K-12 Education

A “Preferential Option” for Young People

October 9, 2018  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield spoke at the 2018 Opportunity Youth Forum Opening Plenary on October 9, 2018 in Aspen, CO. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction, Jamiel, and for those powerful reflections on your leadership journey. And thank you, Bianca, for that incredible poetry performance.

I’d like to start with gratitude. Thank you to the fearless Steve Patrick and Monique Miles and their team for organizing this powerful convening. And it’s an honor to share the stage with Melody Barnes, whose commitment to justice and equity runs deep as a river.

I’m grateful to all of you—our partners—for convening here in Aspen. I hope that in addition to holding riveting conversations and renewing the sense of calling that leads you to this work, you’re enjoying the opportunity to think together and then to step out into these majestic wilds and take in the grandeur around us.

I loved the way that Bianca closed her poem with the line, “It’s so dark in here, / but when we do our job properly, / we will never be at a loss for light.”

And that leads me to share with you two stories and a few reflections—and then we’ll have time for a conversation.

The first story is from about six years ago. I was hosting 62 16-year-olds from low-income backgrounds on my campus at Franklin & Marshall College, where I served as president, for three weeks of college prep courses and enrichment. They came from South Texas and Central Pennsylvania, from South Central LA and Chicago, Illinois.

All were low-income, but they had many different interests and identities. It was exciting to see white and black, Latino and Asian, Native American, Christian and Muslim, urban and rural, LGBTQ, straight, and cisgender all together—in class, as roommates, and on campus. They fell in love with opportunity and with each other.

And then about two weeks into the program we hosted an outside speaker who wanted to draw out from the students deep and difficult ideas but we didn’t do enough prep work ahead of time, because we were all moving too fast. She did an exercise asking students to stand up if they were poor and then sit down; to stand up if they had ever been hurt and then sit down; to stand up if they had ever been beaten or abused and then sit down. This went on for a little longer. Then, she stopped and asked them how they felt. There was a moment of silence and then one girl started sobbing. And soon a boy erupted. And then two more did. And soon half the room were exploding in tears, moaning, weeping—in some cases they were absolutely inconsolable.

I was a witness to this. I watched the students who could hold and help the others. Some brought glasses of water. Some rubbed a back or whispered in one’s ear. In terms of identity, it didn’t matter who was what—everybody was reeling.

What you saw all across the room was the fractured base of security that so many young people have to cope with—and in this case, although our intentions were good, the means by which the facilitator tried to bring the students together had the effect of opening wounds we weren’t equipped to treat well in that setting.

As I say, I was a witness to that, and as a witness it’s my responsibility to try to prevent the circumstances that give rise to such agony and to offer the real resources that help repair trauma and tragedy so that young people can move forward. And I’ve seen that happen. Education can do that, as can counseling, and other riches that life has to offer, like family, a good job, or a safe community, or intimate love, or the chance to play a sport or build or sing or vote.

The vast majority of those 62 teenagers went on the college. I handed 10 of them their degrees from Franklin & Marshall, including Nadia Johnson, now teaching in Baltimore; Michelle Bailey, now advising rural college students in Central Pennsylvania; Andrea Martinez, now organizing a program that provides college opportunity to low-income students; and Brandon Smith and Muata Nkosi and Coleman Kline and Anthony Thomas, all holding their first fulltime jobs and doing great.

What’s in my eyesight when I see caring kids of every race and region holding each other’s hands and seeking together a place of peace—and then standing up and going to school to create that place not just for themselves, but for many?

I see vision. I see leadership. And, most of all, I see the future of America, right there, in the minds and lives and strides of our young people.

The future of America is young tribal leader working to expand employment opportunities in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

The future of America is a community college student in Austin, Texas preparing for a course in cybersecurity while raising her daughter.

And the future of America is high school student at a KIPP public charter school interning in Mayor Cantrell’s office in New Orleans.

Many people. Many talents. Many cultures. Many stories. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, it’s dangerous to think in terms of single stories when in fact our world is made of many.

By “the future of America,” I also mean the future leaders of America. The bridge builders. The workers, the makers, the wall breakers, the community creators.

Some people say we have other more pressing crises afflicting us right now—like climate change or political polarization or the way technology is disrupting how we work. They say that investments in the young is a “nice-to-have” not a “must-have.”

But, the simple fact of the matter is that every one of those problems requires young people educated, equipped, and empowered to act.

Climate change? Who else but young people is going to stop an impending global tragedy born of fatalism and denial?

The renewal of democracy? Who else but the young is going to teach their legislators how to respect one another and get things done?

Economic revitalization? Please. We’re facing the greatest mass migration in American history—the migration of the Baby Boomers born in the 40s and 50s into retirement. Guess who’s going to replace them in the workforce AND pay for their Medicare and Social Security… Young people.

But only if we can tape up our torn social contract and invest massively in those same young people’s education, professional development, and civic empowerment like we ought to. That’s the right thing to do and the smart thing to do—because right now the US is projected to have more jobs that require a college degree than young people prepared to fill them.

This is what the Aspen Institute is trying to do—mend the social contract.

We strive to be a transformational force for good in communities near and far; convening thinkers and leaders; bringing into contact the very best research and ideas; framing and helping to solve the great difficulties of the day; confronting challenges from which others turn away; investing in changemakers of every type and networks like yours; and always ensuring that questions of ethics and values and meaning have a prominent place in our conversations and our society.

We’re doing this globally and locally in partnership with young people and those trusted individuals in their lives trying to help them make safe passages into independent adulthood.

The Aspen Forum on Community Solutions and today’s Opportunity Youth Forum are absolutely critical to the Institute’s mission.

