Eric N. Ford - Originally from Virginia and a graduate of Hampton University with a B.A. in sociology (1993), and a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in the nonprofit sector from UMBC, Eric has more than 25 years of experience in the human services field in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Eric is currently working for the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as the Director for The Choice Program at UMBC. Eric is responsible for leading the planning, development and the outreach efforts of The Choice Program with overall oversight of internal programmatic and financial processes. Eric serves as the Chairperson of Maryland State Advisory Group, which is responsible for leading youth diversion strategies and compliance with federal guidelines for youth facilities throughout the state. Eric partners with his leadership team to promote a strengths-based organizational culture through active personnel management and a passionate commitment to anti-racist programming in the community. And, he leads story circles as part of a nationwide Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation project.
I have had the unique experience of having served in three programs guided by Sargent Shriver’s War on Poverty principles, The Choice Program, Job Corps and Head Start. These experiences have shaped my career and personal development in a way that keeps me grounded and yet inspired to change systems and hold them accountable. My career began with The Choice Program at UMBC as a mentor for youth entangled in the criminal justice system. Choice was created in 1988 by Mark Shriver, Sargent Shriver’s son, as an alternative to youth detention. It was his belief that given the proper support, young people could thrive in their communities instead of being detained. I have explained to many that Choice is comparable to the cliché about kindergarten in that you learn everything you need to know about human services through a year-long immersive experience serving young people and their families. Those key lessons are: 1) how to work in teams; 2) how to build rapport and relationships; 3) how to identify community resources and connect families to them; 4) how to be a strength-based advocate; and, 5) how to document your efforts and tell your story. These five lessons have carried me far in life and not a day passes where I don’t use at least one of them.
As helpful as these lessons have been I have also learned they are not enough for systemic change. Although the anti-poverty programs launched with Sargent Shriver’s vision in mind have touched millions, they have yet to have their intended impact of closing the wage and education gaps and reducing disparities in the criminal justice system. African Americans are still half as likely to have a college degree, and twice as likely to be unemployed when compared to their white counterparts. Most disturbing is the incarceration rate for African Americans which is six times that of white Americans.
Reflecting on both the clear benefits that an approach like Sargent Shriver's can bring when it comes to dealing with poverty, and the racial disparities that continue to exist, I have learned a sixth lesson: What is needed is an intentional anti-racist approach driven by data with race equity as the outcome. One of the most important metrics to use when measuring our progress as a country is not the gains Black people have made when compared to a certain point in history, but it's how Black people are faring when compared to white people. Through my lived experience as a human service professional, I have learned that even the most well-intentioned program will not reach its fullest potential without centering race equity. This is because white supremacy is baked into the ethos of American institutions. What follows are a few examples of what centering race equity looks like on the ground.
As a part of the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, The Choice Program began our journey toward anti-racism in 2016. We took our entire organization through a race equity audit and analyzed our programming utilizing critical race theory as our framework. Developed in the late 1980s, we understood our model was created during a time when the prevalent sentiment about the system involved Black youth was they were ‘superpredators,’ who needed to be monitored 24/7. Recognizing this perception, we decided to change the narrative, particularly about Black youth, by shifting internal language, lifting youth/family voice and changing program outputs. A program that was founded on “tracking” young people multiple times a day in their schools and communities through unannounced visits became one focused on supporting youth in attaining their self identified goals during mutually agreed upon meeting times.
We also applied for and received funding through the Association of American Colleges & Universities to use a framework to make the Shriver Center at UMBC a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Center (TRHT). This support would allow all programs within the Shriver Center to incorporate a race equity lens when establishing partnerships and providing community engagement opportunities for students. The Shriver Center recently adopted an anti-racist statement that clearly articulates this intention. One example of a Shriver Center program utilizing TRHT is our fellowship opportunity for returning Peace Corps volunteers. The Peaceworker staff and faculty reviewed their application process to identify ways in which they could attract more students of color and they are placing race equity as the starting point with community partners. Sargent Shriver was the first national director of the Peace Corps and shifts such as these support his vision for fewer segregated spaces and the elimination of a racial hierarchy. As a starting point, organizations should review all procedures and practices to address how they may be contributing to disparate outcomes.
