It is time for a radical shift in our nation’s opportunity narrative

In her bestselling memoir "Becoming," Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama leads USA dodgeball against Corden's Team UK Michelle Obama to lead female celebrity dodgeball team in 'Late Late Show' face-off Obamas sign deal with Spotify to produce podcasts MORE gives a powerful testimony of her journey from growing up as a working-class kid in the South Side of Chicago to becoming first lady of the United States.

Millions of readers are cheering for her triumphant story, but the harsh reality is for every kid born in a distressed neighborhood who gets the opportunity of fully becoming, thousands more never will because our nation has not learned how to handle poverty, racism and inequity for the masses. In America, there is a small door called “opportunity,” and only a select few are able to pass through its narrow opening.  

Far too many indicators show our most vulnerable children are not becoming. In Obama’s beloved Chicago, despite rising public school graduation rates, a third of the black male students still drop out. In Boston’s public high schools, 20 percent of students are two or more years behind academically, according to a 2018 EY-Parthenon report.

“Almost every school district enrolling large numbers of low-income students has an average academic performance significantly below the national grade-level average,” according to a 2016 study at Stanford University School of Education. Despite 30-plus years of education reform, many of our urban schools are crowded with low expectations, high teacher turnover, inadequate rigor and a dearth of opportunities when compared with more resourced schools. It is a system rigged to keep poor people poor. We celebrate the few who get an opportunity to rise above it all.

As a young girl, Obama had “the good fortune to be plucked from a second-grade class marooned with an unmotivated teacher,” and transferred to a better, more resourced school across town. It was the quality of her new elementary school and the caliber of the education she received there, that set her on the path to Princeton University, Harvard Law School and a career at Sidley Austin law firm where she met and fell in love with the man who became her husband and our 44th president. Obama refers to this as the “strange and cruel randomness” of opportunity — who gets it and who does not.

Public narratives matter: They give birth to harmful public policies and create apathy toward racist practices that perpetuate inequality. The “opportunity narrative” says resources are limited and since we cannot provide opportunity for all, it is acceptable to provide opportunity for some. In America, we tolerate this idea that some kids get to attend great schools, while other kids are trapped in distressed, underfunded, low performing schools — usually within miles of one another — because for most parents it’s about the Darwinist survival of the fittest and opportunity is a zero-sum game. Many parents with resources mistakenly believe, “If I give opportunity to someone else’s child then my child loses, so I need to hoard as many possible resources for my child and my family as I possibly can.”

It is time for a radical shift in our nation’s opportunity narrative. Opportunity is not a fixed resource and in a country built on entrepreneurship and innovation, there is plenty to go around. We live in a nation as limitless and boundless as the next invention or new idea. Uber, cell phones, the internet, for example, are innovations that have fueled new industries, jobs and increasing opportunities. In a world focused on innovation, there is no such thing as finite resources and there is no reason to hoard for your own child so other children cannot thrive.

January marks a time of new beginnings, a season where we can birth new ideas as we reimagine our highest and best selves. To be sure, not everyone can become a First Lady, but all children should have an equal opportunity to strive for a life lived to its full potential. Educators and lawmakers should stop patting themselves on their backs for creating policies that allow only a few kids to slip through to success.

Instead, we must change funding formulas for schools serving low-income students, deconstruct siloes that separate low-and high-performing schools and radically shift our education system to give unfathomably more opportunities to our most disenfranchised children. In 2019, let us stop trying to widen this narrow door called “opportunity,” and just blow the door right off of its hinges.

Ayele Shakur is the CEO of BUILD, a national youth entrepreneurship program. Her work lies at the intersection of education, innovation and equity. She is an Encore Public Voices fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @ayeleshakur.