September 24, 2020
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5 lessons from community leaders on finding equity-driven solutions

How do we extend the American Dream to those who have been left out? Seven changemakers, including this year's Renewal Awards winners, discuss America's current state and what we can do to move the country forward.

Photo by Dyana Wing So/Unsplash

Does the idea of the “American Dream” exist in 2020? A global pandemic, rising economic inequality, and civil unrest have revealed existing—and worsening—cracks in its foundation.

At The Atlantic Festival this week, several changemakers gathered digitally to discuss the pillars of an evolving American Dream, from prosperity to justice, and the steps we have to take as a society for everyone to achieve it.

[Watch the full discussion: Reimagining the American Dream]

For this event, The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein sat down with Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gillian B. White, deputy editor of The Atlantic spoke with Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program based in Los Angeles. The session concluded with a roundtable discussion with the winners of the 2020 Renewal Awards. Representatives from each of the winning nonprofits discussed what they’ve learned from the work they do in communities across the country.

During all of these discussions a few recurring themes emerged.

It starts with saying hello.

In his 32 years of experience running Homeboy Industries and working with hundreds of volunteers, Father Greg Boyle shared one of the most important lessons he’s learned: “Unless we put each other in each other’s vicinity nothing really changes. We have to bump into each other and get into the vicinity of each other,” he said. “It’s not about reaching gang members, but it’s more about gang members reaching them.”

This simple idea of person-to-person communication is also what inspired Sloane Davidson to found Hello Neighbor, which connects recently resettled refugees with locals who can offer support in the Pittsburgh area. “Community starts with walking out your door and being willing to say ‘hello’ to someone new. That’s why ‘hello’ is literally in the name,” Davidson said. “One of the hardest things for a lot of people is just taking that first step.”

Connection is key to bridge the polarization divide.

The idea of connecting with different people might seem difficult. Several speakers discussed the the current climate of polarization in American society—but it’s nothing new.

“There have been divisions over issues of race around the civil war in the election of 1860. There have been challenges over whether the united states should be an urban nation or a rural nation around the election of 1928,” said Lonnie Bunch “So there have been moments when we’ve been bitterly divided. I think what’s happening though, is often during those divisions we had people who crossed boundaries who basically weren’t from simply one group versus another.”

“When I look back at history, protest is the highest form of patriotism. ... It helps us see ourselves through an accurate lens and forces us to be better.” — Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute

Audrey Henson, founder of College to Congress, is working on creating opportunities for young people to do just that. Her organization features a program called Bipartisan Allies, which aims to reduce division and boost cooperation across partisan lines. The program pairs young people interested in politics from differing backgrounds, but who create bonds over something non-political.

Protest is a powerful catalyst towards change.

As a historian, Lonnie Bunch, invoked the lessons of the past as the key to understanding our current moment. “When I look back at history, protest is the highest form of patriotism. … It allows and forces the country to live up to its ideals,” he said. “It helps us see ourselves through an accurate lens and forces us to be better.”

Father Boyle believes we’re seeing the powerful effects of the Black Lives Matter movement in action today. “The Black Lives Matter movement has deepened and awakened language and awareness that wasn’t there before,” Boyle said. “People are talking about equity-driven solutions and no one wants to return to the way it was before.”

It’s time to tear down systemic walls.

Protest is just one way of creating change. Seeing how difficult it is to navigate entrenched systems is what led Jodi Rosenbaum to found More than Words. The nonprofit provides on-the-job training and business skills for at-risk youth in the Boston area.

“The impetus wasn’t to run a nonprofit … the impetus was to knock down some walls,” Rosenbaum said. “I think the nonprofit sector can be really complicit in perpetuating a lot of the inequities we all think we’re trying to solve. We have to stop just trying to be a trampoline that gets people over the wall, but really get after the wall and start taking it down.”

It’s also important to understand how systems operate. Sean Goode, Executive Director of Choose 180, a nonprofit that works within the juvenile justice system to help young people find a new path, shared his own theory of how to create systemic change.

“Often we talk about systems as that wall, and it’s my conviction that that wall is a wall of people,” Goode said. “If we can get to a heart place where you’re approximate enough with the people, they can begin to change the way they see the folks who are impacted and begin to change the way they operate within those systems.”

We can’t lose hope.

During uncertain times, it can be easy to fall into despair. Bunch shared a conversation he had with Congressman John Lewis, where he learned an important lesson: “The key is to have hope, but have hope shaped by strategy to create action.”

Father Boyle found that the very thing causing a feeling of pessimism in many people—the COVID-19 pandemic—is actually a source of hope, and a catalyst for generosity. “I’m both hopeful and optimistic at the same time,” he said. “And I’ve never been both before.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.