A second Shriver-connected program in which I worked for several years was Job Corps. Job Corps provides career and education training to nearly 50,000 young people at 125 locations a year. Although Job Corps has shown to improve wages, literacy, and skill development, many are skeptical of its effectiveness. While there, I was promoted to lead a demonstration project aimed at increasing the outcomes for its 16 and 17-year-old students. Job Corps serves young people ages 16 - 24 and often the younger students have difficulty making the transition from high school to living away from home. The intervention I led used restorative circles and a peer leadership model that proved to be successful, but funding was eventually cut. A lack of funding is a common theme when discussing programs that primarily serve youth of color. Maryland has over 92,000 youth who have either dropped out of high school or are unemployed but the two Job Corps centers in Maryland only have the capacity to serve 728 students. Job Corps programs often suffer from the same challenges as public schools: underpaid instructors, lack of technology/resources and not enough mental health/special education support. It seems to me, therefore, that in a program like Job Corps, we can move toward racial equity simply by increasing funding, so that we can fully fund career training for all.
The third Shriver-related program I had an opportunity to serve in was Head Start. Like Job Corps, Head Start was created out of the Office of Economic Opportunity led by Sargent Shriver to improve the academic, health, and socioemotional outcomes for children in poverty. Similarly, despite data showing its effectiveness, each year funding for Head Start is proposed to be cut. Head Start serves nearly one million students a year providing them with healthy meals, academic support, health screenings and parenting support. As the male involvement coordinator for my site, I was able to increase engagement from male family members by offering sports activities and appreciation meals that were inclusive of the whole community. I found funding for family engagement activities to be limited at Head Start centers and less than half of all income eligible families have the opportunity to receive services. This lack of access creates a highly competitive enrollment process and long waiting list at some Head Start centers. Healthy meals, academic support and early detection through health screenings should be a fundamental right for all children in this country and a huge step toward racial equity is increased funding so that we can provide pre-K for all.
One common observation I have about all of the service I've done, is that when working towards racial equity, we must change the narrative. Head Start, Job Corps and even The Choice Program have historically used deficit-based language to talk about participants. We must eliminate ‘juvenile delinquent,’ ‘at-risk youth,’ ‘underprivileged youth’ as a way to talk about young people. These labels dehumanize young people of color and impact our ability to empathize with their circumstances. It’s a form of othering that gets translated into a lack of resources because they are not deemed worthy. It’s important for us to look at the participants of these programs as children who deserve the same opportunities as our own children. We must use a strength-based approach and fully believe every young person has the potential to thrive given proper resources. Equity for young people is believing in who they are and what they can become. Choice youth created a video as guidance in this regard.
The myriad of my experiences in Shriver-connected programming has been priceless in shaping my world view. I am deeply appreciative for the opportunity to serve youth, families, and communities in central Maryland. I started with five lessons learned through these connections and the sixth is probably the most important. Due to structural racism in the United States’ institutions, all organizations must revisit their practices and approaches and embrace a race equity approach. There is a tendency to confuse equality with equity. One of the easiest ways it was explained to me to distinguish the difference is: “equality is when everyone has the same thing; equity is when everyone has what they need.” The programs started through the War on Poverty are under resourced and underfunded. This injustice is what the hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are protesting mean when there is a call for defunding the police. Not level but increased funding for programs such as Head Start and Job Corps is a better return on taxpayer investment. As a freshman in college, I learned in my sociology 101 class that additional funding for more police does not reduce crime. My professor explained it so simply by saying the police typically show up after the crime has occurred, so how are they able to prevent crime from happening? Funding is better utilized on programs that work to provide everyone with what they need-- a living wage, academic support, a mentor, a connection to resources-- to prevent and reduce poverty, which is one of the biggest indicators for crime.