The American Dream–A Reboot Needed

IMG_0749Recently while spring cleaning, I sorted through some older TIME magazines and put one issue down, then picked it up again.  The 2012 TIME issue entitled, “The Making of America Issue: The History of the American Dream,” seemed to linger in my hands while riveting scenarios of the current deepening divides in American lifestyles, educational achievement, justice, economic realities, and dreams for improved lifestyles raced through my mind. The TIME article on the American Dream was written by Jon Meacham.

Before I venture forward, I should make it clear that my family, like many others, ascribes to an education leads to upward mobility version of the American Dream.  We believe that hard work, quality higher education, delayed gratification, spiritual grounding coupled with core values of honesty, personal integrity, compassion, and altruism pave the way for personal and familial well being.  Our American Dream also embraces peaceful existence with our global neighbors, whenever possible.  Like our parents, we have been known to live below our financial means, at times.  However, also like our parents, we seek to leave a legacy that will result in a better future for our children, grandchildren, and other people’s children.  We suspect that most American families shape the Dream to fit their past family experiences and future expectations.

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For the most part, like others, we are proud of our diligence, contributions as citizens, and we are honored to pass the legacy of hard work, higher education, and altruism on to our extended family, friends, and the students we have helped guide over numerous decades in higher education.   Yet, while we feel hopeful overall, and we are sometimes viewed as good examples of obtaining the American Dream, we know that there are multitudes of families who feel crushed and betrayed in their quests for the good life of the American Dream.

We often wonder if the implicit Dream core values of hard work, improved quality of life, accumulation of wealth, and steady progress for individuals, for families, and for the nation have morphed into a light speed, digitally enhanced 21st century notion of progress–the accumulation of goods.  We also question whether the numerous messages of a better, more consumer-oriented, Middle Class have become so commercialized that many Americans are left disillusioned? Is the commercialized American Dream a positive contribution to the global community?

So, with the magazine cradled in my hands, I sat on the floor, and I reread the article that sought to describe the economic and social complexities in which the vision of an American Dream emerged. I noted that the term American Dream was supposedly coined after the Great Depression in 1931 by popular historian James Truslow Adams in his book, The Epic of America.  Historian Adams discussed the ‘American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life of every rank’ as a great thought or concept that America had contributed to the world.  In brief, the Dream described an expectation of a steady improvement in the lives of everyday Americans, the lives of their children and grandchildren, and growth of the nation.

As usual, the devil is in the details. In some ways, you can argue that the concept of the American Dream for a better life is a beacon of hope which under girds many Americans and immigrants, as they endure economic hardships, an array of inequities, and conditions totally out of anyone’s control. Emerging out of the 1930’s Great Depression, it was probably crucial to rally the spirit and hearts of everyday Americans with a vision of hope for a better future.  Yet, from the beginning, there were contradictions and struggles in applying the intrinsic building blocks of the Dream.  At times, various groups perceived that their rights to the Dream were blocked and sought remedies in the Civil Rights Movement, Supreme Court decisions, the US Justice Department, the political system, public education, the workplace, and housing venues—to name a few.

Likewise, for most of the last decade,  times have been tough in America for most citizens.  Efforts to live the lifestyles that are seemingly promised by the Dream have been met with economic downturns, home foreclosures, downsizing at jobs, shrinking wages, and various gridlocks in state and federal governments.  Some American citizens are professing lack of confidence and hope in the roles of once venerable institutions (such as government and higher education) in supporting the American Dream.  Their uneasiness is further exasperated by data that reveal a steady unevenness of quality of life and well-being in American society for many citizens.

Yet, in some ways, we might have sabotaged ourselves in our quest for the Dream.  It probably does not help that we are bombarded constantly, by media and advertisements, with examples of how we are supposed to be pursuing the Dream.  Despite evidence to the contrary, ubiquitous images of people obtaining the Dream seem to suggest that disparities, struggling families, and foreclosure realities are/were only a blip in an otherwise society of beautiful, successful, technologically equipped, and content Americans citizens who are lining-up to purchase the latest must have product such as the newest cell phone, for instance.

Only when it is really hard to ignore the growing tensions and frustrations of some Americans in achieving some version of the Dream do we see some sort of news coverage of details gone awry (protests, workplace violence, toxic spills, riots, active shooters, and political gridlock).  No matter how beautiful the reporters are, many of us are still not really comforted.  Further, there is a growing disquiet among many Americans about the future prospects of their children, the value of a college degree, coupled with growing anxiety about retiring without enough money.  The economic recovery that has not quite trickled down to millions and millions of citizens is making it increasingly difficult for them to pursue their American Dreams.  Similar to the years after the Great Depression, Americans seem to need a Dream, that is supported appropriately, that helps them maintain hope, security, and economic stability.

