The American Dream – Then and Now•
Kevin Jennings, CEO, Be The Change, Inc.
I turned 49 on May 8. Happy Birthday to me!
To celebrate, my partner and I went with 10 of our friends back to North Carolina’s “Triad” (Winston-Salem-Greensboro-High Point) area, where I grew up. There are many things to see in the Triad area — the International Civil Rights Museum where the first lunch counter sit-ins took place in Greensboro; the restored 18th century Moravian settlement of Old Salem; a growing wine industry with beautiful vineyards — but the big attraction all my friends wanted to see was this: the trailer park where I grew up.
There’s a certain irony to this for me. I spent most of my childhood desperately trying to escape that trailer park. My Dad died when I was eight, leaving my mother (who had only a sixth grade education) with three kids to feed. Her dream was to get us out, to make sure we did not have the kind of life she’d had. Thanks to her inspiration and determination, I earned a scholarship to Harvard and have had a far different life than the one my Mom had. In short, I lived the American Dream and my friends — who all came from more privileged backgrounds — wanted to see where my journey started.
Stories like mine are becoming more and more unusual in America in 2012. Sixty five percent of Americans who are born into the lowest income quintile (like I was) spend their entire lives in one of the two lowest income quintiles. One in three Americans are now classified as poor or near-poor. A child born in the U.K., France, Germany, Canada, or one of the Scandinavian countries is now more likely to improve their economic situation during the course of their lives than one born in the United States — the Land of Opportunity.
My alarm over that fact is why I accepted the position of CEO at Be The Change, which has launched the Opportunity Nation campaign. Opportunity Nation is a campaign to bring Americans of all ideologies and backgrounds together around a plan to return the U.S. to the Land of Opportunity that it once was. We are working with scholars from the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution to come up with concrete, bipartisan policy proposals that will make a difference in people’s lives. We’ve organized a coalition of more than 250 organizations, representing more than 50 million Americans, to support this policy agenda. And we’ve built a leadership council of nearly 100 prominent Americans — from Mayor Mike Bloomberg to journalist Arianna Huffington to Rev. Rick Warren — who are committed to using their influence to promote opportunity.
I realized this weekend that I never really escaped that trailer park in Lewisville, North Carolina, because today I have undertaken the same work on a macro level that my Mom took on in a micro level way back in the seventies: making sure the next generation has it better than mine has had it. And I am proud of that fact: after all, it’s the American thing to do.