December 28, 2013

Brian Anderson: ‘And how are the children?’

— Recently my good friend Jim Hawkins referenced the Maasai tribe and their traditional greeting “And how are the children?”

The Maasai tribe is a nomadic tribe living primarily in the African nations of Kenya and Tanzania. Among the many fabled and accomplished tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Maasai.

It’s surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting passed among the Maasai warriors: “Casserian Engeri” they would always say to each other. And what it meant was “And how are the children?” It is still the traditional greeting of the Maasai, acknowledging the high value the Maasai placed on the children’s well-being.

Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” This meant, of course, that peace and safety prevail; the priorities of protecting the young and the powerless are in place; and that the Maasai people had not forgotten their reason for being, their proper function, and their responsibilities.

And how are the children of America … of Georgia … of Dalton? One could certainly argue that some are very well-off by any number of measurements — income, nutrition, educational attainment. A large number are doing OK not having major issues face them, but certainly not in ideal situations. And unfortunately in America and especially most Southern states, the state of our children is difficult and alarming.

We have moved from a discussion of having poor children from poor families to discussing these issues as a culture of poverty. Those born into poor socioeconomic conditions in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ’50s viewed education as the ladder to a better life. Those over the last two to three decades born to similar poor conditions do not see a similar path forward. Thus we are now seeing epidemic poverty in the richest country on Earth.

There are those who want to add to America’s already vast safety net in hopes of improving the lives of poor families and poor children. Others are troubled by America’s fiscal problems and want to slow/decrease the growth in government spending. Although families and children who are impoverished certainly benefit from many federal and state programs, the rise in programs and spending have not offset a growing population that seems to be getting poorer and poorer.

We as a nation must approach this problem from a totally different paradigm. We have to find innovative solutions to rebuilding the American family and reaching young people before it is too late. A child who struggles early in learning will struggle forever. We have to reach our children before they ever begin in a formal learning environment.

I am so proud of our community given our intense focus on wrapping our arms around our children and providing them every opportunity to succeed. Dynamic leaders from education, business, community organizations and the faith community are all coming together to give each and every child who is born with all the intellect needed to succeed that fighting chance. These devoted, passionate and caring leaders are fiercely intentional in tearing down silos and breaking down traditional barriers that have impeded other attempts.

Will we succeed? Will we face criticism? Will we become frustrated? Not sure, yes, and probably. But doing nothing — or worse, doing what we have always done — would be tragic. We as a community, a state and a nation will continue to lose the amazing potential that each child possesses if we do nothing or keep doing the same.

The third verse of the hymn “Away in a Manger” caught my attention recently at church. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay ... Close by me forever and love me, I pray ... Bless all the dear children in thy tender care ... And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” I include this not to throw my faith in anyone’s face. But as a believer, this image of God embracing each and every child both now and forever is powerful.  

Should we as a nation not do all in our power to serve our children to the best of our ability? As we celebrate this magical season, let us enter a new year with a renewed spirit. Let us think boldly and focus intently on all that is most precious.

Brian Anderson is president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.