Your work is deeply important precisely because it’s built around the cultivation of the spirits and talents of the young. And as leaders and as institutions, I believe that we must—to borrow a phrase from 20th-century Catholic teaching on poverty—commit to a “preferential option” for young people—by which I mean, that we should think of the young first and not last; that we should invest more and not less in the talent of the young; that we should develop a youth agenda in research and public policy and system reform; and that we should muster all the political courage it takes to fix those problems today that will disrupt the lives of today’s young people tomorrow.

Again, some say we can’t afford to spend more national treasure on the young. I say we can’t afford not to.

Think of it this way.

Let’s imagine we’re all ranchers here in scenic Aspen, Colorado. What would we do when a little stand of Aspen trees—saplings—suddenly shoots up on the hillside behind our house?

Do we ignore it and let it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Do we chop it down and burn it so we can feel the power of having fire?

Do we uproot it saying, “Hey, we don’t like new trees like you. Go back where you came from?”

Or, fearing its spreading roots, do we lock it up in a dry, airless chamber with a full forest of other trees whose growth scares us, too?

I don’t think so. I think we invest in that beautiful life and give it good soil and sun, water, and shade. And we plant seeds around it. We give that single sapling a whole mountainside of friends—a community.

And then we have a hillside of Aspen trees, doing what these trees actually do—forming a vast interdependent root structure beneath the earth—an integrated, communal force—a collective power that keeps each individual tree upright and well-nourished and fortified ­­so that together they can better us all by stopping soil erosion and turning light into oxygen and giving birds a place to nest and inspiring those who take time to look with their inner-glowing Godlike beauty—which is one definition of youth.

And that’s how we at the Aspen Institute see the young. A vast, integrated, communal force in which we must invest.

A great society doesn’t ignore the hungry hearts of the young but instead organizes itself at all levels and communities to draw out the voices of the next generations coming up. We should create with the young together a society in which the young feel seen and heard and supported and empowered and welcomed and launched and respected.

The amazing thing, too, is that when we neglect the young, they go forward anyway and show us what they’ve got.

I’m thinking of many young people when I say this. But to drive the point home, let’s reflect on all those undocumented young people who have in the past six years raised their hands when asked who would be willing to give the American government documents showing that they were brought here five years ago or more as a child, commit to staying in school or working, and then give back to society through their labor and their taxes and their good citizenship.

Even though they were undocumented and perhaps had many reasons not to give the government this information, thousands of young people believed so much in America that they took this chance. 800,000, to be precise.

I know many young DACA recipients. There is no single story. They are from Africa, from Asia, from Central and South America, from Europe. The ones I know who have gone to my schools have earned top grades and led clubs and sent money home to their families. They’ve dealt with the fear of family being deported—perhaps deported to their deaths—and they’ve pushed forward despite the frustration of not being able to speak up against injustice because the risks are too great.

These are some of our greatest Americans. They’re family-loving, law-abiding, degree-attaining, job-holding, business-creating, English-speaking, tax-paying, patriotic new Americans who most legislators say they love while they let them languish in a legal no-man’s land because some other fix is always more important.

The DREAMers are exemplary, but they are also representative of the greatness all across our opportunity youth. It is critical that we see and support the young holistically, and that we who are older work in every way we can to be in partnership with them to create the futures they would like to have for themselves and for the society they will not just inherit, but build.

Which leads me to my second story, which is about a group of young people who inspired me this past summer. And it happened right here in Aspen, Colorado when the Aspen Institute convened a panel where young people spoke about gun violence. Two young women from Parkland, Florida and one young man from Chicago shared stories of how gunshots ripped holes in the bodies of loved ones right in front of them and ripped holes in their own souls as survivors. They were survivors first of violence and then secondly of apathy and cynicism and denial.

The young women from Parkland—Kayla Schaefer and Olivia Wesch—said that they doubted they would ever feel safe at school again. The young man from Chicago—Ke’Shon Newman—said that the only place he did feel safe was school because of the violence in on the streets.

It was powerful to hear young people who have experienced very different manifestations of gun access and gun violence reach for common ground and common cause that day. Each heard and validated the others’ experiences.

And yet the panel veered off into a disturbing direction for a surprising reason. You see, the moderator—a famous and older journalist—showed absolutely no empathy with his questions and comments. He kept asking these brave youth why they presumed to think, as mere teenagers, that their ideas would have any impact on gun policy in this country. I think he was trying to come off as fair-minded and tough, but to me, and many others, he just looked cold and cynical.

At the end of the discussion, however, we saw the antidote to the cynicism of an older generation. As the journalist was leaving the stage, three teenagers from rural Colorado ran up and hugged Kayla, Olivia, and Ke’Shon. There were tears in their eyes but smiles on their faces. You see, these teenagers had suffered in yet another way—losing five peers in their school over the prior 18 months to gun-enabled suicide.

Three groups of teens came together that night—rural, urban, and suburban. They shared their pain and their fears. Each was a survivor of trauma—and each chose to confront the trauma by giving voice to it and hopefully making something regenerative out of tragedies that harmed their hearts but not their goodness.

They said they wanted change. I say this: If those teenagers can have the courage to step forward and join hands…

…and if the DREAMers can have the courage to risk it all for education and opportunity…

…and if the 16-year-olds I told you about at the start of this speech can have the courage to hold each other across all the supposed divides of difference in hopes of a better day…

…and if so many of the talented young people in your communities can continue being what Dr. King called “drum majors for justice”…

…then, surely, we who are here and we who are older can do our part to face down the special interests and make the needs and interests of young people a preferential option in the center of our local and national conversations.

Thank you for listening.

And now it is my pleasure to welcome Melody Barnes, Shawnice Jackson, and Jamiel Alexander to the stage.