Hidden Figures and Hidden Talent: Why We All Lose When Exclusion Reigns

“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”

This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?

This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.

Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”

Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.

Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042

Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.

And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”

The Underground Railroad: Pathways, Leadership & the Role of Equity

This post is adapted from remarks MDC President David Dodson made on February 4 in Tempe, Arizona, to an audience of community college presidents, faculty, and administrators gathered for the American Association of Community College’s Pathways Project annual institute.

As I considered my remarks for today, my thoughts went to an extraordinary new novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. It is a magical work. The historic Underground Railroad was a series of well-concealed way stations that gave sanctuary to enslaved Africans fleeing to freedom in the North. In Whitehead’s tale, the Railroad becomes an actual subterranean rail line, a marvel of technical engineering that literally burrows under the slave states of the antebellum South—a pathway to safety and salvation, complete with actual locomotives and rail cars.

As described by Whitehead, the Railroad itself is a work of genius:

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus (pg. 67).

But the path is still not easy for those who view it as the one great hope for their liberation. Rules of passage are mysterious—opaque for people who have spent their lives in the closed and cruel system of slavery on plantations. Trap doors and dead ends make the path perilous. For those who do get on the Railroad, like the novel’s heroine, Cora, the danger of being captured and returned to the plantation—and to violent punishment—is a constant reality.

Cora is a young woman who has been brutalized in captivity. She is a third generation of her family to live in slavery. Her mother has run off from the plantation to seek her own freedom, leaving Cora to raise herself. Given a life of abandonment, forced to survive on the plantation by her own wit and native intelligence, Cora is relentless in her pursuit of freedom. She has escaped the plantation with Caesar, a brave fellow, also enslaved, who has seen glimpses of the wider world beyond the plantation and knows both the delights of freedom and the dangers involved in securing it. But Caesar is killed in a skirmish with a notorious slave catcher sent to find the duo. From that point, Cora persists to get to the railroad alone. By turns hopeful, terrified, confused she makes her way doggedly, alone.

For Cora, the beautifully engineered path of the railroad is a strange gift. Nothing in her life has prepared her to navigate it. Throughout the novel, she is truly dependent on the kindness of strangers, like station agents and conductors, to get to safety. Station agents, who shepherd escapees to railway stops, pair their knowledge of the path with their courageous spirit to help the enslaved enter the pathway to the freedom. Conductors rely on their own lived experience and geographic expertise to lead the train away from the cruel system of slavery and toward a land where survival and autonomy could become Cora’s reality.

The book follows Cora on her journey north from Georgia. The first stop on the railroad is South Carolina, a state that looks like the Promised Land, but in fact is a twilight zone of deception and cleverly concealed brutality. The next stop, North Carolina, possesses a culture of raw cruelty, where public lynchings are the occasions for picnics and band concerts in the town square. On Cora’s pathway to freedom, nothing is what it seems. Hope appears and then vanishes as each stopping point becomes a perverse mutation of the cruelty Cora has escaped on the plantation.

The Underground Railroad is about the unconquerable, existential human drive for the dignity of a better life. It is about the essential role that a brilliantly engineered salvific pathway plays to deliver a young woman to freedom and the fulfillment of her dreams. It is about the station agents and fellow travelers without whose leadership, courage, guidance, and wisdom Cora’s aspirations and even the pathway itself would have been insufficient to deliver a young enslaved girl to the threshold of freedom. It is, in many ways, a metaphor, for all that our work advancing equity and opportunity in the South requires.

The Underground Railroad speaks to me not just as a metaphor and as a literary work. It also is part of my personal story. My great-great grandfather, Stanton Hunton, with whom I am pictured here at the museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad in Chatham, Ontario, used the actual Underground Railroad to escape slavery in Virginia in the 1840s. Stanton’s story is worthy of a novel, itself, including two unsuccessful escape attempts before he managed to achieve (the Promised Land of) Canada, put his skills as a brick mason and carpenter to work for himself, and start a family. His story was the beginning of the mobility story of my father’s family.

Every family has a mobility story. And today the narrative of upward economic mobility and liberation is unquestionably dependent on attaining a postsecondary credential that prepares its holder to access, navigate, and advance within employment that offers meaningful, living-wage work. Like Cora and the Underground Railroad, the pathway from foundational education to a postsecondary credential to living-wage employment, even when brilliantly engineered, is fraught with pitfalls, trapdoors, headwinds, and rip-currents. Success in navigating the pathway requires the vigilant engagement of others at every step of the way, others who are committed to equity outcomes for each and every traveler.

And while Cora’s story offers a tale of overcoming, it also offers a caution. The Underground Railroad was a beautifully engineered system for ushering people to freedom. But its engineering was compromised by a surrounding culture that was not supportive of and, in fact, often hostile toward, people making the journey. In the absence of a fully supportive culture, Cora’s success depended on a high degree of personal heroism on her part that exacted a very high cost. The best engineered strategy for success along the pathway to upward economic mobility will run aground unless it is supported by a reinforcing culture of equity across the institutions that touch it. Otherwise the burden of success requires an unreasonable level of heroism on the part of individuals trying to make their way forward. And the cost of heroism can be toxic.

A few years ago, a deeply disturbing conversation ran across several issues of the alumni magazine of my college. Under the banner “My Classmates are Dying” was a dialogue carried out through letters to the editor of the alarmingly high, statistically significant rates of premature death by illness and even suicide of black men who had attended Yale College in the 1960s, when the university, an overwhelmingly white institution, began to open its doors seriously to men of color. (There were no women at Yale until the 1970s.) Death rates for African American alumni in the class of 1970 were three times that of whites in the same class. Scholars looking at these data and noting the physiological stresses associated with black men trying to advance in an often inhospitable culture made links to the phenomenon known as “John Henryism,” so named by the brilliant scholar of public health, Sherman James. According to legend, John Henry was one of the “steel drivers” who hammered down spikes used in the railroad expansion that made America big and rich. With the coming of the steam-powered drill, the livelihoods of the steel drivers like Henry were threatened. Henry, full of bluster, challenged the owner of the railroad to a contest pitting Henry against the new drill. Henry won the contest, but he died from the mental and physical strain.

John Henryism reminds us of the unacceptable personal burdens that fall on underrepresented people trying to navigate a culture where a commitment to equity is not pervasive. The price of success can be a harrowing journey like Cora’s or even life itself like the pioneers before me at Yale. And it persists. Just last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about first-generation Latino college students who were able to obtain Social Security numbers that would allow them to lawfully work, drive, and pursue an affordable postsecondary credential, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA.) The title of the article, “The Only Way We Can Fight Back is to Excel,” hit me in the gut. Excel at what cost? Like Cora? Like the Yale men?

We need less personal heroism and more equity and systematic support if the pathways we are dedicated to building are to deliver on their promise: Equity at every turn, for every individual on the path to opportunity. This work has existential importance for our young people and our institutions and our nation. Let’s let nothing stand in its way.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes Economic Mobility?

Love is in the air! As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your bae or your friends, consider that just 50 years ago, some marriages were illegal. The ban on interracial marriage was found

The Edelmans in 1968 Source: New York Times

The Edelmans in 1968
Source: New York Times

unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Loving v. Virginia case of 1967. This recent story on Peter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman got us thinking about love and marriage…and economic mobility. (It also reminded us of that day Peter came to visit MDC.) Marian Wright, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center, were the third interracial couple to be married a year after the Loving case. This union was the beginning of a powerhouse couple in the civil rights arena. At the time of their marriage, Marian was an accomplished Yale-educated civil rights lawyer and the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. Peter had been an aide to U.S. Sen, Robert F. Kennedy and was working in policy and law. No doubt, Marian and Peter Edelman’s mutual support and encouragement contributed to their many successes. Similarly, one can speculate that some financial benefits of marriage helped in strengthening their partnership and the prospects of their three children as well. Just a year earlier, the marriage would have been unlawful.

And sure, love and commitment are great, but marriage historically is an economic engagement, too. Conventional wisdom points to financial benefits like having a dual income, the ability to share expenses, tax breaks, and lower rates on health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court used the precedent set by Loving for reasoning as such in Obergefell v. Hodges (2005), which protected the right of same-sex couples to marry, making the institution available to even more people. There is research that suggests some economic benefit to some people who tie the knot. However, there is much debate about how marriage and financial benefits are associated with one another. While some argue that this link is direct and causal, others argue that the relationship between the two is more nuanced. For example, dual-earner households have higher household incomes and, therefore, more resources at their disposal that can be used for personal enrichment, creating a financial safety net, or investments in their children’s future. Proponents of this perspective suggest that strategies to improve upward economic mobility should focus on improving “the security of poor people and their children,” which will in turn “also tend to improve the stability of their relationships.”

But still, the moral of the story is: more marriages and the wealth gap closes, right? Sorry to ruin your honeymoon, folks, but the racial wealth gap persists regardless of family structure. As you can see in the figure below, the median, single-parent white family had roughly twice as much wealth as the median, two-parent black or Latino families.

Source: Demos. The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap

Source: Demos. The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap

This recent Demos report argues that “family structure does not drive racial inequity, and racial inequity persists regardless of family structure.” In short, the financial benefits of marriage are failing to close the racial mobility gap.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1967: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” So, considering factors such as personal rights, happiness, and disparate benefits to different people, the Facebook status of the relationship between marriage and economic mobility might just be: “It’s complicated.”

Violated Pathways: How Gender-Based & Intimate Partner Abuse Impede Mobility

One of my favorite aspects of our State of the South blog is how this medium provides MDC staff members the opportunity to think through new things we’re learning. This site is where we turn our curiosity to exploration, to analysis, and to asking difficult questions regarding how social, cultural, and economic factors influence the odds of upward economic mobility in the South. In light of our recent community work sessions discussing economic mobility across North Carolina with the John M. Belk Endowment, my “#NCMobilityMatters” radar is on high alert. I’m more attentive than before to the myriad issues and experiences that may keep N.C. residents, and people all across the South, from progressing from foundational education all the way to economic security with a living-wage job.

So when I attended a screening this past fall of the documentary Private Violence, which shines light on the alarming rate of intimate partner violence cases across North Carolina (as well as the barriers to prosecuting such cases), my “mobility radar” went off. I was struck by the enormity of intimate partner violence (which in some form affects one in three women and one in four men) and sexual violence (which affects one in five women and one in 71 men)—the frequency of these crimes and their overarching effects on every aspect of a victim’s life: their ability to take care of their own families, to seek mental and physical healthcare, to save money, and to pursue their educational and career aspirations. I came away from the documentary wanting to know more about how intimate partner violence and sexual violence deter those who are affected by it—most often women—from staying on their chosen path to success and security.

ipv

Source: National Coalition against Domestic Violence

 

Stalled Mobility for Victims

We often hear commentary regarding the long-term effects on perpetrators of being charged with intimate partner violence (also called “domestic abuse”) and gender-based violence. Being convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to time in prison can certainly have enduring effects for perpetrators; for victims, who are disproportionately female, the pain, violation, and trauma of abuse and assault can carry devastating, long-term consequences. When these gender-based and intimate partner violence crimes are perpetrated, the path to opportunity is interrupted for both victim and convicted perpetrator. (However, it should be noted that only one out of four arrested abusers is convicted, and less than half of gender-based violence crimes are reported.) Furthermore, the fear of reporting assault—and the resultant pain when reports fail to lead to just convictions—can compound the trauma that makes it difficult for victims to complete educational and career endeavors.

These crimes are not inevitable parts of our society—the abusive actions that cause interruptions in opportunity can be prevented, so that fewer perpetrators and victims are derailed from pursuit of economic security and rewarding employment. Below are just some examples of how intimate partner violence and gender-based violence impede paths to success for victims, who are disproportionately female:

Nearly 50 years of working to expand opportunity in the South has confirmed MDC’s analysis that clear and accessible pathways leading from education to employment to economic security are crucial for building a more equitable society. So it’s unsettling to see that gender-based violence often inhibits progression and retention along the path to an economically stable future, particularly for women. As Private Violence demonstrates, these forms of abuse are pervasive in North Carolina, presenting further barriers to opportunity where there already is significant stalled upward mobility for those born into the lowest income quintiles. Indeed, the percentage of women in poverty in the state of North Carolina has increased in the last 10 years, and the rate of women victimized by gender-based violence in North Carolina has risen above the national average.

Violence, Mobility, and Belonging

It makes sense that trauma associated with interpersonal violence would have such life-crippling effects. After all, how are you supposed to move along the path from education and training to employment to savings to civic participation if you are being routinely told—physically, verbally, and emotionally—that your body, your power, your dreams are threatened or in someone else’s control?

