prison overcrowding, and put a stop to racial disparities but, with Sessions in charge, the odds are not in our favor.  Fortunately, it is ultimately up to the states whether or not they choose to adopt federal criminal justice policies and, in the past, cities and states have supported initiatives to shorten prison sentences and favor prosecutors who are soft on crime. So, there may be hope after all.

Trump threatens 9th Circuit Court, but what can he actually do?

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Protestors outside of the 9th Circuit Court. (Haven Daley / Associated Press)

On Tuesday, April 25th, the 9th Circuit Court ruled against President Trump’s executive order to halt federal funding for sanctuary cities. In response, Trump issued a threat to split the 9th Circuit.

But can he actually follow through on his threat?

In a word: Yes. It is possible for Trump to break up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – through Congress, that is. However, it is highly unlikely members of Congress will push forward the legislation. He isn’t the first president to threaten it, either. In 1980, President Carter signed a bill to split up the 5th Circuit Court in the South. As a result, the western half is under the 5th Circuit, while the eastern half is under the 11th.

It seems odd that Trump is pursuing the 9th Circuit when the block of his executive order came from Judge William Orrick of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The sanctuary ruling will not get to the 9th Circuit Court until Trump appeals the lower court’s decision, as he has threatened.

Attacks on the 9th Circuit tend to come from conservatives, who complain that the court rulings are too liberal and that the court itself is too large. They argue that breaking it up into more circuits would make cases move faster.

But Trump’s concerns are different. He is not concerned about the efficiency of the court; he is simply angry about the lower court’s ruling as well as the 9th Circuit Court’s rulings to halt two of his executive orders on immigration.

In terms of the partisan bias the GOP accuses the court of, Democratic presidents have appointed over twice as many judges as Republican presidents. Splitting the court creates the opportunity to form a separate circuit with more conservative judges, which also means more judicial appointments for President Trump. Currently, the 9th Circuit has four vacancies and with the lower court judicial filibuster nuked by Republicans in 2013, the GOP only needs a simple majority – 51 votes – to elect lower court judges nominated by Trump. This shouldn’t be difficult given that they have 52 seats, which even allowed them to nuke the Supreme Court filibuster in order to confirm Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch.

A top concern, however, is the inevitable abuse of power by the ruling party in the Senate if a circuit court is broken up. With Republicans narrowly holding the majority in Congress, they have the ability to appoint any judges they please without a single Democratic vote. Gaining political power and sway over courts – which are supposed to act as checks and balances to the legislative branch – means less independence and more partisan bias. It would signal the death of the courts’ ability to reliably enforce the Constitution and protect the rights of the American people.

Though this all sounds quite terrifying, it would be a lengthy, brutal, drawn-out process, and is therefore unlikely to happen. So for now, it seems that Trump may just be stuck with the 9th Circuit as is.