Original Article: Philadelphia Magazine, Sept. 17, 2016
Mattie McQueen is desperately poor. So were her parents, her grandparents and her great-grandparents. So are her children and her young grandchildren. Is there a way out?
OTIS BULLOCK JR. was in the second grade at Meade Elementary School in North Philadelphia when a teacher asked him to write an essay on what he would like to be when he grew up.
Otis wrote A fighter … but in class, his teacher offered another idea. “You’re smart,” she said. “You could be a lawyer.”
That thought had never crossed Otis’s mind. At this point in his young life, his mom was in and out of crack addiction. His father, with whom he lived most of the time, was a North Philadelphia drug dealer. Bullock Jr. heard his dad described around the neighborhood as a “great fighter” and knew from the way people said it — with admiration and respect — that being good with his fists could mean status in his community. He’d never been told he was “smart.” He’d never heard anyone describe getting good grades with the same reverence people used in noting his dad’s toughness. But that teacher, he says, “spun my head around.”
Today, Bullock holds a Temple law degree and has already established himself, at 38, as a low-key star in Philadelphia’s political and social firmament. He worked for City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and later for Mayor Michael Nutter. His wife, Donna Bullock, just 37, is already a state representative for parts of North and West Philadelphia, including impoverished neighborhoods like Mantua and Strawberry Mansion.
Blackwell refers to the couple as “beloved.”
“They have the means to live elsewhere,” she says, “but they have chosen to stay in Strawberry Mansion, one of the city’s most challenged communities, because they believe in that neighborhood and its people.”
Currently, Otis Bullock Jr. serves as executive director of Diversified Community Services, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the city’s low-income families that he’s positioned at the cutting edge of the war on poverty.
This spring he hosted a forum on the “two-generation” model, which unites the services provided to parents and children. “It’s really simple,” says Bullock. “You stabilize the parent, or whoever is leading the household, to make the home less stressful so the child can focus on learning. At the same time, you teach those children.”
In practical terms, the strategy means providing educational support to kids while offering the full range of housing, social, mental-health and economic services to their parents. “In hindsight, this way of approaching generational poverty looks kind of obvious,” says Susan Landry, director and founder of the Children’s Learning Institute in Houston, Texas. “Everyone wants to help children. What the two-gen strategy recognizes is that children exist in families.”
Educating children without stabilizing the home, says Landry, puts kids in an impossible position — requiring them to lead their parents. Making a child’s home safer and less stressful yields huge benefits in the child’s ability to learn. And two-gen strategies are gaining support among conservatives and progressives alike. Republican governors like Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah champion the two-gen approach for imparting a sense of responsibility to parents and streamlining government — parking disparate social agencies under one roof. Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, recently told NPR that helping children requires helping their families — a truism of two-gen thinking. And at July’s Democratic convention here in Philadelphia, former president Bill Clinton extolled the virtues of HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) — a seminal two-gen program that Otis Bullock Jr. brought to Diversified.
Read more at Philadelphia Magazine