If Americans could make a collective resolution as we enter a new political era, I’d love it to be this: Let’s bring back thoughtful dialog about tough issues. Let’s each find one person with a differing point of view, and truly listen to their ideas. That includes people we don’t agree with, or think we don’t agree with, or groups of people we don’t understand, don’t respect, maybe even can’t stand. To update an old cliché: Challenging times call for inventive measures—in the form of open-minded conversation, surprising collaborations and solutions based on creativity and compromise. From such overtures, unlikely partnerships and friendships can develop. Progress becomes possible.
As President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national organization that supports and advocates for publicly-supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), it has been a long-held dream of mine to open doors and provide opportunities our students didn’t know existed. But this isn’t a race thing. There are HBCUs in West Virginia with a majority of white students such as Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University, and a Los Angeles-based Historically Black Graduate Institution in California, the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, with a large number of Hispanic students. These are kids whose possibilities are often limited by their circumstances. Their situation is urgent, and with truly innovative solutions so scarce, it’s imperative to move beyond traditional approaches to help.
So one day, having heard Charles Koch, the chairman of Koch Industries, share his thoughts on TV about the need for criminal justice reform and the need to eliminate barriers to opportunity, I sent him a letter asking if he’d be willing to meet with me to discuss ways we could help improve what I describe as “fragile” communities: places where residents—of all races and ethnicities—face hurdles, particularly regarding education, criminal justice and entrepreneurship opportunities. To be clear, the people who live in these communities aren’t fragile; the structure of their community is. Communities where failing schools prepare far too few students for college success or the post–secondary school workplace. Where one wrong move can get a kid a police record that damages his or her work prospects for years to come. Where small businesses that provide the bulk of America’s jobs often don’t compete on a level playing field.
A short 48 hours later, I got a call from the Charles Koch Foundation.
On January 11th, we announced the launch of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., that will support campus-based research centers where HBCU faculty and scholars, in collaboration with other higher education faculty and scholars throughout the country, will do social science research based on data that comes directly from the people who live these lives. These people have always had a voice, but not enough people are listening. To help change that, we’ve partnered with Gallup to create an opportunity index, a polling tool to ask members of fragile communities about the barriers to achieving the American dream. The Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries committed to spend $26 million over five years in a comprehensive program to determine what barriers prohibit the potential of the people who live in these fragile communities. We agreed on three priorities: education reform, criminal justice reform and entrepreneurship.
What differentiates the Center for Advancing Opportunity is that it’s core value and activity is to listen—to HBCU students and professors and everyday Americans who have lived, learned and taught in fragile communities. The other important component of the Center for Advancing Opportunity is original research. We’re supporting scholars and faculty passionate about making a difference. That means providing grants to faculty at HBCUs working to develop research centers studying critical issues. It also means giving scholarships to promising undergraduate and graduate students who aspire to be social scientists or public policy professionals, interested in developing research-based solutions to the problems these communities confront. These are scholarships with a mission. And they ensure there will be professionals committed to this endeavor for the long haul.
No doubt some will wonder: What do Johnny Taylor, Jr., and Charles Koch have in common? We wondered the same thing and, after two years getting to know each other, we discovered that we are both patriots who want every American to have the opportunity to achieve what they want with the skills God gave them. We both believe that you can’t reform criminal justice without first reforming education. And we don’t want just one more anecdote about one kid who made it out. That’s not scalable.
The beauty of this program is that because it is privately funded, rather than being subject to political whims, we have time to get it right. We don’t know what this will be when it grows up. It’s a living, breathing organism that will change. But we are both committed to empowering the people who have to live with the outcomes.
Our country has never been more divided. At its core is a palpable frustration. We’ve got to do something about it because it will erupt at some point. We’ve seen this happen many times, in Charlotte, in Baltimore, in Tulsa. All of that, if not responded to, will ultimately combust. That’s why this partnership—and others like it—will be so important. Just imagine an America where a quarter of the people we’ve written off could realize their full potential. If we could remove those barriers in a thoughtful, scientific way—my God, how much better a place this country would be.
So, my wish: We need to bring back the right of all Americans to freely express their opinions, beliefs and needs. We can bridge what divides us. But it can only happen if we all work harder at listening.
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