Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.

An Idea Changes a Neighborhood

HS FRC

Last fall I wrote about the fundraising event I chaired to raise money for the Hathaway-Sycamores Learning Lab. Today I am pleased to share with you a short video celebrating the dedication of this site, which you can watch here.

If you listen carefully to the story told by Henry Matson, you’ll hear not only how a simple yet visionary afterschool program is changing the lives of countless at-risk youth, but how it has transformed an entire Los Angeles county neighborhood.

Just a decade ago, our Family Resource Center in Highland Park was a much-loved landmark, but a bit of an island on a street ripe for reinvention. That transformation has now occurred. The doors of our beautiful, historic building are wide open to the community. The building has been restored to its full glory, and our Learning Lab is filled with eager minds.

Anytime you get the idea in your head that an individual can’t make a difference, I invite you to visit our Learning Lab. Look at the joy in the students’ faces. Look at the spectrum of college logos on their t-shirts. Listen to them talking about the futures they are pursuing.

They are engaged in the mission of learning. They are engaged in the mission of personal change. They aren’t waiting for the future to come to them. They aren’t letting circumstance take its toll. They are inventing their own future through math, science, language arts, and learning to work in teams.

They inspire each other and they will inspire you. They inspire me, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to welcome your participation in our work.

Young people on our community who never thought they had the chance are going to college, many on full scholarships they win competitively on their own merits!

Paulette and Henry Matson anchored this campaign because it mattered to them. They made a choice to make a difference, and that difference is now more than an idea. It is a place, a comfort zone, a tangible path to endless possibility. Those aren’t just words. Those are a conduit to bright futures that begin with a spark, the access to a mentor, the bright light of a teacher. Once we help ignite that spark, the kids take it the rest of the way. They are virtually unstoppable.

A small amount of caring always matters. A small amount of money can go a long way.

Education opens minds and changes lives.

Come see just how powerful a living dream can be. Join us this year at Celebrating Children. One night could change your life. Then you can help change a neighborhood.

It all begins with an idea and a commitment.

We can do this. We are doing this!

Learning a Different Way

HSCC 2015

The kids in this picture all wear the logos of the colleges they hope to attend. Like many of the kids you know, they dream of becoming alumni of famous universities, where they will study hard and ready themselves for a productive career. Yet there is a difference in their lives that may not be similar to that of the kids you know. Many of these kids may not have food in their refrigerator every night. Some may not even have a real place they call home. These kids didn’t get a lot of breaks coming out of the gate.

The two adults in the middle, Paulette and Henry Matson, are trying to change that by investing in their future. Paulette and Henry are friends of mine whom we recently honored for their public service, but they wouldn’t want me to talk about that. They would only want me to talk about these kids—these bright, energetic, optimistic kids who are working diligently to change their fortune. We are working with them closely to change their future. It’s a magical partnership, a journey toward hope. You might want to join us, or perhaps learn more about what we mean when we say they are Learning a Different Way.

Earlier this month I again chaired Celebrating Children, the annual gala fundraiser for Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services where I also serve on the board. This year’s event was held at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The program focused on our Learning Lab, where we work with at-risk youth to help them prepare for college. These kids sign a contract with us to make their lives different, to commit to their studies and ensure the lives ahead of them will be self-sufficient, fulfilled, and noble. They want a better life than the one they have now and are willing to work for it. We want to help them achieve their dreams and more.

At the event we met an incredibly inspiring individual, Alejandra Negrete. As you will learn in the short video embedded here, Alejandra never dreamed of going to college. She didn’t even know “what SATs were.” Then she met Simon Gee, founder of our Learning Lab, and in a quiet way the entire universe changed. This is her story. My words will never do it justice. Please watch this, you won’t soon forget it:

Alejandra’s triumph touched the hearts of the more than 400 people in attendance, who contributed over $300,000 in support of expanding our Learning Lab. It costs about $500 to provide annual afterschool tutoring to each student in this visionary workshop, so we know that a lot more success stories are in the works in Highland Park, California. A lot more lives will be saved from poverty simply by offering these young people a real chance to succeed, to grasp the tools they need to make it on their own. Give them a little help now and their dreams will become real through their own achievements. They want to dive into education, listen and be heard, give back to their communities. The opportunity we share is that real, that tangible. The need has never been greater, and we can make a difference.

If you’d like to join us in supporting these highly motivated kids who need our focus, attention, and love, please click here to make any contribution you can to further our work. As shown in the video, there is only one way to make a real difference, and that’s one kid at a time. Add them up, and pretty soon you change a neighborhood. Then a city. Then a society.

Dream a little. No one’s final path has to be determined at the outset. Everyone can make smarter choices when given the chance. Together we can embrace Learning a Different Way.