- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

At least it’s “granny,” not “nanny.” “If somebody’s going to be with these kids other than their parents, it better be me,” said Marian Robinson, the nation’s soon-to-be “First Granny,” in an interview with the Boston Globe.

Mrs. Robinson, called one of the “unsung heroes” of his campaign by President-elect Barack Obama, will take up residence in the White House after Tuesday’s historic inaugural to continue caring for her granddaughters, Malia and Sasha.

While I’ve reported about young women, particularly professional black women, being ecstatic about the smart, stylish Michelle Obama representing them as first lady, Mrs. Robinson’s role is not without historic significance, either.

Not only will this 71-year-old live-in grandma mark a significant evolution for black women of her generation and older, but she also sheds a spotlight on the millions of grandparents living in increasing numbers of multigenerational households nationwide.

Far too many of those multigenerational households will hardly employ the finest chefs, but rather, like Balinda Cunningham‘s, struggle to put food on the table and pricey uniforms on the backs of their abandoned grandchildren for whom they are the primary caretakers.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Cunningham said Mrs. Robinson’s historic role in the White House “uplifts me because I’m a person like her, and seeing her be so strong and knowing my [spiritual] connection with her, it’s something we knew we could do if we stayed steadfast.”

We have come a long way as a nation in terms of equality when we remember that the descendants of slaves, some of whom built the White House, are moving into America’s mansion not as servants, but as its premiere residents.

Dorie Ann Ladner, a civil rights activist originally from Mississippi, who participated in every march and Freedom Ride from 1963 to 1968, said “thank the Lord that we have a woman in the White House who represents us and all the work we’ve done in the past for $2 and $3 a day.”

“We’ve been waiting for that day to come, and it’s here; she will not be a servant, she will be a resident,” said Ms. Ladner. She and her sister, sociologist Joyce Ladner, spoke on “A Dream Fulfilled” at a Martin Luther King Day program at the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday.

Technically, Mrs. Robinson, a widow who quit her job as a bank secretary to care for her granddaughters during the presidential campaign, was “on the cusp” of the generation of black women who were coming of age in the 1950s as job options beyond domestic work were beginning to open up, said noted Howard University historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis.

The author of several books, including “Living In, Living Out: African-American Domestics and the Great Migration,” and the PBS documentary, “Freedom Bags,” Mrs. Clark-Lewis said the Obamas are “absolutely following a cultural construct, whereby people of African descent entrusted their children with family members, no matter what line of work or profession they pursued.”

“And I applaud that; Michelle’s so blessed to have her,” Mrs. Clark-Lewis said. But she had no doubt that Mrs. Obama was going to ask her mother, rather than strangers such as nannies, to care for her daughters. Mrs. Obama has said, “The girls are going to need [Mrs. Robinson] as part of their sense of stability.”

According to a poll released this month by Grandparents.com, three-quarters of those surveyed said the Obamas “will be more effective in the White House, knowing their kids are being cared for by their grandmother.”

Amy Goyer of Grandparents.com and a former AARP spokeswoman said “close to 6 million grandparents live in the same house as their grandchildren, and Marian Robinson in the White House validates the contributions that grandparents across the country are making to families.”

She pointed out, however, that increasing numbers of adult children are moving in with their parents or grandparents are moving in with their children and grandchildren to weather tough economic times. Others need care themselves owing to illnesses or want companionship after the death of a spouse.

Yet countless grandparents cannot afford the responsibility of caring for their grandchildren, many of them who are placed in foster homes with strangers who received more government money for their care.

Ms. Goyer said that after years of collaborative lobbying efforts beginning with President Clinton, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act of 2008 was signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 7.

The bill, which has yet to be implemented through state agencies, will make $3 billion available over the next 10 years to distribute monthly to families who take permanent custody of their related children who have been in the foster care system for at least six months. Additional money was set aside to help relative caregivers navigate through the maze of services to help them locate resources.

According to AARP, 4.5 million children nationwide are being raised in a grandparent-headed household, and 1.5 million are being raised by other relatives. Of those 6 million, AARP research shows that 2.5 million are without their parents.

Mimi Castaldi, president of AARP DC, said Mrs. Robinson “is coming to a city where 8,000 grandparents have sole responsibility of their grandchildren,” which constitutes a higher percentage than any other city except Baltimore.

While 500 children are being served, another 107 families (159 children) are on the waiting list for the DC Grandparent Caregiver Pilot Program that is set to expire this fall if it is not renewed.

Mrs. Cunningham, 58, who has been caring for her 7-year-old granddaughter since she was born, testified before the D.C. Council in April on the critical need for financial assistance when they were still on the waiting list to receive the $600-a-month stipend. Ms. Castaldi said foster care costs $40,000 per year, while parents in the pilot program received about $6,000 annually.

“I believe this program is saving the District money by helping family members take care of their children rather than resort to the much more costly alternative of foster care,” said Mrs. Cunningham, who has been homeless twice.

It made her cry, Mrs. Cunningham told me last week, when her granddaughter got teased for wearing handoffs that had been discarded by her classmates and being left behind because she could not afford to send the child on field trips.

Mrs. Cunningham said she feels really good about Mrs. Robinson’s presence in the White House from a historical perspective, as well as “from me being a grandmother, I think it’s very important that we pass on our values to our grandchildren … and so we can express to them our wisdom.”

Mr. Obama, who was raised by his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has said that his presidential campaign couldn’t have been successful with his mother-in-law. More simply put, as Mrs. Obama said, “There’s nothing like grandma.”

Sometimes, however, grannies, who already raised children, need support.

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