So, what do we do?  Some of us think it is time to reboot the American Dream by strengthening the pillars (institutions, policies, and living work wages) that support the core values of upward mobility, personal progress, and national progress. Certainly rebooting the American Dream would encompass policies that support families; affordable higher education; higher wage jobs; opportunities for continuing education; improved achievement in K-16 education; and fairly applied justice for all.  The 21st century American Dream also seems to require broadened perspectives of racial understanding, tolerance of differences, sustainability practices, knowledge of global complexities, and an awareness of the benefits and pitfalls of a consumer driven society.  Possibly, if citizens focused less on acquiring expensive possessions, without appropriate monetary resources, they would enjoy a better sense of overall well-being (and less debt).  For example–what would happen if more discretionary income was invested in future leaders, innovative projects, and/or scholarships for students?

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The American Dream for the 21st century would probably also benefit from taking into consideration the access to different windows of the world allowed by the Internet and alternative news networks. America, as much as we love it, is not viewed as the center of the world by everyone.  A more complex, interdependent view of the world would help Americans make more knowledgeable political and social decisions.

The American Dream can once again, become a beacon of hope, but it needs to be rebooted for the technologically enhanced, and globally connected world of the 21st century!  The reboot might start as close as possibly to the family unit and gradually include global communities. Meacham, Jon. “Keeping the Dream Alive,” TIME, Vol. 180, No. I, 2012.

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Commencing for a Better America

commencement2013_729_293_725_291_720_289_710_285 It has been a tough year in many places in America–from the weather, political histrionics, financial losses, civil unrest, and tragic deaths.  We have been throttled by tornadoes, snowstorms, flooding, searing heat, droughts, and icy roads.  Political gridlocks have left us less than optimistic about the effectiveness of our government to improve the quality of life and potential of Americans and future generations.

Yet, as we enter commencement season at thousands of higher education institutions around the nation, there is a sense of cautious hope for our collective American futures.  As my husband and I, together with other family members, prepare to travel to Vermont, which is apparently just beginning to thaw out from the distinction of accumulating the most snowfall in 2015 in the Continental US, for our daughter’s commencement from Law School, we will be joining a small, but significant number of families who will be traveling to also applaud accomplishments of children, grandchildren, and relatives.  Like the other families who will gather to witness these commencements, we will share a sense of pride, relief, and optimism about the contributions these graduates can make to positive social action, to more effective governments, to numerous industries and agencies, and to global communities.

Even though I have attended more higher education commencements than I care to admit, I remember mostly the commencements of Winston-Salem State University and Cheyney University.  While the speakers and acknowledgements of my own commencements and those of my siblings have faded from my memory, the looks of elation, hope, and jubilation of the graduates of these two institutions seem to be permanently etched in my brain and my heart.IMG_0480

As I walked down the aisle with Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. at one commencement at Cheyney University, I watched the beaming faces of the families of those in attendance.  With a little over 250 students graduating, there were over 3,000 parents, family, friends, and well-wishers cheering the graduates on to commencing a new life of opportunities.  These family members filled the Historic Quad of Cheyney University and celebrated with the exuberance and intensity seen at joyful family reunions.

As the Honorable Reverend Jesse Jackson walked in the commencement ceremonial march, parents, family members, and significant others thanked him for participating in this significant event in the lives of their loved ones. And, of course, Reverend Jesse Jackson did not disappoint in his graduation address.  Moreover, as an added bonus, actor and musician Terrence Howard also participated in the same commencement activities and gave remarks, much to the positive approval of the graduating students and their guests.

This and other such commencements warmed my heart.  I understood the sacrifices of money and the hopes for a better life tied to these graduates.  My husband and I carry similar hopes and dreams for our daughter, but our sacrifices pale in comparison to those made by first generation parents and families.  We believe our daughter’s and significant numbers of other proud graduates’ accomplishments will prepare them to commence or begin to make the world a better place for us all–and it does not get much better than that in America!

So, to all who are graduating, Congratulations on your impressive accomplishments!

Graduates, we need your innovations, your contributions to global sustainability, your fresh insights, team work, and new ideas to strengthen America!

