Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination has me thinking a lot about our progress since then on the civil rights and social justice issues he championed. I’ve read that RFK spent more time than most politicians visiting areas of the country that faced issues he sought to change—like discrimination, labor rights, and poverty—to gain firsthand experience.
In support of the 1967 Senate subcommittee examination of “War on Poverty” programs, Kennedy visited the Mississippi Delta to investigate reports of extreme poverty and starvation. He heard testimony that the delta was in a crisis, and he wanted to see for himself to understand the issues at hand. Being a child of the Arkansas Delta, I understand well the difference between seeing life in a delta region up close and just hearing about it from afar. I’m glad he visited and took such an interest in talking to locals to learn and understand their stories and experiences. Visits like the one he made to the delta and the one to California to meet Cesar Chavez, as well as learning from his personal relationships, such as his long-time one with Martin Luther King, Jr., built the foundation for his credibility as a respected leader on addressing poverty and human and civil rights issues.
Championing causes that you believe in is easier, in my opinion, when you’ve experienced a piece of the problem and your viewpoint is given more weight. I draw on my childhood experiences all the time when developing policies and preparing presentations that attempt to change the status quo. I was surrounded by many of the problems RFK sought to change, especially poverty and racism. Those experiences inform my perspective and allow me to develop solutions that come from a place of knowing the realities of the problems. I’m grateful that I grew up in the delta and can bring my perspective to Washington; however, I wish more had changed from the time RFK brought the issues to bear. The poverty rate among children in the Mississippi Delta under 18 is still at 50 percent, the same as it was in the late 1960s when RFK visited; and while poverty overall did drop during the first five years after the 1964 War on Poverty legislation, there has been little progress since—in fact, for the last three years, the poverty rate has been at or above 15 percent, which is higher than previous years.
Leading change is complicated. And to be a convincing champion, you need credibility to go along with your passion and dedication. People need to trust you and trust in your understanding of the issue, the solutions you are putting forward, and the changes for which you are advocating. Take lessons from RFK’s approach, and if you don’t already have personal experience with the issue you care about, go into affected communities and get some. If you are like me and have that direct experience, use it as fuel and inspiration.
We have a chalkboard in our lunch room at JPO where we write messages to each other. This morning I wrote, “one person can change the world.” I wholeheartedly believe that. And yet, the figures I shared above about poverty in Mississippi show that we still have a long way to go to achieve all the changes that RFK sought, that we are thinking about him and his legacy today shows how significant one person can be.
I know there are innovative ideas and new approaches to addressing poverty and racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system. Just as I know there are budding champions out there who will lead such change. Let’s work together, starting this month, to support those who have the ideas, passion, and dedication to be leaders of change and help them gain experience, credibility, and a platform to share their vision so that these approaches will no longer be ideas but actions.
Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office.