Thank you, William Foley [Jones], for those kind words – and for your outstanding leadership as CEO of Focus: HOPE. It’s a pleasure to be back in the great city of Detroit this evening. It’s a privilege to stand among so many dedicated activists, distinguished leaders, and good friends. I am particularly honored to share the stage tonight with my friend Senator [Carl] Levin – who has been a lifelong champion for his beloved state and for at-risk Americans across the country. And I am humbled to join him in accepting the very first ever Heroes for Hope Awards. Thank you all for this tremendous honor.
As I’ve said in the past, I firmly believe that the measure of any award is found not in the qualifications of the person to whom it’s presented, but in the legacy that it honors. That’s why I could not be prouder to accept an award bearing the name of the extraordinary Eleanor Josaitis – a trailblazer who fought for social justice her entire life; a tireless worker whose enduring contributions are all around us; and a principled leader whose example will continue to guide and inspire us long into the future.
In the wake of the 12th Street Riot of 1967, at a time of distressed neighborhoods and uncertain futures, Eleanor Josaitis and Father William Cunningham came together to found this remarkable organization – taking on the burden and the challenge of building a more just society for their fellow citizens. In the midst of turmoil and unrest – in the shadow of violence and tragedy – they began the difficult and at times dangerous work of realizing their shared vision: for a metropolitan community where all people may live in freedom, harmony, trust and affection.
More than 45 years later – through her leadership and your commitment – an organization that used to meet in the basement of the Catholic Church of Madonna now stretches over a 40-acre campus along Oakman Boulevard. The groundbreaking work you perform across this city touches, improves, and in some cases even saves lives. And these innovative efforts have made Focus: HOPE not only known, but celebrated, nationwide.
Through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, you help sustain mothers, children, and low-income senior citizens who might otherwise struggle to survive. Through your career training programs, you empower students, at-risk young people, and chronically unemployed or formerly incarcerated individuals to get the skills they need to compete in a tough job market. And through the HOPE Village Initiative, you are helping to bring back parts of Detroit that have been too long forgotten and neglected – fostering supportive and nurturing environments in which people can live, work, and raise their families.
Across the board, these efforts are making a tremendous difference. They’re inspiring others – including me and my colleagues in the Obama Administration – to support similar work throughout the nation. And – critically – they are only the beginning.
For all the progress you’ve made possible, and the remarkable initiatives you’re leading even as we speak, a great deal remains to be done. You know as well as anyone that what’s at stake is real – not just here in Detroit, but across America. In far too many communities – many of which are communities of color – young people too easily become trapped in destructive cycles of poverty, incarceration, and crime. In far too many of these neighborhoods, our children walk a well-worn path from the schoolhouse to the criminal justice system. And in far too many places – in every state in the Union – men and women and children who work hard and desperately want to succeed are held back by longstanding obstacles and systemic disparities that our nation is oftentimes reluctant to confront.
In many cases, these disparities are subtle. They do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. But their effects are both pernicious and pervasive. They include zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers. They include sentencing policies that, according to a study released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year, routinely cause African-American men to receive sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. And they include overly restrictive state voting policies and requirements that disproportionately affect young people, the elderly, the poor, and men and women of color – constraining their ability to exercise the right to vote that so many of our forebears have fought, sacrificed, and in some cases given their lives to secure.
We cannot wish these inequities away. And we must not – and will not – turn a blind eye to their effects. On the contrary: we must acknowledge and confront each and every one of them. We must speak openly and candidly about the challenges we face. And we must take what Eleanor Josaitis liked to call “intelligent and practical action” to bring them to an end.
This is the imperative that has shaped Focus: HOPE’s work, here in Detroit, for over four and a half decades. And it’s the same ethos, and the same dedication to pragmatic, common-sense solutions, that is guiding the Justice Department’s work to confront the very same conditions at the national level – challenging us to reach farther; impelling us to question the status quo; and driving us to stand up – and to fight, alongside leaders like you and organizations like this one – to ensure that every one of our citizens has an equal opportunity to grow, to learn, and to thrive – as well as a voice and a vote to shape his or her own future.
As you know, in the wake of last year’s misguided Supreme Court decision invalidating a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Justice Department was denied an essential tool for combating discriminatory voting rules, regulations, and procedures that discourage and disenfranchise. Yet we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring access to the ballot box for all eligible citizens. The Department is currently challenging voting restrictions in North Carolina and Texas. And I am personally committed to working with Congressional leaders from both parties, like Senator Levin, to refine, and to strengthen, new voting rights legislation that’s being debated on Capitol Hill.
I want to be very clear: this Administration – and this Department of Justice – will not stand by as the voices of those disproportionately affected by misguided voting restrictions are shut out of the process of self-governance. After all, this isn’t just about challenging measures that would deprive certain populations of their most basic rights. It’s about building a society that works for everyone.
At its core, this is the aim that drove me, at the beginning of last year, to launch a targeted Justice Department review of America’s criminal justice system. Last August, based on the results of that review, I launched a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s allowing us to take concrete steps to strengthen the criminal justice system as a whole; to address unwanted disparities wherever they are found; and to forge the more just society that everyone in this country deserves.
