Opportunity Nation: Live Blog

November 8, 2011

SparkAction's Tara James was in the Big Apple last week for the Opportunity Nation Summit, and she kept us posted via live blogging as the event went on.  Here are her responses to and reflections of her experiences at the summit.  You can also check out tons of video, photos, commitments, and Twitter comments from other participants here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011 - 8:00 pm

The Opportunity Nation Summit kicked off tonight in New York City at the famed Apollo theater. The opening event included an inspiring performance with multiple layers.  Live narration and music was combined with pre-recorded video stories of people and communities overcoming great odds to create opportunities for low-income children and families. Sitting in the Apollo, I found myself torn between skepticism and hope.

Like many of my fellow Gen-Xers, I am wary of "new" approaches to creating good jobs and educational opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens. Too often, I've seen politicians and corporations promise they'll do the right thing, only to discover that the superficial solutions they promote are actually harmful to American workers and communities. (The recent drive to reduce the deficit in an effort to save future generations from staggering debt by eliminating programs that help those same generations build a quality life comes to mind.)

My problem, and probably my salvation, is that I'm a sucker for heart-tugging stories and patriotic imagery, both of which were omnipresent tonight. The narrative of America as the "land of dreams made possible" is both familiar and motivating, as is the feeling that we are losing our unique quality of providing opportunity to everyone, regardless of who you are.

“The zip code you are born in is the greatest predictor of success in America now.” This was said over and over throughout the night. And every time it was repeated, the audience inhaled as one, like it had taken a single physical blow.

But even as the narrator drove home the point that America is in serious trouble, the stories that were told gave me hope that committed people in communities across the country are able to buck the trends. Southern Wire in Georgia, for example, created a factory to give students job training and help them finish high school. Year Up helped a young man in San Francisco overcome homelessness to build a career in the IT sector. LIFT gives people in Boston the help they need, from clothes or job training, to get and stay employed. An ER doctor from the wrong side of the tracks in Alabama saved a young girl’s life--and it was because decades before he was given the chance at a good education.

Each story was unique, and each one had us clapping, cheering and, in some cases, crying. Ultimately, I found myself setting aside my skepticism in favor of taking a more open-minded approach to this whole idea of Opportunity Nation. Because when it came right down to it, the evening's kick-off did just what it should: it presented the problem and motivated me to want to make change.

Seemingly everyone is in agreement, regardless of their various political stances: America is facing an economic and employment crisis that needs to be addressed now.

Friday, November 4, 2011 - 10:30 am

The first full day of Opportunity Nation has begun with a steady stream of high profile speakers, including Fareed Zakaria, Arianna Huffington and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Seemingly everyone is in agreement, regardless of their various political stances: America is facing an economic and employment crisis that needs to be addressed now.

Fareed Zakaria, Editor-at-Large for TIME magazine and host of CNN's "GPS with Fareed Zakaria", was perhaps most eloquent when describing the America of his childhood. He spoke of how America captured his imagination as a young man in India--as a country full of opportunity and one that gave him chances to rise to his current success. Much has changed in recent decades, he said, including much longer periods for job recovery following economic recessions and a changing landscape for American workers. Ultimately, he said, "We don't need to run scared, but we do need to run fast" to recover the American Dream.

Friday, November 4,2011, 1:30 pm – Breakout Sessions

After the general session that opened the Summit this morning, the audience of about 600 broke into smaller, focused sessions. I trucked up to the fifth floor of Columbia University’s Lerner Hall for the Access to Completion breakout group. The panel was led by former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and included Disney’s Chairman of the Board, John E. Pepper, Jr., Dr. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, CEO and Founder of Teach for America Wendy Kopp, President of Delaware State University Dr. Harry Lee Williams, and Opportunity Scholar and USC Student Jasmine Torres.

Though there was a lot of interaction between panel members and the audience, there was little noticeable conflict. Everyone seemed to agree that success in college needs to start early and be the driving focus of schools and educators.  Panelists, backed up by several nodding heads in the audience, went on to insist that students need support beyond college acceptance. Support, they argued, needs to continue throughout college to ensure that students graduate with a four-year degree.

“College readiness needs to start in early education,” said Jasmine Torres, a class of 2014 student at the University of Southern California. In a firm, matter-of-fact tone, Ms. Torres told the audience that completing high school while homeless and moving in and out of local shelters and group homes was “tough”. But, she said, she had people who taught her the importance of education early in life and support her as she moved on to a successful college career.

