This fall, we’re sharing profiles of some of the people who make up Council for Children’s Rights: attorneys, social workers, administrators, child advocates and others. This month, we’d like to introduce you to Deborah Whitfield, a child advocate and staff attorney with our Individual Advocacy Team.
How long have you been working for the Council?
I’ve been with CFCR since Sept. 10, 2007. I think that makes it 8 years this past Sept., now going on 9 years!
What got you interested in working in juvenile justice?
Having parents who strongly emphasized the value and importance of education and having a child with Down Syndrome. And then seeing how often we are failing our at-risk youth, especially African-American boys, who are routinely disciplined, performing below grade-level, can’t read, and are often sitting at home, unsupervised, picking up charges, going to jails and prisons at alarming rates, and falling further and further behind in school and in life.
Please share a story of a case you’ve worked on where you felt you really made a difference.
Not long ago, I represented a child who was on the Occupational Course of Study curriculum at Myers Park HS. This child had developmental delays and mental health challenges that made it next to impossible for him to remain in class and access the curriculum. He was frequently disciplined, and consequently, missed a lot of instruction. Over time, I worked with our client, his Mom, and CMS convening numerous special education meetings that targeted our client’s many unique needs, and ensured that he was receiving specialized instruction, an array of behavioral supports and related services. By the time our client reached his senior year, he was not only staying in class, but he was successfully accessing his curriculum while his behaviors were minimizing. By his senior year, our client graduated on time, with his same-age peers, with a diploma and is now attending CPCC and working in the community—proving to be a good neighbor, responsible citizen, and productive worker in the Charlotte community.
Do you have a favorite quotation?
Yes, it’s something my Mom , Elaine Armstrong ,would say to her four children regularly until it became a part of how we think and view the world: “Nothing given in love is ever lost.”
Who is your personal hero(ine).
My Mom!!! My Mom has been everything; my earliest teacher, a social worker in Upstate NY, a Girl Scout troop leader, a grade-school English teacher in public school, an MSW, a college professor, and a state regulator, a jazzercise queen, and now a gardener and yoga devotee. In all that she undertakes, she demonstrates determination, perseverance, and reminds me, often, of the value of paying attention to the needs and ensure the dignity of others. As I began to enter the workforce, she repeatedly taught, “In professional work environments, we all bring our crap! Make sure you are always worth yours!!!”
Would you like to share something about your family?
In reflecting on my own advocacy journey and the tactics and strategies that I’ve employed over the 9 years I’ve worked at CFCR, I’ve somewhat surprisingly realized that BOTH of my parents were, and continue to be, social justice activists. Dad marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, and was thrown in jail for his civil disobedience along with all the others. In all of the churches he pastored up north and in the south, he & my Mom always found ways to advocate for the downtrodden, and to create pro-social opportunities for adults and children in the community. Some of their stories were evidence of radical maneuvers that were shocking for their day & time. Other of their advocacy exploits were amazing, even awe-inspiring. I realize now, that the decision I made to become a juvenile justice advocate and my personal commitment to become an effective disability policy change agent was formed in the womb!
What book is currently on your nightstand?
Honestly, there are many partially read books on my nightstand. The ones I earnestly try to get back to are my Howard Thurman books that my Dad gave me, a book called Speeches That Changed the World, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy—A Story of Justice and Redemption.
When you aren’t working, what do you enjoy doing?
Baking cookies and sketching fashion ideas with my (daughter) Lizzy, walking with my (daughter) Julia, and speaking to parents and self-advocates about how to become effective disability policy change agents.
Where did you grow up and how did it shape you?
I grew up in upstate NY (Binghamton, NY), but by the time I was 10 years old, my Dad got an appointment to an AME Zion church in Asheville, NC. As a very young child growing up in relatively small, remote, Binghamton, I saw how sophisticated northern African-Americans seemed and, socially, how respectfully they seemed to treat one another. When we came south to Asheville, I saw a whole different way African-Americans existed, subsisted, and persisted in society. It made me realize, over time, that members of any given race, creed or nationality are not all the same, and that socio-economic status seemed to have as much, if not more, influence on how individuals and social groups relate to one another in the world. I came to understand, based upon the stark contrast I grew up experiencing, that the real deal is finding meaningful opportunities to really get to know people since you cannot tell who people really are, simply by the color of their skin. I also concluded that it is imperative to resist the very real, very human, ever present tendency to judge others by how they sound, and how they look, and even, based upon how people (of any given race, creed, or national origin) act, at any given point in time.
Any other organizations/causes you support or are involved in?
I’m Vice-Chair Elect of Disability Rights North Carolina, our State’s protection and advocacy champions for justice and equality. I’m a member of The Arc of NC and Meck County, and a member of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte. I’m a member of Grace AME Zion Church, and I coordinate leadership and advocacy training opportunities for parents and self-advocates through my own non-profit organization, Advocacy Institute, Inc., and the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities.