For America’s children and youth today, the American Dream is both reachable and at risk. That reality demands our immediate and continuous attention.
Twenty years ago, all the living presidents gathered in Philadelphia to focus the nation on young people’s needs and call for a commitment from each of us to make good on the promise of opportunity for every child in America. Since that moment, when America’s Promise emerged to convene a broad drive to improve the lives of young people, this has been our cause.
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed what Americans can accomplish when we make common cause on behalf of the children who represent our common future. We have seen promises kept and dramatic gains that give us hope.
From the Harlem Children’s Zone to East Lake in Atlanta to the work of Say Yes to Education in Buffalo, we have seen communities transformed by collaborative effort. Graduation rates have steadily risen to the highest level in our history. More students of color are attending college. Teen pregnancy rates, like teen alcohol and drug abuse, have sharply declined.
And yet, amid real progress we must also confront a hard truth. For too many young people, daily reality can seem like a conspiracy to destroy their dreams.
In too many places, children are caught in a web of challenges that would be difficult for any of us to escape. A few children heroically transcend these problems through exceptional hard work, character and idealism. But it should not require heroism to be a child.
The challenges of highly-stressed parents and families, community fragmentation, economic isolation, and the persistence of discrimination are the enemies of young people’s success. Solving them is the domestic challenge of our time.
Opportunity is America’s defining promise. It is simply unacceptable to see so many young people cut off from the world of opportunity. It is unacceptable to watch children abandon faith in the future before their lives have really begun.
The first step in confronting unacceptable problems is not to accept them. The second step is to get serious about a scandal of misplaced priorities. We devote far fewer resources to the development of the next generation than we devote to other issues. Yet helping children become healthy, moral, skilled adults is not just one cause among many. It is the cause that will determine the future of our nation in every detail.
Common sense and research tell us that to have a real chance at success children need a web of relationships with caring adults, safe places to learn and grow, a healthy start, an effective education that teaches marketable skills and opportunities to serve others. The living presidents described these essential conditions for success as the Five Promises.
Making them a reality, as the presidents declared in establishing America’s Promise, is not only the work of government. It is the work of a people. It is a joint responsibility that involves parents and families, schools and businesses, faith and nonprofit organizations. All of us have vital roles to play.
Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot about how children learn and grow, and how we can lower the barriers to their success.
Neuroscience has opened new windows into how children learn. New research on the impact of adversity, trauma, and stress give us a clearer picture of why some students struggle. Improved data make it possible to pinpoint educational deficits by district, school and student, so we can target solutions like never before. And studies prove that multiple, connected pathways through school and into the workforce help young people stay on track.
When it comes to improving the lives of young people, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to summon the will.
We know what to do. We must consistently surround young people with love, support, encouragement and high expectations. We must renew our individual and national commitment to every child’s success.
This is more than our personal cause. If you are an employer concerned about finding skilled and motivated workers, this is your cause, too. If you are concerned about economic, racial and social inequality, this is your cause. If you are troubled by too many islands of hopelessness in the midst of plenty, this is your cause.
If every American did just one thing for this cause, the future of our country could be transformed.
That is our call. If we, as adults, do not answer, don’t blame children. It will be our collective failure to fulfill America’s promise.
Longtime advocates for children, Alma J. Powell and Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) are the chair and founding chair of America’s Promise Alliance, respectively. To read their full letter to America, visit www.Recommit2Kids.org.