Ivanka Trump recently visited Success Academy, a charter school in Harlem. It’s possible that her visit meant that she was thinking about what her father’s presidency could mean for children. She’s spoken up before on children’s issues, highlighting, for example, the importance of paid family leave and the high cost of child care. Now, it’s time for her to take a stand. The children of our country need a voice.
Since Donald Trump won the election, there have been more than 700 reported incidents of harassment and intimidation against people of color, immigrants, women and members of the LGBT community. The majority of the victims have been children in elementary or high school. In one school, a classmate told a 12-year-old African-American girl: “Now that Trump is president, I’m going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.” In another school, white students pointed to Latino students in the cafeteria at lunchtime and chanted “Build a wall!” And in another, someone taped “Whites Only” signs over water fountains.
Every day, there are children across our country living in fear, both because of these hate crimes and because of the uncertainty created by Trump’s proposed immigration policies and his threats against specific groups including as Muslims. Students in my daughter’s elementary school asked a second-grade girl whose family is Mulsim if she’ll need to leave the country or if her family will be sent to a camp. This is a child whose family has lived in this country for generations. Some students think one boy, who fled Iraq with his parents, could be on his way back to that country any day now.
Chronic fear and stress—researchers call it “toxic stress”—can have a negative effect on children’s growing bodies. Toxic stress can, in the words of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.” Toxic stress makes it hard for children to learn and to pay attention in school. It causes pain not only in the short term, but throughout their lives: children who have experienced toxic stress are more likely to engage in risky behaviors later on and are at far greater risk for mental illness, drug use, suicide and a range of diseases including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Donald Trump has made it clear he values Ivanka’s opinion. She has an opportunity to make a real difference. Here are the things that she can ask her father to do, right now:
1. Call on the country to end hate speech.
Trump can tell his followers that it is not OK—not ever—to use the language of prejudice, bigotry and fear. He can call on all our citizens to treat each other with dignity and respect. And he can speak directly to our youth and our teachers, demanding that they make schools a safe place for every child.
2. Revisit proposed immigration policies.
The single greatest buffer against toxic stress is the presence of a safe, loving caregiver. Disrupting families, deporting parents who have been in this country for years, breaking parents and children apart—the damage that this will do to children across this country is irreparable. I know a new mom who came here when she herself was an infant. She grew up in this country. This woman, currently qualified for deferred action under DACA, earned her college degree just a few years ago. She has a two-week-old baby. She deserves to stay.
3. Rethink anti-Muslim proposals.
Trump should change the language he has used to talk about Muslims and revisit the appointments of those who have publicly expressed anti-Muslim sentiment. Like Ivanka, I’m a Jew. I never thought we’d find ourselves having to speak out on behalf of religious freedom and tolerance in this country, which provided a safe haven for our people and for those of so many other faiths.
4. Pledge to invest in the safety net that supports our youngest and most vulnerable children.
If we want children to be successful as learners and citizens, we have to ensure that their basic needs are met. That means investments in programs that help pay for food, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; investments in health insurance for children and their parents, through the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act; and programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant that help families pay for safe, quality child care, which is essential to children’s later educational success.
This is Ivanka’s moment. She must seize the chance to do good for the children of this country. Her own children, and mine, will thank her.
Jessica Sager is the founder and executive director of All Our Kin and a lecturer at Yale College. She is a Pahara Aspen Fellow and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
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