Feature Article

A multitude of options, with one exception

What is the most pressing issue affecting children and families?
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By Amy Damashek

Amy Damashek, PhD I think that I probably speak for many of us when I say that, in recent years, I have felt a heightened sense of urgency to address a multitude of issues that affect children and families. Indeed, the APA issued a press release in 2017 indicating that almost two-thirds of those surveyed felt like the future of our country is a significant source of stress.

There are so many important issues facing children and families, and it can be difficult to know where to put one’s focus. I am particularly concerned about the treatment of immigrants in the United States, and the effects that detainment will have on the growth and development of immigrant youth. With a young daughter in school, I am also quite distraught about gun violence and the fact that our schools are implementing active shooter trainings. I found it disturbing to see my 6-year-old daughter show me how to hide quietly in case there is a “dangerous person in the building.”

Given that there is no shortage of issues, and none of us can do it all, perhaps it’s best for each of us to focus on the issues that feel nearest to our hearts. Working on these issues may fit into the duties of our day-to-day jobs, or such work may be a focus that we pursue outside of our daily jobs. 

Having said that, however, I think there is one exception. There is one issue in particular that I think requires an approach of “all hands on deck” — climate change. It may seem odd to mention climate change in a forum that is related to children and families. However, I think that all too often, we imagine a false dichotomy between environmental and social just issues. As the United Nations Environment Programme reports, “…a healthy environment is both a prerequisite and a foundation for economic prosperity, human health, and well-being.” Indeed, social justice issues are intricately intertwined with environmental issues. An unfortunate example is the case of the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan. This water crisis occurred in a predominantly African American community, and as we know, lead is particularly damaging to young brains that are still in the process of developing.

The environmental issues that we are currently facing are most lethal to those who are most vulnerable — that is, poor individuals, individuals of color and individuals in developing nations. Climate change is an issue that we can no longer choose to ignore. An unfortunate and unjust reality is that underdeveloped nations are those who suffer the earliest and most severe effects of climate change, despite the fact that developed nations disproportionately contribute to climate change. Yet, we can already see the effects of climate change close to home, with the intensification of storms and increased temperature extremes. Unless we see some immediate policy changes, predictions of continued effects of climate change are dire. Many of the other issues that we’re concerned about will be amplified if climate change is allowed to continue unchecked. Indeed, we’re already seeing dramatically increased numbers of climate change refugees. Other problems such as homelessness and hunger will worsen as people’s homes become flooded, and drought causes farmers to lose crops.

If you’re anything like me, you may have experienced despair as a result of the climate crisis and the lack of response from policy leaders. However, I’ve recently been activated by the knowledge that we still have time to head off some of the worse effects of climate change if we act now. (If you’re not convinced, consider reading Mary Robinson’s book titled “Climate Justice”).

I’ve also been catalyzed by the fact that young people are leading the charge to address climate change. They are standing up all over the world to tell us that they do not want to live with the aftermath of a crisis that we have failed to address. They have made it painfully clear that this is an issue that is relevant to them. So, no need to feel like climate change is outside of the area of children and families because it is not! The youth are telling us that it is something that will affect them, and they want us to act now.

So, what can we do? We can act on a federal and/or local level. On a federal level, we can advocate for our government to pass legislation to address climate change. We can also support groups who conduct such advocacy work. Another path is to act locally by advocating for our states, cities and universities to pass climate action plans. Even if our current federal government won’t take action, local communities can make a difference. Look for a local organization promoting climate change action and see if there’s some small way to get involved.

Moreover, many of us work in educational institutions. We can think about ways to encourage students to become involved in climate change work. Or, at the least, we can let them know that we are concerned about it. Many of us serve as role models for students and trainees. We can model the importance of action to ensure that we leave them and their children with a planet that is habitable.

In short, this is not a time to bury our head in the sand or to throw up our hands. As my colleague’s astute T-shirt says, “There is no Planet B.” Any step we can each take is a good one.