“Our youth have always been our future”
Transcript of Senator Kamala Harris’ speech at 7th Annual YMCA Youth Luncheon in San Francisco
It is so good to be home. I just got back late last night and I’m looking around this room at some of the most incredible leaders in every sector of the community and some of the most incredible leaders in our country. And before I get to my prepared remarks, I will say that Chuck and Paula have been like family to me for so many years. You have supported me every step of the way. And Chuck, I remember when you were supposed to retire and then you said, “I’ve got this idea. You know, I want to put my effort and my resources and my time there, that’s how I want to retire.” And of course, retire you did not. You built up and revitalized an institution with all of the resources that you bring to everything you do, and I can’t thank you enough for your leadership. And congratulations on celebrating the 10th year anniversary of CARE.
You know, I look around this room and I can just say — I will speak for myself. The work that I was able to do with an incredible team when I was your elected District Attorney, the work we were able to do in the Attorney General office, and the work now that I am hoping and trying to do as your United States Senator, the foundation for all of that started here and with a lot of people who are in this room.
And as I spend time around the country and in Washington, D.C. with my colleagues, I always reflect back on this place. And this is such a special place. This is such a special community.
There are people in this room who are leaders in business, in philanthropy, in academia, in nonprofit work, in community service work, in public service work who always band together and show I think the world what we can be when we understand that we all have so much more in common than what separates us.
And at this moment in time in the history of our country when there are forces that are sowing hate and division, the work and the power of the people in this room is more important than ever. So I thank you, I thank you, I thank you.
So Chuck, you brought up that old picture. So back when I was D.A. of San Francisco, you all remember I was sworn into office January 8, 2004. And during the course of being in that office, there were ups and down in terms of what was happening in our city.
And at one point we had a real rash of homicides in the city and county of San Francisco. Gavin and I were actually elected at the same time, he was the Mayor and I was the D.A. It was an issue for all of us in leadership, the Chamber of Commerce, the Police Department, neighborhoods, all of us. And so there was a lot of activity and concern about what we should do to address this issue. And we did some of the things that I think are quite predictable.
But one of the questions I asked during that time was, “Ok, so we’re seeing this rash of homicides, let’s do a study, let’s ask a question. Who are our homicide victims who are under the age of 25 when they were killed?” And the reason that I asked that question is obvious because there were a lot of them. So who were they?
So we did a study and the data came back and it showed me that the vast majority of the homicide victims who were under the age of 25, in fact 94%, were high school dropouts. And those were the victims. And we know that the offenders, the perpetrators are pretty much reflective of that same population.
So in looking at those statistics, I then went on actually as Attorney General to also ask these questions about what was happening statewide and what was happening nationally. And I learned that for an African American man, nationally, who is between the age of 30 and 34 and a high school dropout, he is 2/3 likely to be in jail, have been in jail, or dead. High school dropout.
We learned that we are spending currently as a nation $80 billion on our criminal justice system. There are connections here. There are connections here.
And so when we asked that question way back when here in San Francisco, the superintendent of schools at the time was Arlene Ackerman, God rest her soul. And I went over there and I said, “Arlene, what’s going on with the high school dropout rate?” She said, “Well, of our chronically and habitually truant students, over 20% of them are elementary school students missing 50, 60, up to 80 days of 180 day school year.” So I said, “Well, we’ve got to do something about it.”
And so we decided to band together, teachers and prosecutors, can you imagine that? And many others, to address this issue in San Francisco, and that’s why we focused on the issue of truancy because we understood that collectively, we should be concerned and we understand it is tantamount to a crime when a child is going without an education.
We also saw the direct connection between public education and public safety. And so that’s the work we did, and that’s the work that the YMCA and Chuck, and everybody else’s leadership continues to do, which is to show when we address an issue like elementary school truancy, middle or high school truancy, when we address it as a priority similar to the priority that we place on our personal safety or our community’s safety, we will see that you can be very smart with the limited resources we have and we can invest in the future in very productive ways as the young people on this stage have shown us.
