It’s a big, beautiful country we live in. And at a time when our country feels so divided, I am called to reflect on what unites us. One thing I know for sure is that in communities across the country, people share this in common: They want the best for their children, and they want the next generation to have the chance to do a little bit better. They are hungry for opportunity. They want economic mobility.
I know this from asking a lot of questions and then just listening. For the past two decades, my work and my life’s mission have taken me to the most interesting and wide-ranging places across this land. Perhaps no experience was more eye-opening than the time I spent crisscrossing Alaska by boat and mail plane to break bread with and learn from leaders and community members in Alaska Native villages. As I watched the Bering Sea rise up on the horizon, I thought to myself, this too, is America. These, too, are our children. And their families want more for them. Their communities are striving and struggling to provide for them. Just like people across the nation, there is interest in jobs, education, and health care. The difference is that economic resources may be even more constrained, population is scarce, and distances are a challenge—there are no roads and no broadband access in many places because we cannot lay fiber optic cable below the tundra. And this has been my experience, again and again, in communities everywhere. They are different, but the same.
When I was approached to lead the work of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, I said I would only sign on if, in addition to the Partners we have gathered, there was also room to bring to the table voices of people from diverse places across the country—urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities. To deliver on that commitment, we’ve been spending time in communities, listening and seeking to understand—from rural Maine to rural Mississippi, from Philadelphia to Memphis to Chicago, in Indian Country from coast-to-coast.
In rural Washington County along the coast of Maine, near the Canadian border, where the Atlantic Ocean comes into view, the largest demographic group is aged 44 to 65. The population is aging and shrinking, and there is no replacement strategy for the workforce. A leader from the county economic development council shared that their informal motto is “we don’t have anyone to waste.” Their strategic plan has three primary areas of focus: individual development, business development, and community development.
On the opposite coast, at Lummi Nation, whose land abuts Puget Sound, fishing has been a way of life since before the United States existed as a nation. However, the supply of fish is dwindling, impacting economic opportunities. Simultaneously, tribal leaders shared that in the next decade, 2,000 Lummi people will enter the 18-to-24 age range. So, they will need 2,000 new jobs and homes. Their vision for the future is being driven by the values passed down from their elders, which include family, land, water, balance, love and respect, and voice.
In the Mississippi Delta, driving through cotton fields and past prisons, schools, and abandoned commercial buildings, we heard from community residents in Moorhead, Mississippi, and civic and nonprofit leaders from across the region. Ed Sivak of Hope Enterprise Corporation shared with us: “We have one member [of our credit union] who comes in every day to take out $9 to make his money last and because the employees at Hope give him dignity. Dignity. What does it do to your dignity to bring your kid to a hospital where the roof leaks? We want to build places people are proud of and want to take their children.”
Building on the community voices we are hearing during our travels and on discussions among the Partners, some key principles are emerging. These principles are beginning to shape the ideas we’re developing—ideas which we hope will help create the opportunities that our communities are seeking:
- Economic success: jobs, education, income, entrepreneurship.
- Power and autonomy: a sense of having agency over own’s life, as well as a say in the trajectory of one’s community.
- Being valued: within the community and within the nation, dignity, belonging, social capital.
We still have much more to learn from community voices, researchers, practitioners, and others. And we’re interested in hearing more from you. What would it take to substantially increase mobility from poverty in your community? What would success look like to you? Do these principles resonate? We hope you’ll take a minute to share your ideas here.