Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Opportunity Nation Summit

Contributed by Jaime Botero

I’ve been blogging about different non-profits that service the Miami area. This will be a shift from my regular blogging.  Late last year I was able to attend the Opportunity Nation Summit held at Columbia University in New York City. I participated as part of the Opportunity Nation Leaders group organized by the Opportunity Nation team. Also, be forewarned, this will be a long, serialized, blog entry. I have a lot of issues to sort out.
*Disclaimer: I was invited to attend, with all expenses covered, so my opinion will be skewed in a positive way. Knowing that, I’ll attempt to be objective. Let’s not kid ourselves though, Opportunity  Nation rocks!* 
 I had a great time in NYC. I felt guilty leaving my Catalyst Miami: Civic Life Team, in the middle of recruitment season to go off to New York and speak abstractly  about “Opportunity.” The inner wonk in me glowed at the chance to talk about policy and take a respite from the day-to-day work of assisting in the operation of a family leadership and civic engagement program. Even as I attempted to take some work with me, my supervisor dissuaded me from doing so. Thank you very much, Ms. Gretchen Beesing.

I arrived earlier than most participants to squeeze some time in friends. Fifteen minutes after landing and boarding the M60 bus, I was greeted with a call by Justin Kang. Justin is organizing the Opportunity Nation Leaders and Scholars. I appreciated his attention to detail, and his concern for my experience during the conference. In relation to other conference attendees like Dr. Cornel West, Wendy Kopp, Dr. Eduard Padron, Suze Orman, and many others I felt like plankton, much less a small fish. Regardless, Justin, his staff and interns, were always there to make me and fellow Leaders and Scholars feel at home and welcomed.  In other words, and in my native tongue, muchas gracias SeƱor Kang.

The summit started with a young leader town hall discussion of policy and opportunity. I was officially “too old” to attend but I had to sneak in. My involvement with City Year, Breakthrough Collaborative, and other youth leadership organizations piqued my necessity to go. I was moved by the stories of whose who participated in Year Up and YouthBuild. The graduates that spoke struck a chord in me.  YouthBuild is a perfect conceptualization of my idea of service: to give, as well as to receive. Service has been important for me but often times, I’m upset by the way that AmeriCorps programs are run. AmeriCorps excels in that the MLK ethos of “everyone can be great, because everybody can serve” but it falters in other metrics. National Service Members are used as cheap labour replacements in the NPO market. More so, little is done in terms of professional development and investment in the Service Members. (I’m currently an AmeriCorp member and I’m very happy with the development opportunities in my placement.) Once the service term is over, the former Service Members are left to fend for themselves.  I believe the YouthBuild model of educating its participants to learn trades and skills they can use after their service term is the most impactful program I’ve encountered. My current AmeriCorps program, Public Allies, employs a model. Not only do graduates of YouthBuild and Public Allies receive the opportunity to do service, they also earn the skills needed to be employable and successful citizens. Year Up focuses training and apprenticeships. Germany and many other countries are known to have a well-developed apprentice system.  We should reconsider our educational and labour system during this recession.  The topic of apprenticeship leads me to discussion I had with Chris, an Opportunity Scholar. (Chris, if you read this blog, congratulations on TFA.) I discussed the necessity for more options other college for Americans wanting to enter the middle-class. “Not everyone should have to go college!” I proclaimed. College and Universities with the exception of Community Colleges have largely become expensive and out of reach of the Americans that need them the most. Chris countered by pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of a college-educated-male, with a “pragmatic” education in the liberal arts, discouraging others from enrolling in college and pushing them to seek work in the trades. I’ve wrestled with this before, but I always appreciate a soundboard to push back on ideas. Ultimately, I can temper my argument to say, that the US needs to develop alternative pathways to in-demand careers, other than college. College as it is structured is leaving behind several segments of the American population, and more so plenty of students drop-out of college. Drop-outs are left without a degree and worse with student loans. That being said, we also need to work on creating outlets of self-discovery and growth for those that choose to abstain from college.

