Black History Month

February is Black History Month. As a late-stage boomer, I got almost none of this history in school, despite growing up in a majority Black city (Philadelphia) and a big academic focus on American History in my youth. I’ve tried to make up for this appalling lack of knowledge in the past few years by reading some excellent writing, and I’d like to pass some of these recommendations on to all of you. I did not read these all in one month or even a single year. All are incredibly valuable.

It’s our responsibility as human beings in the world to help heal the world. For us at DCYF, it’s a core part of our agency mission. Race has been used to divide us in America for hundreds of years. Understanding what happened is why we read history, and good history gets deep into the underlying causes of what happened. These are great history books.

Part of our expectations for all employees is that they do some personal work that makes sense to them to understand racial equity and social justice in America. Reading any of these would be a good start. I like paper books (late-stage boomer, remember), but there are videos and podcasts to learn from as well.

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is the current RESJ book club book. It’s awesome. The author’s main thesis is that white communities have historically blocked investments that would benefit their own community members rather than share the resource. A particular example in the book reminded me of something from my childhood, and I had an amazing conversation with my mother about the O’Connor Pool, about two blocks from my house in Philadelphia. The pool was located inside an Irish community and close to the border of a Black community and a more mixed gentrifying center city neighborhood where we lived. The locals would throw broken glass into the pool if any members of the Black community (kids I went to school with, for example) showed up to swim. The pool had to be closed to everyone to clean the bottom. This wasn’t the deep South, it was South Philadelphia in the 1960s. Makes McGhee’s point.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the epic story of America’s great migration when six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the North for both opportunity and to try to escape persecution. This book won a Pulitzer prize for the author, and she deserved it. An amazing book that weaves together the experience of actual people with historical statistics and, you know, history. I loved it. It made me understand why some things were the way they were in Philly during my childhood. The story is good too. It was a book I read in only a few sittings, even though it is quite thick. I got sucked in by the power of both the story and the language.

Some of the images of incredible degradation in Florida stick with me today, several years after I first read the book. Black people in the South faced daily humiliation, plus incredible danger from lynching and other extreme violence from angry white mobs. The George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery murders are the modern manifestation of lynching – extrajudicial killings without due process. The NAACP estimates that almost 4,800 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.

Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s second book, is a more detailed look at how race in America is much like a caste system, with strict hierarchical levels and the dysfunction associated with it. As with all good writing, there are stories about real people, but this book is a more challenging read, and is more structural and analytical than The Warmth of Other Suns. I found it more important to my thinking, and less like a walk through history I hadn’t known.

This book made me think. It has given me a framework to organize my thinking about why the powerful culture does what it does. It’s worth the work to read. Her use of language is exquisite, and that alone is enough pleasure to recommend the book for.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

DCYF is responsible for a small part of the youth incarceration system in Washington, and understanding how law enforcement works and why it is set up the way it is seemed like an important exercise to me when I took the job as DCYF Secretary. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is the hardest book to read on this short list. Hard to read, but it’s amazing. The core argument is that white populations in America created a series of alternatives to slavery once that was eliminated in the Civil War. Formalizing Jim Crow laws was one step, and using law enforcement to put a “felon” tag on Black people allowed the same kind of control of the body and economic exploitation that slavery had. Formal Jim Crow was replaced with the “war on drugs” and other criminalization of Black people to deny economic growth and particularly to deny political power over white people. Think about “legal financial obligations” as another – one reason we are working to eliminate the parent pay statute in JR this year. Labeling someone (vastly disproportionately Black men) as a felon allows the same discrimination that the civil rights experience in the 60s made illegal to do when based explicitly on race. Alexander makes the case.