In partnership with your outstanding United States Attorney, Barb McQuade, we started by modifying the Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes – so that individuals charged with certain low-level, nonviolent federal drug offenses will face sentences that are appropriate to their individual conduct, rather than excessive mandatory minimums that too often have destabilizing effects on communities of color. We’re working with Congress to secure legislative changes like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which would provide additional discretion in determining sentences that fit individual cases. We’re calling on the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make recent reductions in sentencing guidelines retroactive for some individuals – so that those without significant criminal histories, who are serving time for nonviolent offenses that did not involve weapons, could be eligible to apply for reduced sentences under new rules approved by the Commission in April.
We’re also strengthening diversion programs like drug courts, veterans courts, and community service initiatives – so we can provide alternatives to incarceration for some people and offer treatment and rehabilitation to those who need it. We’re working to restore justice, fairness, and proportionality to those currently involved with our justice system through an improved approach to the executive clemency process. And we’re striving to reinforce reentry programs and initiatives from coast to coast – so we can enable formerly incarcerated individuals to return to their communities better prepared to contribute as full and productive members of society.
Beyond these efforts, my colleagues and I are also taking action – alongside other Cabinet agencies, private stakeholders, and advocacy groups – to answer President Obama’s call to ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed. We are committed to working with partners like you in cities across America to make sure our children’s futures are determined by their dedication, goals, and potential – not by the circumstances of their birth.
In February, the President took this commitment to a new level by launching a national call to action – known as “My Brother’s Keeper” – that’s bringing together government and private groups to address persistent opportunity gaps that create impassable obstacles for too many of our youth. This Administration-wide initiative represents the latest step in our work to keep young people on the right track; to knock down the barriers they face; and to give them chances to succeed.
Especially this weekend, as we pause to celebrate Father’s Day, we must all be mindful of the responsibility we share to set good examples for our kids – and to inspire, empower, and do right by them. And we must not forget – as you have not forgotten – the unfortunate reality that, for far too many children, the involvement of a loving and attentive parent is not something they can count on.
In too many places, mentors and strong, positive role models are in short supply. And that’s one of many reasons why – tonight – I’m calling on all Americans to get involved in My Brother’s Keeper – by signing a pledge at “whitehouse.gov/mybrotherskeeper” to become long-term mentors to young people.
This effort will engage Americans from all walks of life to develop sustained mentoring relationships that can play vital roles in the lives of kids of all backgrounds. Mentoring changes lives – and not just for our young people. During my tenure as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia – in the mid-1990s – my staff and I “adopted” an elementary school in a low-income, predominantly African-American part of Washington. We found an extraordinary and rewarding sense of purpose in the relationships we developed. And I was thrilled to become invested in these students’ futures.
This was at a time when Washington, D.C. was a city in crisis. Some called it the “murder capital” of the United States. But the challenges we faced were not new – and they are not unique. Over the years, through efforts – including mentoring – to support and invest in those who will shape our future; through extensive community engagement; through federal-local partnerships like the ones we’re seeing here in Detroit; and through the efforts of citizens on the ground and groups like Focus: HOPE – on the streets of Washington, we were able to turn back the tide of violence. And this enabled our citizens to build a vibrant city that’s equipped to overcome whatever challenges it may face – just as you’re doing in the Motor City as we speak.
Thanks to your leadership, Detroit is once again a city on the rise. There are significant obstacles ahead – and crises that still must be confronted. This city’s inevitable renaissance will take time. But thanks to Focus: HOPE and other groups, I know you’re on the right track. During my most recent visit to Detroit, last September, I announced millions of dollars in federal support to improve public safety and address acute crime problems. I’m proud to serve as an ally in the work that’s underway. I’m honored to represent an Administration that’s committed to your success. And I’m confident that, together, we can ensure that – when the history of this period is written – it will reflect that a new era of positive change began with the people in this room.
Eleanor Josaitis used to say that the success of this organization was based on three things: passion, persistence, and partnerships. Today, Focus: HOPE’s passion is helping to improve the lives of thousands of people across this city. Today, your persistence has transformed what was once a small band of committed activists into a nationally-recognized force for change. And today – in this Department of Justice and in this Attorney General – Focus: HOPE has strong and steadfast partners in Washington and throughout the country – who are inspired by your successes, who are dedicated to the same goals, and who are determined to take “intelligent and practical action” to help make the difference we seek. We are with you, Detroit.
Ultimately, as your history reminds us, these efforts will be successful only if we take responsibility not just for ourselves, but for our families, our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow citizens. Among them are the future “heroes for hope” that this city, this state, and this country desperately need.
We reaffirm tonight that we share their passion. We share your persistence. And we will never stop fighting for the safety, the rights, and the opportunities to which our young men and women are entitled. We will never stop reaching for the better, brighter, and more inclusive future that we all must shape together. And we will never stop working to achieve the community of freedom, harmony, trust, and affection that Eleanor Josaitis spoke of, that she fought for – and that each of us must help to create.
Thank you, once again, for this tremendous honor. Thank you for your friendship. And thank you for all that you do every day. I am honored to count you as colleagues in the considerable work before us. And I look forward to all that we can, that we must, and that we will accomplish together in the months and years ahead.