So that was that work, focusing on children. And then there was the work that we did together when we created, the San Francisco D.A.’s office, the Back on Track initiative, which again was a partnership with labor and with the Chamber of Commerce and nonprofits to say, let’s focus on young offenders, in particular low level nonviolent drug sales offenders because there were a lot of them.
And we knew that they had a recidivism rate, which means they would re-offend at about a rate of 70%. It’s a broken system, so we decided to focus on the young people in our community, we as the San Francisco community.
And we put resources into them and reduced their recidivism rate by in some cases over 50%, because we worked together, understanding that when we focus on the youth of our community, when we give them the resources they need, the dividends are great, and as our friends in the private sector like to say, the return on the investment, the ROI is tremendous. So that’s the work we did together.
The work we did together was we created SFMOMA Matches many years ago. Right next door, at SFMOMA, focusing on young people in Bay View, in Mission, in Oakland, in adopting high schools and middle schools, bringing those young people in to walk the halls of that great museum and see the kind of work that they are creating in their communities. At the time when we created that, Chuck you may remember, we had an exhibition of Barry McGee, he was doing great art that is graffiti art. And we brought the kids in to see that the kind of art that they are creating are on these walls of this building that was designed by Mario Botta. Incredible work we have done as a community.
And our collective priority then, as San Francisco, has been our children, understanding that the children of our community are our children. And so looking at that history then, I also look at, as we do all of us, the challenges we are facing right now. And the challenges are great.
While we celebrate the 10th anniversary of CARE, in the last 10 years we have seen young people, children around the country confronting everything from homelessness to the need to reform the juvenile justice system, to one of our biggest challenges for some of our young people which is paying off their student loans. The challenges of our young people are great.
And this yet again, these 10 years after the creation of CARE, require us to rededicate our resources to looking at them, seeing them and figuring out what we can do in their best interest.
And I look at it from a perspective of now spending time in Washington, D.C., and I’ll share with you a few notes from the field.
In the last 14 months, we’ve been having a conversation in D.C. that has been in many ways born out of the dialogue that has been influenced by forces that are sowing hate and division. We are having a conversation that presents challenges such as when, for political reasons, we were given a Hobbesian choice where Senators could vote either in favor of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, called CHIP, or we could vote in favor of our Dreamers. Those young people, many of whom were brought here before they could walk or talk and have only known this as their only home.
We have been looking at a situation where the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, just announced they are shutting down an office that was specifically designed to test the impact of toxic chemicals on children. And we are looking at a moment in time when certain so-called leaders are so self-absorbed with misguided priorities that HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, can find money for a $30,000 dining set but can’t find money for community development block grants which fund things like after school programs for children and Meals on Wheels.
We are facing real challenges.
So in the face of these challenges, it is easy to become frustrated and dare I say cynical. But here’s the good thing, here’s the good thing that the YMCA and all the work that is happening in this community remind us of.
And that is that it is time to look at things like the YMCA, to look at American’s youth, and in that way see our future and find inspiration and hope and motivation to continue on.
You know, we have seen so much happening recently with what I think of and I think we’ve been discussing as this youth movement. And in this movement, there’s an incredible level of vitality and integrity and honesty and commitment. It reminds me of the stories that I heard about my parents when they met at UC Berkeley in the 60s as graduate students when they were active in the Civil Rights Movement. The kind of vitality and energy and authenticity of a movement that helped change the world.
And when we look at our young people, such as those young people who are on stage, let’s also see what is going on with them, which is their fuel. Their fuel is optimism, their fuel is that they believe something can get done to improve the condition of themselves, their communities, our country and our world.
And their optimism is contagious. Their optimism is contagious.
Look for example at the Dreamers. So they are Americans in every way except on paper. If you know this population of young people, you will know that the vast majority of them, they are students in colleges and universities, they are serving in our military, they are working in Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies.
And I’ll tell you we also know that they are providing great economic benefit to our country. If we lose the Dreamers and end DACA, it is estimated that California will lose $11 billion in a year and the United States would lose $460 billion over the next decade based on lost productivity and what they contribute to our economy.
