Rising Leader Series: Week 30 - Democracy: Equal Opportunity
Updated: Jul 27
SHOULDERS OF HOPE
Great-granddad landed young on freedom’s shore
From street to street, sold coal in the city
His son, my PopOps, sold stuff door-to-door
So his son could make it to university
That man, my father, chased down two degrees
First Wesleyan, then Harvard MBA
Went on to find the American dream
For which his forefathers worked, paid and prayed
Does any co-citizen deserve any less?
Chance first to learn, then to grow, then to dream?
Help others attack the blocks to success!
For by this path is your privilege redeemed.
All of us stand on our forefathers' shoulders.
For whom will your shoulders be the upholder?
Equal opportunity is one of the five bedrock ideals in American democracy, because opportunity bequeaths hope. Hope is of God; it binds us together. Lack of opportunity snuffs out hope, which undercuts shared allegiance. Can we expect Americans who have lost all faith in the future to remain faithful to our flag? Whenever any citizen loses hope, American democracy is weakened. To strengthen democracy, we need leaders who will confront the corrosive patterns that eat away at equal opportunity.
God gave us equal human worth; we all have equal access to God’s infinite love. But our human gifts vary. We vary in our innate personal attributes; we vary in our efforts to learn. As a result, talent will vary, even with equal access. Talent begets a job, which begets wealth. Every American deserves equal opportunity to test the boundaries of his or her God-given potential. When birth-endowed gifts are cultivated by equal opportunity, people can pursue their dreams as far as talent and ambition will take them.
The state of opportunity in America affects the state of our democracy. Democracy can end swiftly by direct attack– such as an insurrection, coup, or invasion by a foreign power (as Russia has attempted in Ukraine). Or its pillars can be weakened gradually by the acid rain of corrosive patterns. To protect and strengthen American democracy, we must confront both.
Corrosive patterns eat at equal opportunity; our country needs good leaders like you to stand up to these patterns and envision pathways towards renewal. Renewal is most needed in four domains:
Access to quality education
Access to a quality education matters.
My Harvard-educated father built a successful career, which afforded my siblings and me the best education money could buy. We lived in the right school districts, received lots of parental encouragement and were given the necessary financial support to go to top tier colleges. This opened the door to high-promise careers of our own, enabling us to do the same for our children.
Yes, I am a product of privilege. Such privileges are not available to most Americans. The cost of college is beyond reach for many. This is why college financial aid and student-friendly student loan programs are so important. Sadly, inequality crops up even earlier. Public schools aren’t all equal. This is why America’s investment in public education is so vital, as is private school innovation– especially in underserved communities.
For five years I served as a founding board member of Cristo Rey San Jose, a private Jesuit high school in Northern California whose 500-person student body is predominantly Latino. Most parents of Cristo Rey San Jose students did not go to college; many did not graduate from high school. Due to benefactor support and its unique one-day-a-week student job internship program with partnering businesses, Cristo Rey offers a top tier private education at a bargain-basement tuition cost.
Students entering Cristo Rey as freshmen are, on average, two grades behind in math. Through the hard work of the students (and their teachers), average math scores rise to a ninth-grade level within six months. Throughout the four years, teachers reinforce the goal: to get a college education. It is inspirational to see the light of opportunity turn on for the first time in a student’s eyes. To sit in the stands at the annual graduation ceremony, to know that 95% of graduating students were accepted to college, to see their smiles and the joy of their parents, is a blessing to behold.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. No matter the background, never doubt a child’s potential. Time and again I’ve seen what a quality education can do to transform a life. Equal access to quality education is sacred; achieving it takes leadership.
Business liberty matters.
Small business creates two-thirds of all American jobs. Jobs are the wellspring of opportunity. Overregulation is a corrosive pattern. Imagine the owner of a small machine shop or restaurant, trying to remain compliant with the labyrinth of city, county, state and federal rules and regulations. It’s an undue burden, forcing owners to work late into the night and on weekends– filling out all the forms, calculating all the taxes and fees and dealing with compliance issues. Regulatory overreach strangles business opportunity and steals jobs from regular Americans. As prosaic as it seems, to simplify regulatory requirements is to strengthen American democracy. This too is a leadership challenge.
The federal debt matters.
As of today, the US federal debt stands at over $30 trillion. This equates to $243,000 per taxpayer and rising– and it’s unsustainable. Our debt will rob opportunity from our children and their children. They will ultimately shoulder the crippling burden of our excess. Deficit spending is a corrosive pattern that weakens our democracy. Good leader, America needs you to envision a way out– to find a way for us to live within our means, so as to preserve the American dream for your children and theirs.
Sustainable growth matters.
Capitalism has shrunk world hunger, elevated average life expectancy and improved standards of living around the world. But it has also decimated the Amazon, polluted the seas and skies and depleted the world’s natural resources. Unchecked capitalism is a corrosive pattern. Good leader, we need you to envision new guardrails to build around American capitalism so as to make growth more sustainable, so that we protect opportunity for future generations.
Equal opportunity breeds hope. With hope we dream. Our dreams inspire us, unite us and draw us back to our flag. All Americans deserve a chance to live the American dream. By making opportunity more equal, we follow God's call and strengthen democracy.
Next week, I will write to you about truth-- and its role in democracy.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12
May all your dreams come true,
Previous Weeks' Letters: