More than 1,200 leaders spent Wednesday on the George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom Campus, addressing an opportunity gap that many said stifles a wide swath of young adults, holding them to the bottom rungs of a ladder that’s nearly impossible to climb, and threatens the country’s future.
Convened by Opportunity Nation—a coalition of more than 250 organizations and individuals working to close the opportunity gap—elected officials, journalists, young adults, business leaders and philanthropists came together to support an eight-point Shared Plan aimed at building education and job training pipelines for young adults. The organization also released its 2012 Opportunity Index, which gives states an “opportunity score” from A to F.
Speakers throughout the day included Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group; singer and activist Jordin Sparks; Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson; and Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent for PBS Newshour.
Participants attacked the problem from all angles, including the increasing gap between the middle and working classes and the lack of resources available to the latter, the disproportionate debilitating effect on people of color, students’ disinterest in their curriculum and the “skills gap” that simultaneously leaves so many jobs open yet so many unemployed, to name a few.
Yet through it all, there is still hope. Youth are mentoring their peers, institutions like Miami Dade College are making higher education more affordable and their curricula more relevant and employers are vested in educating their future workforce. A common theme emerged: This generation has the ability to close the opportunity gap.
To do it, though, an important component will be policy, participants said.
Sen. Rubio said everything policymakers address is tied to the opportunity gap, from government spending to tax policy. And there’s “nothing partisan” about addressing this issue.
“What I do think we all agree on is that we want to be a country where if you have a good idea you should be able to take it as far as it can go,” Sen. Rubio said. “So the debate we should be having is, what can we do to make that more possible?”
Early childhood education is incredibly important to put children on track for success, said Sen. Harkin. As is the Promise Neighborhoods project, an initiative that works to create a support network in the neediest neighborhoods across the country.
Being fully inclusive in any initiatives is also crucial, Sen. Harkin said. And that includes those with disabilities.
“It’s time to quit looking at young people with disabilities and seeing what they can’t do. We’ve got to start looking at them and asking what can you do, what are your abilities?” said Sen. Harkin, who authored the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. “You can’t walk, what else can you do? You can’t hear, what else can you do? You can’t see, what else can you do? We’ve got to build on the abilities that every person with a disability has.”
Media also plays an important role in the opportunity gap, said Ms. Huffington.
“We in the media also have a great responsibility, and have not been doing our part to actually cover what is working, to put a spotlight on the good things happening,” Ms. Huffington said. “We are all, of course, covering everything that is dysfunctional. And there is plenty that is dysfunctional at the moment, especially here in Washington, D.C. But also we need to do a much better job of covering the incredible examples of ingenuity, creativity, compassion, empathy, that you are demonstrating here today.”
And to those who think one person can’t make a difference, Ms. Huffington suggested: “I want you to contemplate being in bed with a mosquito. Just a tiny mosquito. And think how much havoc it can wreak. So you’re never too small to make a difference.”
Welcoming participants on Wednesday, GW President Steven Knapp said it was an honor to co-host the summit.
“I think one thing everyone can agree on across the spectrum of political opinion is that closing the opportunity gap is not only vital to our nation’s economic success but to our health as a democratic society.”
Dr. Knapp highlighted how GW is doing its part in working to close the opportunity gap. The Graduate School of Education and Human Development focuses on school reform and access to higher education. The Law School has a Small Business and Community Economic Development Clinic that provides free legal advice. And School of Business M.B.A. students are assisting the mayor’s office with a business plan for the District, to name a few.