Lead the Parade

By Omino Gardezi

We Need Our Communities, and Our Communities Need Us

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are living in a divided society.

As true today as it was in 1967 when Dr. King first said it, there are “two Americas”: one that’s beautiful, prosperous and healthy, and another that’s crippled by poverty, violence and despair. There are millions of people “living” in these two Americas right now, and those on the wrong side of the divide are struggling, caught in a cycle of poverty that is holding them back, crippling their aspirations and preventing them from living the lives they deserve.

“In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children,” Dr. King said in his famous “The Other America” speech at Stanford 50 years. “Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”

Sadly, this is a reality for too many in our society. Economic hardship does not discriminate and there are many people of various backgrounds living in this other America — Hispanics, Asians, African Americans and many others.

Even underprivileged whites are falling behind, as we saw in the results of the recent election. Often, it is the children that suffer the most in these circumstances. Born into poverty and raised in a system that seems impossible to break out of, too many young people fall into the same patterns themselves as they grow older and have their own families, and the cycle continues.

“The accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality in America today,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman, in his recent book, “Giving Kids a Fair Chance.” “Children born into disadvantage are, by the time they start kindergarten, already at risk of dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, crime, and a lifetime of low-wage work. This is bad for all those born into disadvantage and bad for American society.”

Absolutely, but “bad” is probably an understatement; disastrous would be more like it. After all, right now today in America 38 percent of African American children and youth are living in poverty.

It’s time to address the fact — all of us — that inequality is endemic in our society, and the situation has not markedly improved in the last century, when so much about our daily lives has changed. The simple fact is that the personal computer, the Internet, the mobile phone and so much more amazing technology have all come along and changed our lives, yet still, there are Americans living in crippling poverty, their children going hungry or wondering where their next meal will come from.

That is a failure. A failure of the U.S. economy. A failure of the democratic process. A failure of all of us as friends, neighbours and Americans. The truth is, we already know the solution to this problem. Corporate diversity hiring is a good first step, but it doesn’t address the underlying issues that the underprivileged are facing.

Community is what really matters. By investing in our communities — with our dollars, our involvement, and our actions — we will finally be able to create real, lasting change in ways that no political act will ever be able to match. But the challenge in this approach is getting to critical mass. It’s easy to write a check, alter some visual hiring policies, our tweet out support, but it takes real time and effort to get out into the community and take action. It means going to events after work, volunteering to help over our vacations and weekends, and really getting involved in actionable, lasting ways.

Americans of all types need to finally step up to make this happen. We need to start a movement.

As a father of two girls and a concerned citizen, I made a film about one such organisation, that I am privileged to serve as a Board member.

The Film is called “Lead the Parade” and it examines not only the problems that American communities are facing, but how everyday people are taking strides to make a difference and turn things around for young people. Over the course of the production, we met people working on the frontlines in some of the most troubled communities in America and making a real difference, sharing their stories, their experiences, the opportunities they see.

Watch it. Get involved. Ask questions.

“The physical stress of growing up in poverty, where you are hungry, you haven’t slept well, you might not have your own bed, you might not have clean clothes, that physical toll makes you tired,” says Margaret Crotty, Executive Director of Partnership with Children. “Your executive functions do not kick in, you cannot cope. And it is just a vicious circle because you have more to deal with than other kids and you don’t have the skills to cope with it.”

The good news is that we know that community programs work to help address these concerns. New York Times political columnist David Brooks drove this point home last fall in a piece he wrote about the series of community dinners he had been attending in downtown Washington DC. Organised by a local family, the weekly house dinners got their start as a welcome refuge for students from the nearby public high school, many of whom were living in poverty and struggling. Today, the events have become a way for many in the community to share their lives and break bread together, finding common ground and lifting each other up.

In it, Brooks quotes Bill Milliken, a longtime youth activist and the founder of Communities In Schools, Inc.: “I still haven’t seen one program change one kid’s life. What changes people is relationships. Somebody willing to walk through the shadow of the valley of adolescence with them.”

“If we can provide them with that consistency, that stability to grow their social and emotional skills they will be not only ready for school but for life”

It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to happen by itself. And it’s going to take all of us to truly make it happen. We know that a rising tide lifts all the boats.

Let’s get started.