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.

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Reading to Kids

Reading to KidsLast weekend my wife and I had the inspiring opportunity to spend the morning with five energetic first graders through a Los Angeles non-profit program called Reading to Kids.  As it is said about so many volunteer opportunities, I am sure we got way more out of it than the children.  It was an eye-opener on any number of levels.

Reading to Kids follows a simple but profound philosophy, that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,” cited in the 1985 report of the Commission on Reading.  On the second Saturday of each month, volunteer recruits gather at one of seven underserved elementary schools near downtown Los Angeles, and are assigned in pairs to read an age appropriate book to small groups of kids beginning in Kindergarten and advancing to Grade 5.  The books are selected by the regular curriculum teachers at each of the seven schools, and are all award winners by well-known authors for children.

Training is provided on arrival, and new volunteers are paired with experienced participants, some of whom have shown up more than 50 times for the three-hour block!  After training and a chance to review the book, readers meet their groups on the playground, where parents are waiting with their eager kids to line up and walk the volunteer pairs to an assigned classroom.  Everyone is there because they want to be, even the school principal who walks around to make sure everything is going well.  The children are happy, exceptionally well-behaved, curious, excited, thankful, warm, all of that, well beyond expectations, even the shy ones.

We started as instructed with a thematic overview and picture tour of our assigned book — A Sick Day for Amos McGee — then read the book and acted out the characters, many of whom were animals from the zoo (I won’t spoil the ending).  We asked tons of questions of the children before turning each page, which they more than answered.  After we finished the book and discussion, we did an arts and crafts project about the book’s theme of friendship, making Valentine cards which the kids took home (some gave their artwork to the volunteer adult readers to say thank you).  At the end of the morning, every child is awarded a prize book to take home with them after a brief farewell ceremony.  A copy of each read-aloud book is then donated to the school’s library.

It’s that simple.  It’s beautifully organized, and we even went to lunch afterward with many of the other readers at a nearby restaurant that offered free snack trays.

Why in the world am I writing about this on my business blog?

It’s no secret that I have spent a reasonable amount of my career around children’s media, and that I have some deep convictions about the necessary link in learning between education and entertainment.  This experience was different.  What I saw before me at this Los Angeles Unified School District facility — surely in need of financial investment — were five young people as motivated about learning as any I have encountered in all my travels and focus tests.  There was one minor difference, English was their second language, even though they were growing up here in Southern California.  For my thinking, that actually put them at the head of the class — how many six-year olds do you know already equally fluent in two languages?  These children knew most of the words on the pages of our book, they had opinions about all the characters, they were willing to go out on a limb and predict how the story would twist and turn, and they were clearly able to interpret the moral of the story, that when we are at our weakest, we most depend on our friends.

These kids were amazing.  They have all the potential in the world.  They are ready to dream and learn and help each other and work hard.  As we drove home and I looked around at parts of Los Angeles where many of us don’t spend enough time, I wondered, where will these kids be in five years when they hit middle school?  In ten years when they are in high school?  Will they go to college?  Will they have the kinds of opportunities that will let their dreams come true?  I couldn’t know, but that’s what I wanted to happen.

We allow the subject of education to be politicized, but it’s not really a political topic in my mind.  Year after year, I fill out the surveys sent to me by government leaders, local and national, whichever party is in power, always asking for my priorities.  My priority for tax dollars never changes, I believe the priority has to be education.  If we want these kids to have good lives, they need education.  If we want our economy to thrive, we need an educated population.  If we want a new generation of businesses to be born and staffed, education is the proven route to success.  The thing is, at six years old on a Saturday morning, the kids are showing up, their parents are bringing them, so what they need they already want.  How can we not see that of every possible investment we could make with a taxpayer dollar, this is the one that will pay off?

Is there inefficiency in school districts and administration?  Of course.  Will these bright young kids soon enough become less exuberant adolescents?  History would seem to confirm that.  Do we have competing priorities for underserved community needs?  Without a doubt.  All of those are realities, which simply makes them challenges.  What I want to see are those first graders I met last weekend on a path to realize the same kinds of dreams we all share.  I think in a nation as great as ours we have a moral responsibility to make that happen, broadly for the greater good.

What can we all do to think globally and act locally?  First off, try a little volunteering.  Reading to Kids is one fine program among many, find one that makes a difference in your home town and sign up.  You will do good, and it will do your soul good.  Second, as the national debate on budget control escalates to hyperbole, think hard about where money should be saved and invested, with an emphasis on the notion of capital that can provide a return on investment, where human capital is the most precious resource we can nurture.  Third, if you are investing in your own future, consider investing in the future of our communities with whatever dollars you can afford, in the form of a donation, directed to a program you find of value.

Reading will always be one of the most magical experiences we enjoy as human beings.  A love of reading brings a love of learning, and that is a gift of boundless reward.  Spend three hours reading a children’s storybook to some kids you’ve never met and you might just learn more than they do.  I did.