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April Showers Bring May Flowers and Hopefully Needed Clean Water for Global Neighbors

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A good spring rain shower waters the trees, boosts water in lakes, cleans the streets, and sometimes soothes the spirit.  In fact, in many places, spring is one of the most beautiful times of the year, as we behold flowers opening, lawns greening, and the  beauty of the Earth unfolding.  As a kid, on the rainy spring days, I remember being reminded by my parents not to frown on rainy days because, yes, “rain showers bring May flowers.”  This statement was usually followed by “we need the rain!”  Without a doubt, water is one of the most basic necessities for life on our shared planet.
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Even though most of us know the significance of rain and the need for water to sustain our lives, many of us still view rain as a gift from the sky that will keep on giving.   Awareness of the need to sustain this valuable resource often only correlates with drastic climatic or pollution conditions that force us to plan and change our behavior to maintain sustainability.  Some environmentalists affirm that we are using water much faster than it is replenished. Other scientists have sounded alarms that global warming is producing profound changes in water availability, quality, and access. Thus, it is not a surprise that in some places in the United States a rainy day is a much appreciated day!  Like with many other limited resources, some states and municipalities are planning ahead strategically to maintain vital water resources.
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 As the USDA drought monitor map illustrates, there are states experiencing significant drought conditions in America.  Some western states with desert climates such as California are already engaged in a debate about the future of protecting water supply. Thus, not surprisingly, there are significant portions of America that employ water strategists and consultants to ensure that there will be adequate water for the citizens in the region.  According to some researchers, it is unclear whether droughts in some of the western states and adjacent areas are a new phenomenon or part of a cyclical rotation. Yet, issues regarding clean water possessions have social and economic effects for all of us.   Some urban planners project that protracted droughts in some parts of the US can lead to economic imbalances, as companies elect to locate in more verdant states.
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As my daughter, a fledgling environmentalist, recently reminded us, there is a great deal of drought in our global community that is literally a matter of life or death.  Even with the scarcity of water and drought protocols, many of us in America take clean water for granted.  We are usually only inconvenienced by monitoring our consumption and employing our sprinkler system on alternative days.  Yet, even with these practices, we function with limited knowledge about how the lives of our neighbors around the world are affected by lack of clean water.  Maybe if we knew more, we would engage in broader positive social action about managing water better among the Earth’s global citizens.
Most of us know that drought conditions can be linked to quality of life in many global communities.  The Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation monitors drought conditions in various global communities and supports drought relief efforts and water sanitation services through generous donations.  According to their Foundation website, drought can be devastating, resulting in barren fields, malnourished families, and starvation for millions of global citizens.  Likewise, the lack of clean water kills. The website charitywater.org states that:

“Diseases from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Children are especially vulnerable, as their bodies aren’t strong enough to fight diarrhea, dysentery and other illnesses.”

So what does this mean for most of us?  As we calibrate our sprinkler systems, and pause to admire our flowers and green lawns, let us be cognizant that for some of our neighbors, even though some may be far away–water is a matter of life and death.  Sustaining our natural resources is one of the most important efforts we can engage in to sustain global communities and the well-being of future generations. I have been convinced that access to clean water is a social and environmental justice issue.  Helping global neighbors attain an improved standard of living might be viewed as a form of effective diplomacy.

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 www.gatesfoundation.org

http://munchies.vice.com/articles/some-california-rice-farmers-would-rather-sell-water-than-plant-crops

 http://www.wired.com/2015/03/californias-run-water-act-now/

http://www.appalmad.org/slider/west-virginias-streams-are-in-trouble

Women’s History Month- Celebrating Our Leadership Talent Pool

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Women’s History Month presents an opportunity to reflect on (her)stories–nationally and globally. First of all, we have been fortunate in America to move towards a more enlightened and holistic sense of humanity because of the emergence of incomparable, iconic, and some internationally renowned women. Regardless of your current paradigm of what leaders should do to inspire and effect needed stability or change, it is easy to discern that there is something magnificently different, inspiring, courageous, and enthralling about extraordinary women who have risen to prominence in America.

As I reflect, it is hard to identify how a combination of intellect, authenticity, courage, charisma, personal backgrounds, and public appearance coalesces into women leaders who are fascinating and uplifting to watch. Nonetheless, there are, and have been, women visionaries who compel us to envision a better self and better world.  Each of us probably has a list of unforgettable women who helped shape our lives. And yes, there have been many men such as fathers, brothers, teachers, mentors who also helped shape and mentor us.  However,  this month we tell her stories.

Many of the women who have affected our lives seem to have had the courage to push past cultural expectations; to lead with their hearts and to engage the hearts of others; to employ their intellects to encourage intellectual development of generations; to broaden circles of interest about significant public issues to influence public policy; and to illustrate a grace under pressure that we can only applaud. As we think of, and pay homage to, these extraordinary women who accomplished the unexpected and possibly unthinkable while making it look easy, we also have to acknowledge that there are countless women who are not discoverable in historical accounts. For many of us, these women are unknown and obscure; yet, we are better humans because they were here. Thus, we should pay homage to all of them!