Now, that I’ve wandered tangentially throughout this post, it is easy to ask, “what is Opportunity Nation?” Opportunity Nation is a campaign started by Be the Change . Be the Change organizes campaigns around bipartisan issues. The first campaign was Service Nation, which encourages the continued funding of AmeriCorps, increased volunteerism, and increased support to people that serve in the military. Opportunity Nation is the second such campaign organized by Be the Change. Opportunity Nation wants to be national movement with aims to increase economic, health, education, and other forms of opportunities. Opportunity Nation as well as Service Nation and Be the Change, are bipartisan in ideology and try to move beyond politics to better the US. As part of the being an Opportunity Nation Leader my job is to make a commitment to opportunity and to spread the word and ideas of Opportunity Nation.
In their words, I’m pasting the about section of Opportunity Nation.
Opportunity Nation seeks to put the American Dream back in reach by harnessing the best ideas from a national coalition of diverse organizations from many sectors. Together, we are working to break the gridlock and define a shared and realistic plan for how to achieve better skills, better jobs, and better communities.
Using data, we need to identify what’s working, and what isn’t. We’re creating a national dialogue on opportunity. With the goal of increasing opportunity for more Americans, we believe we can find shared ideas that everyone can agree upon.
We need to ACT
We’re going to need to change the way we think about economic mobility and opportunities. In addition to changing our national dialogue, we want to change policy as well. For this, we need your help.
We’ll do it TOGETHER
We are building a permanent broader coalition. We are forming partnerships across all sectors including nonprofit,business, higher education, faith-based institutions, the military and the arts/entertainment community. We’re growing, and we want you to join us.
Who can argue with their message? Republican or Democrat, the message of Opportunity Nation is as American as the concept of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Coming to this nation as a first-generation, low-income immigrant, I can attest that the US has given me many opportunities I would never have in my native land. However, those opportunities are vanishing for many across the American spectrum. Whether it be a laid-off factory worker not prepared to work other fields, the toddler whose parents can’t afford to enroll him/her in pre-Kindergarten education, the High School dropout who can’t see the need of an education that at best leads to a permanent Fast Food job, there is an alarming gap in the opportunities afforded to the haves compared to the have-nots. I haven’t even mentioned the struggle retirees are dealing with as their savings are being devastated by the ongoing slew of market crashes. We are at a point in the US were the Gini Index is on par with countries that face populism fueled revolutions. Wealth accumulation in the US has not been concentrated in the hands of such few people since the Gilded Age or perhaps worse, the Roaring Twenties.   
I personally grapple with opportunity myself. I’m not sure if I’ll have a job once my service term is over. It’s concerning. I want to work in a field where I can help others. I want to employ my skills, talents, and very, very, very, expensive college education to support my humanist values. I want to work in Miami, a community that embraced me as an immigrant. I doubt I’ll be able to do both. I have some college loans to pay off. I hope to raise a family, and perhaps retire someday. I hope to not use Food Stamps as I do today. I want to be self-sustaining and instead of receiving shelter and support from my single mother, I for one want to be able to help her out. Those aspirations seem incompatible with my work goals. Perhaps, I’m a pessimist but I’m often discouraged. For example, hearing that that a partial-reason a staffer was hired at a local NPO was because s/he is the progeny of Board Member of said NPO is disconcerting. That event does not affect me, but it affected a friend who applied for that position. I’m using this anecdote because it illustrates the access to opportunity that power affords. I’m not debating the merits of the hired staffer but rather, the way it seems that life just offers more doors when you have more money. Careers that seem fictitiously perfect to a young person, are unreachable to that child because s/he grew up in a housing project. At the opposite end of the spectrum all it can take to break into an industry for the children of the wealthy, is telephone call to friend of the household, or a neighbor. It just doesn’t sit right. Your life should not be dictated by your zip code of birth.
That’s why I’m serving at Catalyst Miami. I believe in the mission and vision or Catalyst Miami.
Vision: We live in a just equitable society in which all residents are meaningfully engaged.
Mission: To develop and support individual leadership and strong organizations that work together to improve health, education, and economic opportunity in all our communities.

So which tools have I have picked up in the summit? I learned a lot and I might expand on it later, but the most important tool is the Opportunity Index. The index measures Economic, Education, and Community factors across the country. If this is reminiscent of the Human Development Index to you, then you are onto something. The Opportunity Index is fashioned after the HDI. The index is detailed up to the county level. Some rural counties are omitted. The omission of several rural counties skews the perspective of the index. I’m personally troubled by the fact that the index avoids measuring voter participation in its community score. Voting is an important part of Civic Health and brining about change. Not having the opportunity to vote due to a myriad of factors, should be measured. Although voting is a choice, so is on time completion of High School and the index measures that as well. By maintaining active voting, communities can oversee the decisions of their elected officials and guide the direction of their own future. I voiced my concern with Elizabeth Roy the Deputy Director of Opportunity Nation and she encouraged me to provide feedback. Opportunity Nation is certainly open to receive feedback and suggestions regarding their policy recommendations. I’ll be writing more about Opportunity Nation as the year progresses so be keen to keep up with the blog.

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