When we talk about opportunity at MDC, we talk about three particular dimensions that position people on the pathway to success: belonging, thriving, and contributing. We know that when we create a civic narrative in which there is room for everyone to belong, and bodies and lives that are routinely and systemically told they don’t matter are lifted up and reaffirmed as valuable, communities become altogether stronger from a wider sense of communal investment and engagement. But currently, the messages to victims of gender-based and intimate partner violence are shaming or silencing, rather than supportive. The influence of these messages can be seen in the educational attainment and economic security figures cited above.

In order to increase opportunity for both those at risk of being perpetrators and those at risk of being victims, we need more affirming and equity-based messages about power and gender in order to prevent gender-based violence from occurring in the first place. We need to embrace messages that value people over power, and we need to intentionally communicate these messages to our youngest community members. This can happen at home, in schools, in media and in the workplace (e.g. middle school anti-bullying programs or corporate decisions to eliminate outsourcing to sweatshops).  Those messages are a starting point for influencing policies and practices that view every human being worthy of traveling the path to economic security with safety and support.

Inequity by Design

There is an endless supply of game metaphors for daily life. If we aren’t happy with our circumstances, we may be told that we all have to “play with the cards we’re dealt.” When something unexpected happens, we’ve been “thrown a curve ball.” Senator Cory Booker once cautioned against acting “…like you hit a triple when you were born on third base” to remind us that factors beyond our individual effort often play a role in our success. Despite our tendency to frame games as a simulation of daily life, the metaphors don’t all hold up. While many focus on strategies to secure resources necessary for survival and eventually abundance, the parallel ends there. The extent to which strategies and resources are equally accessible to all “players” are, by design, drastically different in these two realms. Monopoly players start with $1,500 and video game characters come pre-programmed with relevant attributes and tools. In the U.S, people do not begin with the same resources at birth or upon entering adulthood (e.g., guaranteed basic income). Unlike the world of games and gaming, what we start with is quite variable, depending on where we’re born and to whom.

When the stakes are low and the consequences of “losing” don’t influence our long-term livelihoods, it is relatively easy to agree on “fairness.” The high stakes game of living life, on the other hand, is more complicated. If we want to ensure that people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute in our society and remain actively engaged in the “game,” it is imperative that we do the hard work required to make the game board—our systems and society—more equitable.

Game Equity by Design

Both video and board games are increasingly popular. A recent Pew Research poll shows that about 50 percent of both men and women report that they play video games and many believe they are useful beyond entertainment value. Sixty-four percent agree that video games help develop good problem solving skills and 47 percent agree that they promote teamwork and communication. Given their growing popularity it’s no surprise that game designers go to great lengths to ensure that games are fun, which includes creating the proper balance of difficulty, complexity, fair competition, and enjoyment. They recognize that we are more likely to play (and purchase) games when we have a fair shot at winning or if our wins can be attributed to one’s own skill and ingenuity rather than some other external advantage. This balancing process involves constantly reworking game mechanisms that are too weak, too powerful, or too complex. It can take months, or even years to get this right and comes at significant cost in time and money to game designers. These mechanisms are scrutinized in the online gaming world, often invoking loud critiques by players; you may see claims that some element of the game is “OP” (overpowered) or “imba” (imbalanced) if it far outweighs the benefits awarded by other elements. It is also common to see cries that some feature has been “nerfed” (weakened) or needs to be “buffed” (strengthened).

If you think of our social systems as the board game, the design flaws are glaring. The long history of slavery, segregation, and stalled mobility in the South make the stakes especially high for low-income families and people of color. Securing high quality, reliable sources of food, housing, family-sustaining work, and healthcare while navigating the complex system of rules that dictate the distribution of those resources is difficult. The rules are always changing and those with the fewest resources often have the least say in how the game is played. Black WWII veterans, for example, were awarded the GI Bill alongside their white counterparts and promised low-cost loans and funding for education and housing. However, opportunity-inhibiting policies and other government-sanctioned barriers to success at the time, including the lack of schools admitting black students and the redlining that constricted their ability to purchase homes with higher property values, prevented many black veterans from reaping the benefits of their effort.

Life is (not) all Fun and Games

Many American households devote a significant amount of time to games as a form of entertainment; it reveals both our intense desire for fairness (and competition) and the ways in which these feelings drive our motivations and behaviors. We’ve all played games with sore losers and, while it is unpleasant, most of us accept milder forms of this type of reaction as an unfortunate, but common, part of the game.

