Happy Belated July 4th :: On Independence

Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

From the NY Times Opinion by Shamus Khan – Shamus Khan is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia and author of “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.”

Yesterday morning I heard a TV pastor brag about America’s long overdue victory over slavery. While I can agree with the point that slavery as an institution has been largely abolished in the US – I know for a fact that America continues to uphold practices and systems which severely restrict subgroups of our population.

I learned this truth as early as third grade. In elementary school I had the opportunity to split my time between my regular school, Sherwood and a school for the Gifted and Talented.  Four days a week I attended Sherwood. Sherwood was a wonderful school but it was, unfortunately, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks. It was largely populated by immigrants and most of us grew up in homes that struggled to make ends meet.  Due to our lower tax bracket/socio-eco status we were robbed of educational  resources, salaries to lure good teachers or fancy field trips. That said, I mostly didn’t mind. I was with my people. I never thought about my terribly worn clothes or wondered why I couldn’t afford drink juice boxes. None of us had money. We were also lacking in resources.

That changed on Wednesday. Each Wednesday as a third grader I boarded a big yellow school bus with my friends Scott Johnson & Alex Maya and rode off to Bendwood. Bendwood was home to the school district’s  Gifted and Talented program.  Bendwood was also my own personal nightmare.On Wednesday I was thrown into a world largely consisting of students from the other side of the track – the ‘right’ side. I for the first time noticed all the holes in my pink jacket – along with the holes in my basic education. I’ll never forget the shame I felt when one of my GT teachers murmured a frustration that “Sherwood kids never did it right.” I knew she was right. I knew we didn’t have the work ethic or capability of the others. I knew my handwriting was a bit sloppier, my effort lesser. It was evident to me that something was happening over there on the other side of the tracks to which I was not privy.

The startling fact is that I experienced this dichotomy in schools no more than three miles away from each other.

I now bear witness to this inequality in schools 10,000 miles away from one another. In Kenya we work to  provide pencils, in the US we mandate that they are number 2 lead. In Kenya we hope  lunch arrives, in the US we regulate what students pack in lunch boxes (no peanuts). In Kenya we share spiral notebooks, in the US we thrown them way if the first pages are soiled. I wonder, How will these two worlds ever be equal? Deeper still I question my ability (as an American)  to moan about my ‘disadvantaged upbringing.’ All of a sudden my childhood experience seems abundant.

Instead of wondering I throw myself into the work of creating opportunity. As an organization we foster mobility and as an individual I continue to support true freedom. However, despite my best efforts, I continue to run head on into social barriers that remind me that the American dream really is still a dream and that despite our recent celebration of independence we remain quite unfree — here and there.

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