I’m about to travel back in time; not simply because I’ve already gained one hour due to daylight-savings and also moved from Eastern to Central time….
You see, I’m sitting in the Memphis International Airport, finally having a chance to reflect on my experiences over the past few days at the Opportunity Nation Summit in New York City. Opportunity Nation is the campaign to restore the American Dream of social mobility and economic equality for all Americans. To achieve this lofty mission, Opportunity Nation brings together leading organizations and individuals across the private and public sectors to work together to fight for a better America. I had an amazing time at the summit; from engaging with ambitious ideas to combat income inequality and networking with like-minded scholars over delicious soul food, to catching up with former colleagues from ServiceNation, and even having the opportunity to meet Wendy Kopp, the Founder and CEO of Teach For America. It truly was an amazing experience!
I could and will go into greater detail about the summit in a later post, but I’m currently preoccupied by one question: “Now what?”
I’m an hour away from boarding a small plane back to the Mississippi Delta. According to Opportunity Nation’s novel Opportunity Index, the state of Mississippi ranked 50th based on indicators of economic development, educational quality, and civic life. As I listened intently at the summit, I heard a lot of reasons for optimism for many areas in the country: New York City, California, Houston, New Orleans, even Detroit; and yet, I had to pause to ponder, “what hope is there for the Mississippi Delta? Where’s my source of optimism?” What reason do I have to return to the classroom on Monday griming full of energy and optimistic for the opportunities that lie ahead for my 120 students? Apparently, this is a good question rivaled perhaps only by whether neutrinos can actually travel faster than the speed of light and therefore back in time.
Well, I may not be a neutrino, but I feel like I’m going back in time as I return to rural Mississippi from New York City. No sooner had I tweeted that I was about to fly to the land of opportunity than I learned that we were to be delayed due to a lack of fuel. As a ten-minute wait became twenty minutes… thirty minutes… forty minutes… I was viscerally angered. Yes, I was irritated that I’d miss my connecting flight and get into New York City five hours later than planned, but that was minor compared to what the situation symbolized: a lack of opportunity. A dream deferred. You forget to put enough fuel in the plane, then you put it in the wrong spot; Delta problems in the Delta.
Having grown up in a rural community, smaller even than the community I currently live and work in, I refuse to give up on rural Mississippi. At the same time, I have little interest in being a martyr who fights a losing battle in the struggle for greater socio-economic equity and for improved educational achievement. I especially don’t want to fight this battle if the state is actively fighting against me. I’m reading “A People’s History of Poverty in America” and the cruel injustices Mississippi has enacted over time are appalling. When my students ask me why I came to work in a “trap hole” my mindset has never been that of a self-appointed “savior” who lifts students out of poverty. I believe in the untapped power of their own communities to turn things around and achieve greater outcomes; this power has to come from within.
In a sense, I’m privileged because I have the option to leave. Wendy Kopp suggests I am the change I want to see, but I’m just one person. We can consider why corps members flock elsewhere after two years, but we already know the answer. How, if at all, can we bring more opportunities to the Delta rather than contribute to an opportunity drain out of the Delta?
I am open to suggestions.