Ms. Torres’ story made me think about the challenges a young person without financial resources faces when going to college.   Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Another audience member asked the panel how they thought skyrocketing student debt and poor job prospects should be balanced against the need for a college degree. Dr. Harry Lee Williams said this is an issue that his college actively struggles with daily.  Delaware State University freshman are given financial coaching as soon as they start college, he said. Dr. Williams described their plan of financial education, counseling and ongoing support designed to support students’ college success while helping them make good, long-term decisions about student loans and debt.

“We try to help them understand that if you end up with $100,000 in student loan debt, but you’re going into a career field that only pays about $40,000 per year, the numbers don’t really work.”

Friday, November 4, 2011, 4:45 pm – General Session & Closing

The day's closing session started off with a motivational speech by CSI:NY actor Hill Harper, who soon handed the stage over to three remarkable young people: Jamira Burley, Diamond Jimenez and Kenny Luckes. All three participated last night in a Young Leaders Town Hall and gave the crowd just a small taste of what we missed. Each of these young leaders had a powerful story of challenge, determination, and success; themes echoed throughout the day by every speaker. At the end of their shared remarks, Ms. Burley, Ms. Jimenez and Mr. Luckes thanked the crowd for their commitment and asked them to keep working to provide opportunity for other young people.

Music mogul Russell Simmons, founder and CEO of Rush Communications, which includes Def Jam records and the Phat Farm clothing line, took the stage next.  His remarks to the audience were probably the most controversial of the day. Referring to Hill Harper’s speech, Mr. Simmons said he wasn’t going to speak about the need, the moral imperative to increase opportunity in America. Instead, he said, he was going to focus on something he felt could really make a difference: limiting corporate power in the country. At an event sponsored by and heavily engaged by corporations large and small, this made some audience members visibly uncomfortable.

Others, however, applauded Mr. Simmons remarks, especially when he spoke of the Occupy movement in New York. “I’ve been down to Occupy Wall Street all but one or two days since they set up down there,” he said. “They are smart, active young people trying to make a difference.” Concluding his short speech, Mr. Simmons urged the audience to think about the role corporations play in American life and consider supporting legislation, perhaps even a constitutional amendment, which would limit companies’ power on Capitol Hill. His suggestion was met with loud applause – from about 50% of the crowd.

I enjoyed hearing Russell Simmons and the other panelists speak throughout the day, but the highlight of the day for me came in listening to Janet Murguia, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.  Ms. Murguia spoke about the day she took her parents to The White House. She is a first generation American and the proud daughter of two hard working people who had little education themselves. And despite their lack of education, her parents instilled its import in their children.

With obvious joy, Ms. Murguia spoke of how happy she was that her parents saw her brother graduate from Harvard law, another who became the first Latino judge in his state’s history, and her twin sister who was recently named to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Though above all of this, she said, was the day her parents came to visit her while she was working in the West Wing. I admit it, I cried when she described taking her parents into the Oval Office to meet President Clinton, saying her mother asked, “How did we get here?”

It was a story that touched many people in the room, if the sniffles and discreet eye dabs were any indication. To me it was the most potent example of why I traveled from DC to New York for this event called Opportunity Nation.

Big names and speeches throughout the event served their purpose; Hearing the presidents of Staples and Catholic Charities and Miami Dade College describe their various commitments to increasing opportunity was nice. Serena Williams’ speech about determination and dedication and giving back was fun. Suzy Orman’s rousing speech made us all believe we can shrug off the burden of debt (and cheekily reminded us to watch her show on CNBC on Saturday nights). All of this was good and unique, but it didn’t get to the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter, as Ms. Murguia reminded us, is that in America hard, honest work is supposed to pay off for you and your family. In today’s world, though, that’s no longer true. The obstacles are so high that many of us cannot overcome them. Breaking down those obstacles – or finding a way around them – that is why so many of us came to Opportunity Nation.

Tomorrow we’ll all come together again for a discussion about how we can make that happen. I have to admit, I’m still skeptical. I heard a lot of inspiring stories today, along with some strong rhetoric about how we can do this, but I’ve yet to hear what this entails.

... Stay tuned for Tara's wrap-up comments from the final day of the Opportunity Nation Summit.


Tara James is Senior Outreach & Engagement Associate at SparkAction. Email her at tara@sparkaction.org.

Tara T James