Stuart Comstock-Gay is president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation.
I still believe in the American Dream.
I want to believe that with hard work, respect for others, civic mindedness and, yes, a little help from others, every one of us can build a productive and happy life.
But it’s getting harder to hold on to that when so much evidence shows us that for far too many people, the American Dream is just that — a dream.
Jessica Bies’ article in The News Journal on Oct. 3 — “Wilmington: One of the hardest places to achieve the American Dream” — should be an embarrassment to all of us, and a call to action. Bies focuses on the new Opportunity Atlas, and how it highlights the deep struggles Americans face in economic mobility in Wilmington, and particularly in the Southbridge neighborhood.
Of course, the American Dream has never been equally available to everybody — especially for people of color. But the Opportunity Atlas is the latest in a growing number of tools showing that it is becoming increasingly unlikely for a person to improve their economic status, no matter how hard they work.
It’s about a growing gap in opportunity. It’s about inadequate schools and job prospects. It’s about frayed communities and frayed families.
It’s about whole neighborhoods of children without access to healthy food or safe places to play. It’s about a loss of commitment to community.
On an almost existential basis, it’s about the very idea of our kids. In previous generations, when we talked about “our” kids, that included every kid we saw. It meant we – as a whole community – were responsible for raising all kids to be successful.
It meant we had a responsibility to ensure that all kids had the opportunity to get a good education, a good job and – with hard work – to achieve the American Dream.
But increasingly, when we talk about “our” kids, we’re thinking about the kids we’re related to. It’s the kids we know, but not the others. After all, their own parents should take care of them, right?
The challenge is that we really are all in this together.
We all want to live in thriving communities. But communities only thrive when they’re full of people who are thriving.
So if we prepare only some of our kids to thrive and allow so many to struggle – like many of the kids in Southbridge and other challenged areas throughout the state – we’re sowing another generation of struggling communities.
The good news is that we as a community can close the opportunity gap and increase the chances for all of “our” kids to thrive.
As we recommit to the American Dream, many people are working hard to address the opportunity gap. Bies’ article cites the work of Leslie Newman and her team at Children & Families First. At the Kingswood Community Center, Logan Herring is leading some incredible work for rebuilding Southbridge. Similar work is underway in communities in all three Delaware counties and around the country.
I still believe in the American Dream.
I believe in its value and I believe it is possible. But for the American Dream to survive, opportunity matters.
That is why we at the Delaware Community Foundation have sharpened our mission to focus on opportunity for all as a way to enhance the common good.
Our focus is, of course, on Delaware, and all the ways that philanthropists and nonprofits help make the First State better. At the same time, we are increasingly focusing resources on ways to expand opportunities for all.
How can we work most effectively with good organizations, schools, businesses and government, to put the American Dream within reach for all of us?
In the coming months, we’ll be announcing a reorganized grants program, facilitating community conversations and sharing ideas from around the country to help Delaware zero in on opportunity.
On November 14, we’ll be hosting Robert D. Putnam at the Baby Grand to talk about his book about the opportunity gap, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam is an internationally renowned social scientist, and this most recent book discusses the very issues highlighted in Bies’ article.
We’re also – in partnership with Delaware Humanities – giving away 500 copies of the book, for people to create book circles and read it themselves.
There’s an incredible revitalized energy in Wilmington right now. New businesses are opening. Job opportunities are emerging. The city’s reputation is growing among entrepreneurs nationwide. Opportunity abounds.
As a community, and for the good of our community, we need to ensure that everybody at least has a chance to get in on this excitement and growth.
So join us and Leslie Newman and Logan Herring and the hundreds of other individuals and organizations working to expand opportunity for all, to make Delaware communities stronger for everyone, now and in the future.
As the old saying goes, this is not about giving handouts. It’s about giving a hand up, especially to those who are starting at the bottom. Maybe some can even get a little closer to achieving the American Dream.
Let’s make sure that all of our kids have the opportunity.
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