Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lessons from the LIttle Black Dress

All last week I participated in the Little Black Dress Initiative, sponsored by the Junior League of Atlanta. Its intent was to raise awareness of the cyclical nature of poverty. Poverty limits your resources, your options and even the ways you can express yourself--making it harder for you to better your life chances. Wearing one single outfit for an entire week highlighted the effects that limited resources plays on the quality of life. 
I confess to a number of conflicting feelings during the week. Like many of us, clothes are a reflection of who we are and what we want others to believe we are. Your clothes reflect you and my clothes reflect me.
Yet, I was willing to make this choice--imagining a week of righteous solidarity with the working poor, all the while being committing not to go overboard into a parity of the real lives and real struggles for so many who have limited options. I imagined being able to bring knowledge and insight in responce to my request (via my big red button) to “Ask me about my dress”.  I mean really, how was I to show my concern…my intelligence…my sincerity, if you didn’t ask??? 

As I dropped the dress off to the cleaners on Saturday, I was feeling neutral. While I appreciated my colleagues’ reflections on the experience and affirmed their honesty and courage, I had not personally had any emotional moment or aha revelations.

Until Sunday, as I prepared for the upcoming week. I did that common Sunday ritual of reviewing the week ahead and thinking through what I need to do. I’d be traveling out of town for some of the week, so I considered not only clothes for work but also for packing.  Yet I found myself curiously detached. I had plenty of clean pants, blouses and skirts in the closet and Lord knows, way too many shoes. But I didn't  care about matching them to the week’s obligations. It felt like not the best use of my precious day. It didn't  rank as very important. It didn't  seem to matter.  
You see, last week was full of productive sessions and positive interactions for me, both professionally and personally. Over five days in the same black dress, I had made good decisions; broadened my mind; engaged in great dialogue and planning; and connected with important people in my life. I had lived yet another incredibly fortunate week, chock full of opportunities to help make this community better.  

And these experiences had everything to do with what I was able and willing to offer and who I got to connect with and nothing to do with what I was wearing.  

I've always been abke to look myself in the eye squarely-- even if I don't always respond the way I should. Last week, since I had predetermined I had little to learn --after all I read these stats as a part of my everyday work, don't I ! -- my real role would be to drop this knowledge on others. Yet I was  reminded that there's always something to learn about yourself and new ways of looking at things. I'm reminded we're all a work in progress, And mostly that everything -and nothing - is about you.

Thank goodness it all got sorted out.  Maybe the next time I get the chance to represent, I'll be more ready.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Equality, Equity and Myth Busting

October 12 was Columbus Day, a day set aside to celebrate America’s discovery. By now we've busted the myth behind the story, revealing a tale laden with avarice and blood, widely divergent from the one that prompted the national holiday. Yet the celebration continues.

This year the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta began to explore another myth about how people and communities prosper. We’re not alone. Civic leaders as diverse as Angela Glover Blackwell, Jeb Bush and Robert Putnam are introducing terms such as the “Opportunity Gap” and “Equity” into our shared lexicon. They are conceding that the long held myth of hard work and opportunity — the American Dream – does not adequately explain the staggering and growing rates of income inequality that threaten our national security.

Equity, defined as “just and fair inclusion such that all can participate and prosper”, is an essential component of equality, or the lack thereof.  This great picture illustrates the distinction:


The problem is close and personal. According to a Demos study, in Atlanta, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median African-American household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.  Also, a child raised in the bottom-fifth of income levels has only a four percent  chance of rising to the top-fifth income level.  Our region has an equity challenge that has led to staggering inequality.

Addressing income inequality will require our collective courage to acknowledge historic, pervasive biases and structures, bounded by race and class, which anchor whole families and communities in perpetual poverty.  It requires that we release the myth that providing opportunities for “more” – more scholarships, more training, more food – is all of and not just a part of the solution.  Increasing opportunities that look forward and focus on improving chances that children will attain middle-class or higher incomes in their adulthood is important and good.  But resolving the inequality of Atlanta’s African-American and Latino families who make $100,000 less than their white neighbors means we have to go further and deeper and fix the fault line that prevents all families and communities from sharing in the region’s growth and prosperity.  It means we must recognize the links between opportunity, inequality and history. It means busting a myth we’ve grown comfortable with.

As a region of dreamers, giving up myths is difficult and will demand our consideration, conversation and possibly our conversion.

For the sake of our most vulnerable children and families, its time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Who Cares for the 96?