However, we expect better “sportsmanship” in daily life when the stakes are higher, the chances more uneven, and the rules more complicated. When communities with the fewest resources play by the rules and lose, many are surprised when they challenge the rules of the game. Even when it is done peacefully, the efforts of these groups are met with a narrative that largely calls them “poor sports” or sees this as evidence of their lack of patriotism or work ethic. This is where an understanding and empathetic approach is more productive. The ability to step back and give credence to an experience different from our own can go a long way in identifying cracks in our system. Implicit bias can influence who we see as “sore losers” in our system. If the dominant group has a different set of OP or imba advantages, it may seem that “nerfed” complaints from others are unjustified; if we return to the rule book, we might see something different.

Game designers have a vested interest in all of the players; given the degree to which daily life is more complex than gaming, we should expect that it would take at least as much time (and surely much more!), effort, money, and collaboration to ensure fairness and balance. Our institutions should be designed in a way that makes the rules of the game explicitly and publicly stated, starting places shouldn’t determine final scores, and systems should be regularly re-evaluated to ensure that we all have a fair shot at success. It’s difficult to play by the rules when there is not a level playing field. Without this presumption of balance in the game of life, people will walk away from the game and we all lose—because our systems are at their best when everyone has a seat at the table.

Changing the Narrative to Change the Odds: Improving Upward Economic Mobility in Fayetteville

We’re in a special season here at MDC: it’s the time of year when we select our new Autry Fellow, a recent college graduate who will spend one year learning from and contributing to MDC’s programs that help bring people and places closer to opportunity and success. As MDC staff members review applications each year, we keep in mind that an ideal Fellow brings to MDC a spirit of both reflection and hope: they critically examine systems that produce inequitable outcomes, but also firmly believe in the potential and strength of leaders and communities to make those systems better. Indeed, this determined mix of examination and encouragement is a crucial asset in any community working towards change. My colleagues and I saw this spirit first-hand when we discussed economic mobility with leaders in Fayetteville last month.

Our discussion with a cross-section of leaders in Fayetteville was the last in a series of community work sessions that MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment held throughout the state in 2016 to disseminate the report, North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity. In these sessions, representatives from MDC, the Endowment, and various sectors in each locality examined data related to economic mobility in North Carolina and discussed strategies for changing the odds for success, rather than merely helping individuals beating the odds.

FTCC BryantIn mid-December, we traveled to Fayetteville: a mid-sized city in the Sandhills of North Carolina with strong higher education institutions and a notable military population, thanks to the presence of Fort Bragg. As we learned from session participants, some of Fayetteville’s greatest strengths lie in community leaders’ ability to come together and speak honestly and reflect about community challenges. But, participants told us, all too often, a thorough examination of the issues leads to exhaustion and discouragement, distracting from the great work—often of national recognition—done by dedicated leaders in education, government, philanthropy, public service, and more.

But the leaders gathered at Fayetteville Technical Community College’s Horticulture Education Center that Tuesday afternoon collectively refuted the persistent whisper of discouragement. “There’s a lot to be proud of, and we need to tell our story more effectively,” Dr. Larry Keen, President of FTCC, told the group. Keen and others acknowledged the barriers that can keep people in Fayetteville stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder: competition for limited resources, a cradle-to-career continuum with room for increased collaboration, and difficulty getting new perspectives involved in planning and design. But they also acknowledged that they had significant work to build on and resources to tap, including what they shared during our afternoon session: a group of knowledgeable leaders, their honesty and self-reflection, and their determined belief in the potential of Fayetteville’s residents and institutions. And they were ready to put these strengths into action: “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Keen said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility to step in.”

Thank you, Fayetteville, for showing us at MDC what it looks like to have difficult conversations with compassion and integrity, without becoming discouraged or apathetic. Economic mobility requires having high expectations for what can be achieved—and those expectations are too often stolen by the hopelessness of poverty. With continued courageous conversations like this one, Fayetteville can begin changing the odds in their community.

A big thank-you to all the communities and leaders who spoke frankly with us this past year about the economic mobility opportunities and challenges in their communities. You can read here on the State of the South blog about our time in Western N.C., in the North Central Prosperity Zone, in Monroe, N.C. and Wilkes County, and in the Northeast and Southeast region.