Maybe With this blog I can reach beyond the Sunnyside School District in Tucson, Arizona to describe a new way to tell the story of my recent book, “A NEW AMERICAN FAMILY: A Love Story.”
I was invited by Taunya Villicana, co-founder of Affinity Financial Group, to speak to the Sunnyside Foundation, which raises private gifts to support public schools in a relatively impoverished school district. After I had agreed to do so, Taunya offered to buy fifteen of my books and offer them, suitably autographed by me, as gifts to the first fifteen people at the foundation breakfast meeting who contributed at least $100 to the foundation that day. After my talk, which is reproduced here, eighteen people lined up to make the requested contribution to the charitable cause and receive a book autographed to them personally. (I contributed to the foundation the three books that exceeded Taunya’s purchase.)
Taunya suggested afterward that we had invented a model that she may wish to use for her other charities, simultaneously raising funds for charity and putting more of my books into circulation to tell my family story. I think she’s on to something good.
SUNNYSIDE SCHOOL FOUNDATION TALK
October 14, 2011
Before we get down to the specific objectives of our meeting this morning, I want to try to put our work into a context defined by some fundamental changes that we are experiencing in America. Sometimes change comes slowly over a lifetime, so you have to stop and think about it in order to see it clearly. One of the benefits of being 75, as I am, is the perspective that comes from experiencing decades of change. I’m not a social scientist and I can’t describe all the changes in America with academically verified statistics, but I can tell you what trends I have seen and what I expect the future to hold for all of us.
I was born in California in 1936. My parents, high school sweethearts, married in the middle of the Great Depression, which makes our recent Great Recession look like child’s play. My father abandoned his family when I was 7, leaving my mother with four kids aged 8,7,2 and 1. We couldn’t pay the rent, so we were evicted from our home and ended up in a two-room, cold-water cabin that my grandparents owned in the redwood forests a few miles North of Santa Cruz, California.
My mother got a job as a sales clerk in a gift shop for $35 a week and we survived. There was no Medicaid in those days, no alimony and no reliable child support from my father, but we survived.
We attended public schools in Santa Cruz, a small town then with only one high school. I come before you today as President Emeritus of the University of Arizona because of those schools and because of the teachers, coaches, librarians and principals in those schools. That’s why I’m here today with the Sunnyside School Foundation, doing what I can to help find ways to keep public education in America strong, so that every kid has a chance to reach full potential.
When I got out of high school and college in the 1950’s, my education opened up golden opportunities for me, and I made the most of them. I didn’t give much thought then to the fact that in the America of the 1950’s such opportunities were available only to straight, white, Christian males like me, but many of us have fought hard for the past fifty years to open such opportunities to everyone. We were motivated initially by compassion and concern for the underprivileged, but in recent years it has become clear that we must make opportunities available to everyone for the sake of our country. America needs all the help our people can provide and we can’t afford to let talents languish from opportunity denied.
The straight, white, Christian males to whom such opportunities were available in the 1950’s were always less than half of the population, but that fraction is rapidly shrinking. Some of you in this room will live to see the day when what we now call “white” people in America will become just another minority. Long before that happens, however, the whole concept of minorities in America will have to change.
US Census data tell us that between 2000 and 2010 the most rapidly growing category of resident is “more than one race,” which category grew in this decade by 33%. Because the children of people of more than one race are automatically also of “more than one race,” and because in 2008 one in seven marriages in the US crossed racial and ethnic boundaries, and finally because it is becoming socially acceptable to acknowledge a multiracial heritage, I can guarantee you that the multiracial population in America will continue to expand rapidly, blurring the lines that Americans have historically drawn between and among the races. Rather than see Americans as a collection of separated islands of race, we will recognize Americans as a continuous distribution of the descendants of people from all over the earth.
In the 21st Century, all of America will become as diverse as the Sunnyside schools. This will be a new America and the students of the Sunnyside School District will be key citizens of that America. We must prepare them for that new world and make them understand that it is their world if they are prepared to lead it.
But they can’t be prepared unless the Sunnyside schools get them ready, both academically and psychologically. And we must do that in the face of another American trend that is just as powerful as the demographic changes I’ve been discussing.
For the past thirty years or so, Americans have been trying to shift social and financial responsibilities from the society as a whole to individuals on their own. This trend is reflected in education by the growing tendency to see education as a “private good,” to be paid for by individuals, rather than a “public good” to be paid for by taxpaying citizens. The result is better education for wealthy families and trouble for the poor.
The great political debates of the present and the past thirty years focus on the role of government in human affairs, importantly including education. As government support for education is withdrawn, private money is required for good teachers and good leaders in good schools. For families that cannot afford tuition, the only hope for salvation comes from private philanthropy.
I’ve been talking about two powerful and sustained trends in America: Our population is becoming more diverse and more interconnected racially; and We are demanding a shift of responsibilities from government to the private sector. When these trends unfold together, Americans will become more polarized socioeconomically even as we become less polarized racially. If, as is presently the case, nonwhite Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, and therefore socioeconomically disadvantaged in even much larger numbers that together comprise a majority, the potential for disaster becomes very real.
What can we do to keep America united and strong? One absolute requirement is the education of every kid to his or her full potential, without handicapping students of color or family poverty.
How can we meet this compelling need? In the longer term, the disturbing trend toward a nation of selfish individuals can be reversed by the decisions of voters in our democracy. The evidence suggests that this will not happen any time soon, however, and kids in grade school and high school cannot wait for democracy to work its magic. They need help right now.
People like you and me must step up and provide continuous funding for public schools. If you don’t do it as an act of compassion, do it as an act of patriotism. If we don’t do it right now, it won’t get done soon enough for today’s kids, and we will all be impoverished by our lack of resolve.