She pummels you with relentless data and stories that are painful to read. It is impossible to argue against her with a straight face, though many people try. When you are done, you have a renewed commitment to our work preparing the young people we care for to succeed in the world, and more importantly, preventing many of the traumas that our young people suffer from. Alexander’s argument is that that’s not enough, and we have to change the world at an even deeper level. I agree with her. You will too, after you read this.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a short book written as a letter to his son. It’s a book I didn’t have to write to my son because he doesn’t have to experience the world the way young Black men do. I never had to have “the talk” with him about interacting with the police. You can’t read this one quickly; you have to savor the language. You have to think about what he is saying and how it would impact his child (and yours.) This is a deeply intellectual and very, very strong piece written by an expert. I remember being excited to get the book after reading many of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. I wasn’t disappointed. Coates is also the author of many of the Black Panther comic books published by Marvel Comics. I admit that these are a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure it was for him to write them. Maybe in my next life I can be a writer as powerful as Coates and get to write comic books.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

To read more about the unjust incarceration of Black men, you can read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Or, you can watch the movie, which is also terrific. I listened to it as a book on tape (actually, a book on phone, but that’s the modern world…) read by the author while I commuted to and from Olympia. It’s the story of how good lawyers can create justice in the world. It’s uplifting. The space for creating justice is large, as you will have learned from some of the earlier books on this list, with many, many Black men sitting unjustly on death row. The work Stevenson does is one of the core reasons many states have repealed their death sentence laws in recent years. My conviction against the death penalty is a little deeper than the argument here. As a lifelong Quaker, I have the simple belief that there is that of God in every person and that it is not for us to take the life of one of them. The unjustness of the criminal justice system is another reason, if you need one.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, by the civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis is a set of three graphic novels exploring the civil rights era with a power that words alone can’t convey. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are three books worth of them here. You could get a middle school kid interested in the civil rights era with this collection, it’s so powerful. If you know any middle school kids, you understand how powerful these must be. I was driving home from Olympia one day and heard on the radio that Rep. Lewis was speaking at the Bellevue Library, of all places. I screeched off the road and worked my way into a packed room where he was doing the book tour for these books. The ability to shake his hand and get an autographed set of these is an experience I will treasure my whole life.

You don’t understand the Edmund Pettis Bridge until you’ve experienced it in graphic form. It makes your heart hurt.

Any of these books are great. You’d enjoy reading any or all of them. More importantly, you will be a person who thinks more deeply about the world and your place in it.

Ross Hunter | Secretary
Department of Children, Youth, and Families

Office 360-407-7909 | Cell 360-515-8972
Pronouns: he/him/his

Improving Education for Incarcerated Youth

The laws that define education funding in Washington are complex. You know this if you have been reading this blog for a long time – I spent a good part of the last two decades working on bringing it into the modern world. You can spend hours reading overly long posts about that work here.

One small part of it was not updated when we fixed the system to comply with the McCleary decision – the education offered to youth who are incarcerated, either in the state system DCYF runs called “Juvenile Rehabilitation” or in the county-run detention centers. In 2018 about 5,700 youth were admitted to a local detention center.

Fixing this system is a racial justice issue. The youth “served” by the juvenile incarceration system are disproportionately youth of color. Graduation rates for this population are abysmally low – 8% for youth who have spent more than 30 days in detention. The system provides inadequate instruction in a model designed, IMHO, more for the convenience of school districts than the effectiveness of the education delivered.

I have been appointed to serve on a task force charged with redesigning this system. We had our first meeting a week ago. Watch it here. You can read information about the meetings here. Prior to the first meeting I sent the following letter to the other members of the task force.

Dear Task Force Member:

As we start the work of the Institutional Education task force I think we should “begin with the end in mind.” Youth in institutions have the same rights under “Basic Education” as other youth. These are laid out in RCW 28A.150.200.

The legislature defines the program of basic education under this chapter as that which is necessary to provide the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the state-established high school graduation requirements that are intended to allow students to have the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma that prepares them for postsecondary education, gainful employment, and citizenship.RCW 28A.150.200(2)

We need to agree that the goal of this task force is to design a program of education that is likely to give students the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma. It’s not just to do a tweak to the funding formulas. What we have today doesn’t work for the students we serve. It wouldn’t work for anyone, but it particularly doesn’t work for at-risk youth.

