The American Dream perpetuates the idea that we live in a society where one can easily work to create a remarkable, successful and sustainable life. Historically, this concept was communicated largely by the illustration that we are able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and rise above challenges without external help or input from others. Over time, especially given the reality of the social, political, and faith-based violence and civil unrest that has permeated the Western landscape since the days of colonialism, it has become clear that all people aren’t dreaming the same dream or living in the same nightmare. When we are suspicious of or penalize those who are not born into systems of privilege, the American Dream becomes unattainable for those who reside on the margins of society, and as a human race we become divided and further stratified. Here is what that looks like:
- Our laws are largely created to protect the interests of rich people and punish poor people.
- Women don’t yet earn equal pay as men or have the ability to determine what happens with their bodies.
- Schools in poorer communities can’t afford textbooks, adapted computers for kids with disabilities or nutritious lunches, and as a result, kids are funneled through the school to prison pipeline.
- States with long histories of segregation and measures to keep communities of color ignorant continue to breed generations of powerless people who don’t know the difference between ‘making money’ and ‘generating income’.
- People with mental illnesses aren’t able to navigate conversations and social interactions without accommodations and special considerations; therefore, there is the risk of them working in insensitive situations that may exacerbate such illnesses.
- There are very few churches, schools, salons, grocery stores, housing units and day care centers that are accessible to persons with physical disabilities so the ways they live and navigate the world are very limited.
Such disparities exist because so much of what we know and have was built on the premise that communities of color, and women, are objects to be owned, controlled, and manipulated for gain. And if you are someone with physical or psychological “differences” outside of the idealized norm and you can’t produce—or if what you produce isn’t beneficial to the people in power, you understand how marginalization persists.
Social stratification leaves little room for the personal empowerment of those who are marginalized because days, weeks, and months become consumed with finding strategies to overcome the multitude of obstacles that prevent or impede basic survival. All too often, the helpless remain hopeless and the broken are scattered and become addicted to coping. People who don’t have the same privileges, accesses and abilities as those who are able to thrive with little or no obstacles become conditioned to rely on these same stratified institutions to care for them because they lack the means, and in some cases the power, to care for themselves.
There are compassionate people in the world and philanthropic organizations that recognize that the playing field isn’t always leveled, and therefore, kindness and grace are extended through a multiplicity of empowering ways—allowing marginalized people an opportunity to acquire access to success in less traditional ways. When people with power and privilege recognize the ways in which their contributions can help or hinder the progress of the people around them, there presents itself an opportunity for empowering dialogue to take place that will inevitably create even greater pathways for all our communities to engage one another differently.
As a person who continues to walk in many worlds, I offer my experiences from the margins of society as examples of some of the ways that marginalized communities can be empowered to succeed in spite of difficult circumstances:
- As a poor kid growing up, my cousins and I dumpster-dived for food when we weren’t able to travel to the food pantry or purchase food from a grocery store. Between local businesses and neighbors, we had a variety of food to choose from that was largely pre-packaged and highly processed. Knowing how to grow and harvest your own food is something every kid should learn how to do in school; and if they are privileged enough to never need this information later in life, they can inform laws and public policies that show the importance for all people having access to nutritious food that is free from harmful chemicals and preservatives.
- Many people have opinions about the Walmart/Sam’s Club Corporation because of unfair wage practices and difficult working conditions. I too share some concern regarding companies that treat their employees like products and not people. There is one thing that Walmart has figured out that may lend itself as a beneficial practice for other corporations. By the end of my mother’s life—after suffering for nearly 45 years with mental and physical illnesses—Walmart was the only corporation that would hire her. When Walmart hired her, at just above $8 an hour, this income provided the means for my mother to afford the life insurance policy that saved our family a lot of financial hardship when she finally died. Hiring people for the skills they possess instead of overlooking them because of the skills they lack benefits all families; and earning a living wage benefits everyone.
- Because of a very active faith community and a multitude of extra-curricular opportunities, I was able to hone my leadership skills, pursue my dreams and further my education. When public service organizations invest in leadership that comes from or resides within the communities they serve, they are building bridges within these communities, allowing policies and programs to be informed by the people whose lives are directly impacted by them, and empowering those who are marginalized to gain transferable skills that can be used for the advancement of their community.
There is something devaluing about the “savior complex” that persists among some folks who insist upon knowing what’s best for people without considering unique circumstances; but when a kind soul says, “How can we work together so that we all might thrive”, there is an opportunity to plant seeds of empowerment that will bless current and future generations.
It’s easy to write things off as someone else’s problem; it’s easy to point fingers and blame or shame; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed; and it’s easy to get discouraged. As someone who continues to rise above social, personal and perceived obstacles in a world that didn’t intend on someone like me wanting or needing to thrive, throughout my life I’ve been blessed with teachers, church leaders, and friends who look at the world through lenses of opportunity and approach every transactional partnership as a deposit into the bank of universal compassion and human sustainability. There is power in community and so much is possible and can be achieved when we help each other dream big and find ways to thrive and succeed.
If you are looking for a way to further engage the issues presented in this post, or want to begin/continue dialogue about the ways in which our current systems can better benefit all members of our society, I invite you to watch this video and share it with others–> The Unequal Opportunity Race