The Escalator

A majority of U.S. Public School students now live in poverty, and that number is near 70% here locally in Harrisonburg (VA). Despite the improving economy over the past several years, the number of young people who face the daily struggles of ‘not having enough’, continues to rise.

The promise of The American Dream is alive and well, but not for everyone. A child’s socio-economic status is now the strongest predictor of underachievement in school and future career success. The escalator that once offered a clear way to achievement, mobility and a life of opportunity and middle-class wealth is broken. Even in those instances when a child from a low-income family “makes it” and graduates college, a recent study shows that a child from a high-income family who drops out of high school is nearly just as likely to earn as much income at the age of 40.

The point in all this is not to create more division. Instead, it should serve as a rallying call to bring us together because we recognize that “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” This is not a class issue. It is an American issue. It is a humanity issue.

Darren Walker, the president of The Ford Foundation, who was born to a single mother in a charity hospital, shares, “Even at 8 or 9 years old, I knew that America wanted me to succeed. What we know is that the mobility escalator has simply stopped for some Americans. I was able to ride that mobility escalator in part because there were so many people, and parts of our society, cheering me on.”

Before we can even begin talking specific strategies on how best to fix the escalator, we need to recognize that it is a problem worth fixing and deepen our collective energy and will to invest more in our young people. Because if more of our young people go on to college (and trade-based careers), their ability to attain a middle class life dramatically increases, which in turn increases the odds that their children (if they have them) will be on a similar path.

And although I believe our government has a role to play in driving this investment, ultimately, our ability to fix the escalator as a nation and keep it running smoothly for generations to come, so that the American Dream once again can be realized by all, rests with you and me.

Here are just a few ideas for how you and me can help fix the escalator here locally:

  • Be a cheerleader: A child is never just a statistic. They are a real person with a real story, real needs and real dreams. Regardless of where a child is born, what languages they speak or how much money their parents make, cheer them on and be an advocate for all young people in your conversations with your friends, colleagues and neighbors.
  • Teach an On the Road Career Enrichment Project: Share your career passion and expertise with a group of middle school children, sparking their interests and deepening their aspirations for the future.
  • Serve as a mentor: We have outstanding community-based organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters where you can serve as a mentor. Make a difference in the life of a child today and I suspect you will find that the experience benefits you just as much as the child you serve.
  • Invest in a local non-profit organization you are passionate about with your time, expertise and money. Make time to reach out to your favorite organization and find out how you can best share your time, expertise and financial resources with them in a way that advances their mission.

I believe this is the greatest challenge facing our society today- fixing the escalator. Our young people who live in poverty need more time, more opportunity and more caring adults and community leaders not only cheering them on, but who are willing to make the investments necessary to ensure every child has a way to fulfill their promise and achieve the American Dream.

This, right here, is what On the Road Collaborative is about, mobilizing our entire community to get involved, take action and work together to create an escalator that works.