I've been thinking a lot about why some people prosper while others don't, and the roles that luck and opportunity play.
I met a man recently who excitedly told me his story. He is from the Dayton area and grew up there in the late 1950s. When he was born, his family, who are African-American, lived in a low-income housing project. His dad had a low-wage job and it was all they could afford.
His grandmother died when my friend was seven. She left all her money to him for his college education, as he was the oldest grandchild. His parents wanted more for their four children. They understood the power of living in a neighborhood with good schools. They asked him at age 7 if they could have the money to buy a home. Of course he said yes; what else would a seven-year-old say?
The family bought a home and moved to a predominately White suburb in Dayton in the late 1950s. They enrolled their kids in school and joined the few other kids of color there. They quickly felt the hostility of the White families on their street but endured. The parents believed that this was best for their kids.
Not long after they moved in, my friend’s family met the family who lived in the house behind theirs. They were a caring, middle-class White family who owned a small grocery, candy shop, and connected restaurant. They opened their hearts to this new family in the neighborhood. They taught my friend and his family about the “norms” of their new neighborhood, how to navigate the school system, and where and how to get assistance for things they needed. They gave my friend a job when he was young which provided not only meals, but pocket change, and a chance to learn. He said that his father had modeled a work ethic.
The family prospered in their new neighborhood. All four children went to college and thrived as adults. My friend’s two children are now grown and prospering in the business world. My friend has had a huge impact in our community, and the work he has done has positively touched the lives of thousands of people. We are a better community because of him.
My friend told me that none of this would have happened if he stayed in the projects. He acknowledges that he was fortunate. His grandmother's inheritance allowed his family to buy a home, which provided the opportunity for them to live in a community with successful schools, good jobs for his parents, and neighbors who could help open doors.
This is the benefit to my friend's family. The kids in his new neighborhood benefitted as well. By being in school with African American kids--and African Americans who were of a lower socioeconomic group--they could see that they were no different than themselves. Proximity breaks down stereotypes and bias. Hopefully, this enabled them to become sensitive and caring adults.
I've had the pleasure of hearing many similar stories over the past months. I have heard from people who have found ways to raise their children in neighborhoods where they can safely go out and play and attend high performing, neighborhood schools. And I have also met people who have personally provided rental and other forms of support to families so they too could prosper.
These are inspiring real-life stories. We know ways to empower people to move up the economic ladder. Coordinated systems, not just a program here or there, are needed for those not fortunate enough to have an inheritance or to be born into a middle or upper class family. The question is, do we have the will to to make long-lasting, impactful change?