“Children are not only minors, but they constitute, in fact, a social minority in our societies. Children’s Studies aims at representing children and their interests through synthesizing knowledge, research, and insights gained from different disciplines and in this manner helping to give children a voice. The work of the Brooklyn College Children’s Studies Program and Center addresses these issues and works on behalf of children and youth who can neither advocate for themselves nor have a voice.”
Children of New York are of special interest and focus in our public policy and research initiatives. There are many concerns that tie in directly with diversity-related issues in the form of overrepresentation of minority children living in poverty and the attendant problems that arise from these conditions that result in challenges presented to them in the systems of public education, health, mental health, child welfare, juvenile justice/criminal justice, and other areas of child administration and supervision.
In order to understand how diversity plays a central role in Children’s Studies at Brooklyn College, one must first take a look at the information about children and students of New York City. This was elegantly stated by Dr. Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York during his welcoming remarks at the Children’s Studies Policy Symposium “Children and the Law in New York” held on March 11, 2004, in which he states:
“Our founding statute requires that our university be responsive to the particular urban needs of our New York City setting and the truth of the matter is that if New York had not been named the “Big Apple,” it probably would have been named the “City of Children.” New York has more children than any other city in this country, nearly two million. Think of it: We have 515,000 children five years old and younger!
Imagine a city the size of San Francisco comprised of five-year-olds! These children in our great city of children are our hope for the future. But they also present the most urgent challenges to our city, to our sense of justice, and to our hopes for the future, because nearly one in three of our nearly 2 million children in New York live in poverty. One in three––that’s twice the national rate of about one in six children living in poverty. All of our children need our urgent concern, but these youngsters in poverty present an especially compelling case for our research and teaching, public policy, advocacy, and social concern.
The City University of New York educates more New Yorkers than any other university. We know something about the challenges of higher education for students who come from poverty: We have over 200,000 full-time students and another 200,000 students in various adult education and other programs. Over 40 percent of these students come from the households with incomes lower than $20,000. More than half are not financially dependent on their parents. Seven percent of our undergraduates last year received welfare benefits. More than one in five students have at least one child; one in ten of our students, at least one child under five.”
What does this mean when it comes to diversity issues, especially those of federally protected groups? If one looks at the systems of child administration, welfare, and supervision, and the overwhelming evidence of a disproportional amount of overrepresentation of minority children in public education, foster care, and juvenile/criminal justice, it is not hard to understand that these children today are the same adults that will face increased discrimination and disadvantages later in life. Much has been said and written about the “cradle to prison pipeline” that exists in New York City, and many of our children within these systems are predominately poor and minority.
Children are often not recognized as full human beings as well as a separate social class and generational cohort. This is precisely why Prof. Gertrud Lenzer found it necessary to establish the American Sociological Section on the Sociology of Children in 1991. At the same time, she founded and developed the inclusive interdisciplinary program of Children’s Studies. A sample of diversity-related courses today include Children and the Law, Child Abuse and Neglect, Children in Crisis, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Children and Disability, and interdepartmental courses of The Black Child and the Urban Education System (Africana Studies department) and The Puerto Rican, Latino, Caribbean Child in New York City (Puerto Rican and Latino Studies department.)
As founders of the interdisciplinary study of children in the United States, we hold a unique position within The City University of New York. Close to 85% of our students reside in New York City and many of them, or members of their families, come from some of the same conditions of poverty, discrimination and diminished life chances as mentioned above. These same students are the children of yesterday, and the parents of the children of tomorrow for our great city. Where better than at Children’s Studies and the City University of New York to learn about children in all their aspects in order to create the needed changes in our society.
In all social movements of the past, different groups had the opportunity to give voice to their frustrations of inequality, discrimination, and injustices. Yet, when it comes to children, who will raise a voice for them? Children do not vote and represent themselves; therefore they have no political power. They are mostly represented by their parents and the state. Education about and for children should be a diversity initiative of the first order and policies concerning their well-being and care should always be guided by the philosophy of “First Call for Children” whereby children take the highest priority in any great society.
It is for this reason that a human rights perspective articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) provides the overarching framework for Children’s Studies. Whether it is by spearheading the idea of an independent Office of the Child Advocate for New York, holding a forum series to address issues of disproportionally overrepresented children in disadvantaged systemic conditions, or looking for ways to improve their outcomes for education and justice, Children’s Studies is continually striving to break new frontiers that will lead to improved situations and outcomes for children and society. This human rights approach to children informs all our research initiatives and policy endeavors.