So this is who the Dreamers are, and I will tell you what gives me so much concern about their situation right now is that there was a decision, arbitrarily made, arbitrarily, that on September 5 we would end the DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And so we looked at these kids who we promised if you give us information about the circumstances of your arrival, if you give us information about your productivity, are you in school, are you working, if you clear a background check so we can determine whether or not you’ve committed crimes, we told them if you clear that vet, we will protect you and you will be safe.
Yet a decision was made on September 5 that we would end DACA as of March 5, days ago.
But here’s the thing that I want to show you. So I have my office in the Senate Hart building in the United States Capitol, and as an aside, when I was a sophomore at Howard University I was a Senate intern for then senior Senator Allan Cranston and I now hold the office that he was in. But I just have to tell you about what I see every day and have been seeing for months and months and months in D.C. These Dreamers have been coming to the Capitol in masse, hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them from all over the country. God only knows how they are affording to get there, by bus, train, car.
I know they are sleeping 10 deep on someone’s living room floor and they have been walking through the halls of the Capitol every day because they believe in our democracy. They believe that if they are seen, if their stories are heard, that it will matter and it will make a difference. Their optimism should excite us. Their optimism should give us optimism about our future.
I look at another group of young people, the group of young people that I met recently who were in a program called Girls Build in Los Angeles, and they asked me to come and speak and I spoke at the Convention Center in Downtown Los Angeles, and I walked into the Convention Center and there were 10,000 young girls and young women between 12 and 18 years old, all public school students, mostly African American and Latina. 10,000 of them who had been there all day learning about STEM and leadership because they self-selected and decided they wanted to be part of that program that would help them cultivate and nourish their natural desire to be leaders and leaders in STEM, and contribute to our economy, and think about innovation and how we will build the jobs of the 21st century and build the skills to meet those jobs. 10,000 of them. They are our future. That gives me optimism.
And finally, a most recent example, I look at those students in Parkland, Florida. Now, we know if we step back and think about these kids and what they have experienced, they have been exposed to extreme violence. They are enduring on a daily basis trauma, extreme trauma, but they have turned their mourning into a movement. And it has been incredible to watch. They have been marching, they’re going to have the march — the kids that were on stage were telling me about the student walk-out on March 14, parents beware, just letting you know that’s happening, and then the march that’s going to happen on March 24.
But these kids in Florida. They started this movement. Well, I have breaking news for everyone. So they already achieved something that hadn’t happened in Florida in two decades, which is they passed, they motivated the Florida legislature to pass reforms raising the buying age of guns to 21, implementing waiting periods to purchase a gun, and banning bump stocks. Now, they got it through one branch of the Florida legislature and everyone sat down and said, “Hmm, that ain’t going anywhere”. Minutes ago, sensing the power of these young people and probably severe political consequence, the Governor signed it into law.
Optimism. Let’s look to our youth, let’s look to the YMCA as a front and center example, let’s look to our youth.
And in closing I’ll say this. Last weekend, Doug and I were invited by the great John Lewis to go to Selma, Alabama. And so we went for the 53rdAnniversary of that historic walk, that march, that difficult march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And let’s think back to 53 years, just in that context, in that part of our country.
Martin Luther King was only twenty-six years old when he helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Twenty-six. John Lewis was twenty-one when he went down to Mississippi as one of the original Freedom Riders, and twenty-three when he spoke at the March on Washington. Diane Nash was twenty-two years old when she started leading sit-ins in Nashville.
Our youth have always been our future. They have always been our future. And the thing that was so poignant about marching with John Lewis and all of the young people and of every age young people who were there, is what I left with is the vision of seeing something which is that it was not only about marching to cross that bridge, and I will say the metaphor means marching across the bridge into the future, what was also clear to me about that movement and all the movements we are now witnessing, it was about crossing a bridge and building bridges, and that is what the YMCA is doing. Thank you.