Recently, I began thinking about some of the women who helped me develop a broader view of leadership in higher education, to understand leadership from a woman’s perspective, and to embrace needed personal transformations and realities. Thus, I personally thank some authentic and incomparable women such as: the first African-American woman principal, former slave, and pioneering educator Fanny Jackson Coppin; activist and civil-rights leader Coretta Scott King; award-winning author, poet, and indomitable spirit Maya Angelou; Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize novelist Toni Morrison; anthropologist, museum director, and sister president Johnnetta B. Cole; higher education leader, President Molly Broad; Hall of Fame Coach C. Vivian Stringer; higher education educator, author, mentor, and former college president Gretchen Bataille; educator, former mentor, and former college president Bernice Miller; actress, singer, and late entertainer extraordinaire Pearl Bailey; selfless and inspirational Catholic school nuns; and of course, my late hardworking, nurse caregiver, supportive, and Southern mom, Dolores Batiste Howard.  These women with their ranges of perspectives and experiences have furnished a broad and diverse legacy from whence I have benefited.

When thinking of the contributions of these, and so many other women, it is easy to imagine that there is an expanded talent pool to elect a woman President of the United States with characteristics of some of our extraordinary American women. Of course, like many Americans, I want the most qualified,  future-oriented, and politically adept person to lead America. So maybe the time has come to broaden our pool of consideration to include some of those extraordinary women leaders of which America appears to have an abundance. A cursory glance of recorded history demonstrates that other countries have capitalized on the skills of women for national leadership roles. Although there are fewer Internet records of the lives or leadership characteristics of Queen Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.); Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533-1603); Prime Minister Golda Meir; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, their feats as leaders have inspired and broken the perceived glass ceiling for generations of women around the world.

Women’s History Month is a good time to engage in positive actions that support women in our institutions of higher education, businesses, and communities so that we will broaden our pool of talent for potentially great, world leaders!

Let Us Give Our Families the Gift of Tolerance For The Holiday Season

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Happy Holidays!
We say that phrase often during this time of the year.

Many of us attend, with our families, churches, synagogues, mosques, and other “places of worship” during the Holiday Season. Visiting these places of worship is a good thing, I guess–if it is more than a ritual or another box to check because we have been told we are supposed to do such.

Holiday Season 2014, many of us notice an undeniable undercurrent of unrest and intolerance in America, and other places of the world. Peace and civil discourse seem to be eroding, and some citizens believe they must take to the streets to be heard, acknowledged, and understood. Whether we are watching protests marches, vitriolic political campaigns, the frenzy over Ebola, viewing violent acts around the world, or interacting with persons in our community–one thing is sure–we need the gift of understanding and tolerance in our communities, cities, in America, and in many places in the world.

Like most fundamental orientations, the gift of tolerance probably begins in the smaller units of “family worlds”–in the conversations that parents have with their children and the examples they set when interacting with people who seem to be different from them.

From my perspective, there are at least a few basic essentials needed for giving the lifelong gift of tolerance that can be taught in our family worlds:

• Expanding the family’s knowledge base about other people, their lives, opinions and ethnic origins, by viewing them from numerous and historical perspectives. Do not assume….

•Treating other individuals and families as we would like others to treat us and our families (almost all organized religions profess this ethic of reciprocity).

•Gathering facts, from different perspectives, and discussing them in our families before rushing to generalizations or judgments.

So, Happy Holidays and spread the gift of tolerance in our families this season and into 2015. Such a gift will improve the well-being of all Americans, and it will be the gift that keeps on giving!

Most Americans Want Some Portion of the American Dream

While the holiday marketing anIMG_0027d promotional blitz seem to go on beyond even normal tolerance for mass marketing of things needed for “the good life,” underlying tensions in American society appear to be distracting from the Holiday Season. While most of us believe we, and possibly our families, deserve some portion of the American Dream because we have worked for it, earned it, or paid for it in some matter, our attainment, or maybe our enjoyment, of the dream appears to be interrelated with the perceptions others have about the trajectories of their lives.

Yes, even if we deserve to earn more, have more, and live better than others, we can observe from the events of the 1960’s through the Ferguson conflict and beyond, that well-earned rewards are themselves tenuously connected to the overall perceptions others also harbor about their access to well-being, justice, and equity.

I certainly do not have any answers, and I believe in working hard to attain a good life for my family and future generations. Yet, I cannot help but notice that there is more crime in some communities than others, and there are income disparities and educational achievement gaps. There are many assumptions why the aforementioned exists including that it is the natural hierarchy of things. However, I do wonder how wide hierarchical differences can be in the overall society and in specific communities before they begin to threaten our overall sense of well-being in America? Is there a tipping point when pockets of crime, disparities, and education gone awry begin to unravel significant portions of our communities? I certainly do not know. However, we can note that there are already cities that industries avoid, communities where unemployment is stagnant, and communities where youth are filled with an overall sense of dread and hopelessness.

Possibly this Holiday Season is a good time to think about what changes we need to discuss or pursue in 2015.

Happy Holidays!