America’s biggest race is just beginning. It’s the race to create equal opportunity in our nation once again and to restore the belief that the American Dream can still be achieved.
Disillusionment, despair and unemployment hold court these days in a country that was once thought of as a place where dreams could be turned into reality. But the reality right now, despite unemployment numbers dropping by a statistically insignificant .1% on Friday from 9.1% to 9%, is that job and life opportunities are dismal, even non-existent for many, in what once was thought of as the land of endless opportunity.
So what does opportunity look like these days in a country that’s barely recognizable anymore?
For Luis Ubinas, who came to New York as a child with his parents and lived in alphabet city on the Lower East Side, it is “the unshakable belief that the next day will be better.” Ubinas, who has gone on to become the president of the Ford Foundation, says that “opportunity is synonymous with what brought my family to this country.” In other words, hope. Hope of a better, richer, fuller life.
But hope has flown out the window for many in America. Which is why Opportunity Nation, an organization dedicated to creating more opportunity, jobs and social mobility in America, put on their first summit in New York last Friday at Columbia University. Under their parent organization, Be the Change, Opportunity Nation is developing a diverse, star-powered coalition from across all sectors that works in unison to help solve what’s ailing this great nation of ours. “Bi-partisanship is our sweet spot,” says Mark Edwards, the executive director of Opportunity Nation.
This comes just in time as Obama recently declared at a private fundraiser in Washington, D.C., that the biggest task for him is to fix the horribly extreme stifling, stagnate, and suffocating bipartisanship in U.S. politics.
It used to be that if you worked hard and played by the rules, anyone could get ahead. But the rules have become so twisted that now only a few benefit and prosper from them. The majority gets left behind. We no longer live in a fair — or democratic — system. As the president of Catholic Charities Reverend Larry Snyder said, “We live in a world of broken promises.” So it’s easy to understand why people feel so hopeless.
“In the 60s and 70s, when I was growing up in India, everyone looked to the States for the answer,” said journalist Fareed Zakaria. “It embodied optimism, energy and dynamism. Today, it’s pessimism and despair.”
“Everyone likes to say ‘this time is different’,” Zakaria noted, “but this time it is different. The challenges the U.S. faces is different from 10, 20, 50 years ago. [Today], it’s a unique constellation of forces that are working for the worst.”
But just because we may be entering the worst of times, doesn’t mean we need to panic.
“Don’t be scared, fearful or anxious; just recognize it’s different this time,” Zakaria said. “We don’t have to run scared, but we do have to run fast.”
Time is certainly of the essence. And, in fact, the worst of times can coincide with the best of times, as Charles Dickens so aptly noted. Although there’s much more to fix this time around than just two cities.
For Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg this is the time to fight against poverty, increase our appetite for innovation and fix the country’s immigration system. If we don’t do this, we won’t be starting the next Google, he says.
“It’s time to show this is still the land of opportunity,” Bloomberg said. “It’s time to show we aren’t giving up on any American. Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t the right time. This is the right time.”
To see what sort of opportunity exits in your very own neighborhood, Opportunity Nation teamed up with the Human Development Project to build an Opportunity Index for all 50 states and 2,400 counties in America. All you have to do is type in your zip code and you’ll see how your area compares with others. Opportunity in the index was measured in three main ways — the robustness of the local economy, access to a high quality education, and community life and civic help, meaning access to physicians, safety and crime numbers, volunteer opportunities, supermarket choices, Internet connections and social bonds, trust and networks in the neighborhood.
Nevada was ranked the worst state — it scored a 21.3 out of 100 — because of the low level of children in school, the bad access to doctors and food, and the small amount of community participation. Connecticut received the highest overall score of 89 points.
“We look beyond what a person can do,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, the co-director of the American Human Development Project and lead researcher for the Opportunity Index. “Instead, we ask, ‘what are the institutions and conditions that can help people?’”
Ubinas, who spoke at the summit, thinks institutions such as small businesses and public education can help mend and advance this country forward. Hope still exists for him, particularly in the condition and financial savings of the individual. “The only way this country works is the spirit of the individual driving growth,” Ubinas told me. “The solution to this crises sits in this notion of opportunity to create and innovate.” And, how exactly is that done, I asked him? Through a shot at education, access to credit and simple acts of encouragement, Ubinas said.
“The idea that the American spirit of entrepreneurship isn’t thriving is wrong,” Ubinas said. “Nearly 550,000 small business were created in 2010. If 1 out of 10 succeed, that’s half a million jobs.”
Marquis Cabrera, an Opportunity Scholar, can be counted as one of those entrepreneurs. He has never given up. Although he was sent to work as a teenager by his drug-addicted mother, brought home his earnings to her and was always told that she would buy groceries with them, she never did. The one day he did buy groceries with his hard earned money because he was so hungry, his mother flew into a rage and went after him with a butcher knife. Cabrera eventually found his way to a nurturing foster home. Today, he has started a non-profit that helps children in foster care.
“We have 14 million unemployed right now,” former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao told me. “We need a quantum jump in jobs. But there’s still a jobs gap — we don’t have workers with the right skills. We need higher skilled workers, which means more education and better job training that is relevant to today’s work and that incorporates employers into the system as well.”
Jobs, job training and education is what Chao thinks will preserve the country she, her mother and two sisters immigrated to from Taiwan when she was 8 years old.
Access to education and credit are certainly important ingredients to helping America move forward, but the missing components for those two items are quality and fairness. A solid public education in this country is, at best, shaky, and equal access to decent credit is an even more slippery slope.
All of the issues raised at the summit are enormous societal issues that need to be attacked from all sides and sectors — education, economy, private, public, left, right. It will require the various groups to acknowledge that we have incredibly serious matters that will quickly become grave ones if we don’t band together to address pressing common needs — and rights.
Personal finance guru to some, Suze Orman, who also spoke at the summit, said, “We cannot ask our nation to pick us up; it takes one person to do that.” But that is exactly the opposite of what the summit was asking us to do. It is clear that we are a nation of Humpty Dumptys. We need to pick ourselves up, but in doing so we also need to help each other put ourselves back together again.
So how is Opportunity Nation going to help us do that? They are in the midst of creating a plan with their bipartisan partners, writing new policy, and, come spring, will go to our presidential candidates to say, “here’s our plan for opportunity. What’s yours?”
The most practical solution I heard all day was when I was in line for the ladies room and one woman said, “Someone should figure out a way to design a woman’s bathroom so that there aren’t always lines for it. Now, that’s an opportunity.”