Four years ago, Independent Women’s Forum president and MSNBC political analyst Michelle D. Bernard came up with an idea to hold town halls around the country that would bring some of the brightest, most endearing minds together to hash out solutions to combat poverty in America. After going into some of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods and talking to mothers about their needs, she knew the conversation could no longer be tabled.
The result was a two-hour live event last Sunday on MSNBC (which can now be seen on MSNBC.com) featuring comedian/actor/humanitarian Bill Cosby, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, author of “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” Terrie Williams, and a host of others to talk about our children and the things we can all do to improve their overall health, education and well-being. ESSENCE.com spoke with Bernard about the inspiration behind this event, getting the message out to those who truly need it, and making the connection obvious between parenting and education.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you come up with the idea for this show?
MICHELLE BERNARD: Education is something that has always been dear to me, and the nation was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I kept thinking what would Thurgood Marshall think if he were alive to see the state of our public education system today? Back then, most people thought of education as a civil rights issue pertaining only to African-Americans. Well, 50 years later we are having the exact same conversations we were having 50 years ago. I wanted to have a national conversation on the importance of education.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get Bill Cosby to come onboard?
BERNARD: I couldn’t find a way to reach him, and one day after I started doing political analysis for MSNBC during the election, I found out that Bill Cosby and his wife watch “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” which is the show I primarily do. I ran into him at the NBC bureau in Washington, D.C., in March and told him about my vision. I went to dinner with both Dr. Cosby and Dr. Poussaint and they said yes right away but I didn’t believe them. I kept selling them on the idea and finally Dr. Cosby says, ‘We said we would do it. Can we order dinner now?’ [Laughs.]
ESSENCE.COM: What’s the connection between parenting and education?
BERNARD: At first we were going to do the entire program on education. When I started going around I would talk to parents and ask what they thought their lives would be like in five years and what they wanted for their children. Those parents who couldn’t even figure out a vision or when you talk to their children, they would all say, I don’t know. I realized that a lot of parents living in low-income neighborhoods need help on parenting skills. I’m not talking about instructing them on how to change a diaper, but how to actually have a vision for what you want your life to look like so that you can translate it into getting your children the best education so that they can realize that dream. I’m not a social worker or scientist, but just from talking to people, I started realizing that we can’t even talk about education unless we talk about parenting and health.
ESSENCE.COM: You talked a lot about health and the importance of nutrition on the show. How is that affecting our community?
BERNARD: I know that there is a nationwide epidemic on autism, but when I would go to housing project, nine out of the ten women I talked to told me that they have special-needs children. Now, to me, that is an extremely high number. There were also high numbers of Black boys who were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, and I kept saying this number isn’t right. I reached out to Dr. Daniel Amen, founder of the Amen Clinics and a psychologist who specializes in brain imaging. He can tell the difference between the brain scan of a child who gets a healthy diet versus a child who gets all processed foods.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s great to have these town hall meetings, but how are you getting this message out to the people who really need to hear it and learn from it?
BERNARD: We’re hoping that this will be the first of many town hall meetings across the country, dedicated to education. We have our Web site, aboutourchildren.org, and a YouTube channel where people are sending in videos making pledges to better their life or better the life of various communities with no excuses. We’re hoping to put these videos together with people I interview all over the country and in various languages so that you can look and see that you’re not alone. We will work with parents to help them fight for access to special education, access to resources for quality schools, whether that’s helping people to sue a school district or literally march in the streets to their state capitals and demand a decent education. Nobody wants the government to do everything for them. They just don’t know how to do it themselves so I want to be the one to provide the resources to help parents get what they need to ultimately help their children.
ESSENCE.COM: The event was at Howard University. Is there a reason why you chose to have it there instead of in a studio?
BERNARD: Howard is my alma mater, and I wanted to bring attention to Howard in a post-Barack Obama world. Although we were talking about poverty, we spoke about it in the many faces of poverty and quite often people feel when you’re talking about White people you do something at a predominately White college and when it’s a Black issue you talk about it at an HBCU. I wanted to show the American public that Howard University can speak to the needs of all American students, not just Blacks. More importantly, I wanted to do it there because so many of the lawyers and civil rights lawyers were connected to Howard undergrad or the law school. So I thought let’s bring the discussion back home and start this national debate on poverty and education reform.