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Battling for a better future

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND | 4/12/2011, 5:28 p.m.

Over the last 20 months, as U.S. Senator, I have had the honor and privilege of being invited into communities across the state to share in their experiences. From touring small businesses, to attending Sunday church services, to visiting inner-city schools and farms in the North Country, it has been a special opportunity to get to know so many New Yorkers.

While attending the New York State NAACP annual conference recently, I was inspired to reflect on the civil rights movement and its long, generational journey. Generations of leaders before us fought and won many battles that, at the time, were ostensibly insurmountable. Each battle they won paved the way for a better future. Thanks to these leaders, and their unrelenting determination, our society has seen substantial advancements in civil rights.

However, we all know there are still far too many injustices that continue to plague communities of color. The unemployment rate for communities of color is twice the national average. There are too many walls to opportunity that tower over children and keep them from reaching their full God-given potential. Too many families in our state are fighting to give their children a chance to succeed, but are losing these battles because of failing public schools, gang violence and gun violence.

I have fought for legislation to help foster entrepreneurship, cut taxes for small businesses and invest in job training to get our economy growing and create jobs right here at home. I have supported innovative approaches to help our students succeed in school; and I have fought against illegal gun trafficking, to improve the safety of our communities. These are battles I will always be committed to fighting in the Senate.

But we must also fight the subtler injustices causing devastation in our communities. From the South Bronx, to Harlem, to Bushwick, almost 3 million New York City residents are living in so-called "food deserts," according to the NYC Department of City Planning. For these families, the consequences are much more than just a matter of inconvenience; they can be life threatening. These food-desert neighborhoods are cut-off from access to nearby grocery stores or supermarkets that sell affordable fresh, healthy produce. The result is diets that are heavy on fast food and other high-fat, high-sugar foods.

When I was a child, 5 percent of children were obese; now the obesity rate is closer to 20 percent. In some of our schools in New York City, as many as 40 percent of our kindergarteners are obese. This epidemic puts our children at risk of developing serious diseases --such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. Obesity keeps our children from performing their best at school; studies show that being overweight or obese can negatively impact math and reading scores --and keeps students out of school for more sick days.

Among young women, HIV/AIDS is another major obstacle that needs to be addressed. The growing rate of HIV amongst women, the fastest growing group to contract AIDS in our country, is alarming. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number-one killer of African-American women ages 25 to 34 is HIV/AIDS.

We cannot let up on the fight for equal rights for all New Yorkers. Our generation must come together to fight the injustices that are standing in the way of progress. We must fight with the same fervor as our predecessors. I understand the magnitude of the obstacles that stand before us and, as your partner in the U.S. Senate, I will fight in Washington to make sure the needs of all New York's communities are heard and addressed.