Our Common Fate and Obligation•
At the top of Bascom Hill sits a statue of Abraham Lincoln, peering over Madison’s skyline, staring Wisconsin’s capital dead in the eye. Surrounding Lincoln is a bench inscribed with the quote, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith dare to do our duty.”If I have learned one thing over the last four years, it is this: the politics of hope is fundamentally better than a politics of cynicism. I know there’s a lot to feel frustrated about. Whether it’s an extremely cynical 2012 election, attack ads and cheap political shots, or a gridlocked Congress, my generation is not receiving a constructive introduction to politics. This is a serious problem because we face some pretty big issues – more than $1 trillion in student debt, increasing income inequality, and the demands of a 21st century/post-industrial economy – the list goes on and on. Yet when I worked on President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, and asked people for their opinions on how to tackle these problems, I found a certain hesitation, a fear of saying what they really believed. Politics, it seemed, had become taboo.
We can’t afford to be cynical or simply not talk about the critical challenges facing our country and the future of millennials. In our country, little progress happens without voting and other forms of civic engagement. Yet too many of us are not voting, not participating in the political process. Real problems affect real people, and we all have a role to play in identifying solutions. When it comes to opportunity, it’s a question of how dedicated are we to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.
The opportunities granted to me throughout my life have made me who I am, and without them I would not be where I am today. In 6th grade I was accepted into UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program —a comprehensive pre-college program that targets low-income and underrepresented communities, starting with students as early as second grade. PEOPLE seeks to actualize the “Wisconsin Idea,” that the university should go beyond the classroom, and positively affect communities across Wisconsin.
I was born and raised in Madison by a single mother. We were modest in means but rich in love. At times, things got difficult, but I made it to college. Once there, an important idea was instilled in me: “lift as you climb.” We should all try to give others the chance to improve. So in the fall of 2013, a few friends and I founded I M Power. We seek to improve the way high school students learn civics today by learning to “think globally” but “act locally,” and empower them to positively affect their community. Learning about the Founding Fathers and Lincoln Republicans is inspirational. But when it comes to affecting positive change in communities today, we have to improvise to find out what works and focus on hard data, too.
There are many success stories like mine across the United States. Still, not everyone has access to the opportunities I had, even though, as Americans, they should. We believe that through hard work and determination, you can improve your prospects in life. This belief lies at the heart of our founding documents that say every citizen should be treated equally and given an equal chance to determine their destiny. Your race, place of birth or parents should not chart your future. Yet for too many Americans, this isn’t possible. Today, at least 5.8 million (one in seven!) young Americans are not working or in school. Since the late 1970s, income inequality has continued to trend upward, impeding social mobility. Just 6% of children born into low-income families will manage to earn a high income in adulthood.
Although Dane County, where Madison is located, scored a B on the Opportunity Index, there is much room for improvement where I live, especially for the most vulnerable. According to the Race to Equity project that explores inequities in Dane County, 74.8% of African American children are living in poverty, and the unemployment rate for African Americans is 25.2%, compared with just 4.8% for whites. Educational and economic inequities such as these contribute civic and cultural inequities, creating a rift in our social fabric.
Moreover, we know inequality of that magnitude is unacceptable and unsustainable for any developed nation, and morally shameful for the United States. By 2030, a majority of the U.S. labor force will be people of color; by 2050, people of color will be the majority of U.S. population. If we, the United States of America, are serious about being a global leader in all sectors of society, it’s time to tackle the challenges we’ve inherited and ask ourselves: what type of America do we want to live in?