A 2013 Brookings Institute study, dubbed by the New York Times as “the most detailed portrait yet of income mobility in the United States”, reveals that a child born in poverty in Atlanta has only a 4 percent chance of moving into a middle income bracket. 

Put simply: 96 of every 100 poor kids in Atlanta today will be poor the rest of their lives.

The study shares some key causes: school quality; social networks; economic and racial segregation. School Quality? Check: Georgia ranks 48 percent nationally for high school graduation. 

Social Capital? Check: Only 13 percent of the region’s residents exchange favors with their neighbors.

Economic and racial segregation? Check:  According to the Pew Institute, both income and residential inequality is prevalent in much of the region.

Atlanta boasts communities that are thriving as well as those that are severely under-resourced and marginalized from opportunity.  Yet while residents from all these communities walk the same streets, cheer for the same teams, patronize the same businesses, and dart through the same crazy rainstorms, there is a horrific distinction. For those who are poor, we have overwhelming data to conclude that their children will be poor too.

How do we grow our capacity to love and support 96 percent of children for whom achievement has never been a given? Whose very lives have been designated for limitation?

It requires fierce honesty and unwavering compassion and commitment across all sectors of the region to change the trajectory for these kids. Yet we fear to commit because it involves tough conversations about the things that scare us and race and equity and compassion. Perhaps our greatest fear is that we'll come face to face with proof of our apathy and neglect.

Children living in poverty are often sad…angry…hurting. This makes perfect sense given the odds against them.  And something tells me they knew it long before Brookings did a study.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Power of Invitations

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with friends about the difference between what it means to “be invited” and “to invite”. It was a thoughtful discussion that helped me to clarify the two nuanced yet powerful sides of an invitation.

When we are invited – to a conversation or event… even a relationship – the host is affirming our presence as important and our value as an enhancement to the experience.  In addition to being a compliment, it’s an assurance that, if and when we show up, we will be welcomed. Professionally and personally, we often seek invitations to validate ourselves in some way.

Yet while invitations are most often positive and affirming, acceptance is not as easy. What if you don’t know the host? What if you don’t know how you got on the guest list? And one thing you can be sure of…most often, when you are invited…the agenda has already been set.

When we invite others to an experience it means that we are not only extending the positive affirmations listed above, but also that we have something to share. It’s a selective and self-centered perspective, in which we, as the host, determine that a specific presence is needed.

It’s also risky. What if no one accepts? What if the only ones who come are the ones who needed no invitation? What does an unaccepted invitation mean or say about you or your intent?

When it comes to serving our community we've got to be willing to do more of both – issuing invitations and accepting those that come. When we do we acknowledge the need to seek and receive a perspective not our own. As we get better at both inviting and accepting, the circles we inhabit become larger and larger.  We see more, learn more, grow more and create more.

And go more places. Together.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What do we expect for our Children?

The widening gap between our student preparedness and future workforce is alarming: between 2004-09, less than 50% of all students who entered post-secondary institutions earned a degree or credential within 6 years--yet by 2020 65% of all job openings will require post-secondary preparation.

The students who will fill this gap are those who are not experiencing academic success today; students for whom educational achievement is not a given: whose family and friends haven't attended college; who hail from disconnected communities and distressed environments; for whom English is not their native language. We label them “at risk” and they stand out for all that they don’t bring to the classroom. These children will require a greater level of thoughtfulness, time, and resources if they are to attain posts-secondary credentials.  And no matter how much the adults in their lives want them to be successful, they must also want it for themselves.

When I talk to these young people who persevered and overcome the obstacles above, they speak unanimously on one point…and it is both basic yet profound. Their first step to success began the moment that they understood what they could achieve...and even more that someone else believed and expected that they would.

What would we do differently if we truly expected every child to succeed in life? Consider that most of us hold high expectations for the significant children in our lives and how this expectation serves as a beacon and guide for their path. In our professional and civic lives, we've likely sympathized, contributed, prayed, hoped, volunteered, and worked on behalf of “at risk” youth and believe in our hearts that it is possible for them to succeed. But do we fundamentally expect them to?

What would it look like if we let every child know that their community expects them to be successful? Even more, that we need them to achieve for our collective success?  Expectation, distinct from hope, shifts the locus of responsibility in relationships.

Students won't ever care how much they can one day contribute until they first believe that their community cares about and expects that contribution.  With expectation as a foundation, we can make a subtle yet powerful shift in our perspective, and ultimately in how we band together to support all children’s to be successful.