The kids served in institutions (overwhelmingly part of the incarceration system) are overwhelmingly children of color. This is a result of 400 years of racism in America, a racism that is buried deeply into our culture in ways that people are only beginning to see. If we care about walking the talk on removing racial bias in the world, we need to focus on these young people.

Among students with a history of detention, only 16% graduated from high school, compared to 72% of students who had not been detained. Among youth who spent more than a month in juvenile detention, only 8% graduated. ERDC found similar inequitable outcomes for high-school dropout rates and postsecondary enrollment.[2]

A 2012 report by DSHS RDA found that only 14% of 9th graders in JR had graduated from high school in the following six years, compared to a 79% extended graduation rate for the general population at that same time.[3]

These statistics are connected, as youth who gradate and earn post-secondary certification rarely recidivate.

These youths often attend programs put on by multiple school districts, all with different curricula and graduation requirements, and different and unconnected student information systems. For foster children (and 40% of JR youth have been in the foster system[4],) every placement change results in the loss of 4-6 months of school attainment. They never connect to a single adult who cares about them and pushes them to succeed in school.

Most county detention facilities are not set up for long-term residency. The length of stay for a particular youth might be as long as two years in such a facility. They are unlikely to experience any education success, and if they do not we will see them back in the incarceration system.

Young people who are incarcerated at JR facilities have usually had extensive experience with this pipeline, and uniformly complain that the work is not challenging, and that the system does not seem to care if the education they receive leads anywhere.

It is really, really difficult to organize the data about young people involved with the incarceration system. OSPI does not break out information about these young people, even though we have the data scattered in multiple databases. Most of my information comes from a handful of reports you will be able to read during this task force. One key suggestion I make is that we require regular reporting on the educational experience of these youths, as we will not get anywhere solving a problem we cannot measure. The agency will make recommendations on what data we would like to have included in regular educational outcome reporting.

The only way this effort will produce the change we need to see in the world is if it focuses on ensuring that children in institutional settings receive an education that gives them a REALISTIC opportunity to be successful in the world. The current system is dysfunctional. We should do something different.

When a small group of us in the Legislature redesigned the school funding system over a decade ago we created the concept of the “model school” as a way to anchor the cost structure in what people could understand as a functional design for a school. We fought hard about what was the entitlement – was it just enough school that highly prepared students with strong families and minimal trauma in their lives could be successful, or did we have a more inclusive view of who should be served? The paragraph from RCW 28A at the beginning of this letter was the result of that discussion – there was bipartisan agreement that there needed to be enough resources to give every child a fair opportunity. The model school helped people see that some schools would need more funding for remediation than others, and the formulas reflect that.

Children involved in the juvenile incarceration system have complex lives, have usually experienced much trauma, and do not have the level of support young people born closer to opportunity experience. If we want to be successful in designing a funding system I would urge the task force to take a similar approach – focus on designing a model that will work, then figuring out what that will cost. That’s what these young people are entitled to, and that’s what we need to do if we want to end cyclical experiences with the incarceration system.

We should at least address:

  • Consistent graduation requirements, curriculum, and student information. A youth’s current credits should not be lost when changing school districts, nor should it take months for their records to catch up to them.
  • Expectations. We should expect and support young people in achieving the goals in the basic education act.
  • Consistent adult relationships. Young people at the deep end of the pool would benefit from a consistent education coach or advocate.

I would urge the group to think big. Do we really need to have education provided by the school district a facility is in? What has worked in other states and other countries? The long-term gains in outcomes for children and reduction in generational trauma can be stunning.


Ross Hunter


[1] RCW 28A.150.200(2)

[2] Education Outcome Characteristics of Students Admitted to Juvenile Detention, ERDC 2019,


[4] Blue Ribbon Commission Report prior to creation of the agency.