Opportunity in America
“When you put yourself in other people’s shoes it changes hearts and minds. Everyone has to be in the circle. We have so much hatred in our country around each other, but all of us can choose to decide to redefine that.” That message of empathy from Gary Cunningham of Prosperity Now was a central point in a discussion of opportunity and inclusion around economic opportunity at the Aspen Institute on Friday.
The conversation, moderated by Tracy Jan of the Washington Post, also featured Gayatri Agnew of Walmart.org, and Betsy Biemann of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. and was part of day-long event focused on Opportunity in America. The event kicked off a larger conversation series about how opportunity is changing and how to bridge economic divides.
The panelists discussed a range of factors that impact opportunity including race, ethnicity, and geographical location. Cunningham emphasized his view that American society and culture need to “reframe how we talk about issues,” such as poverty and opportunity, emphasizing the need for empathy and compassion to better understand hardships that other people may be facing.
Biemann echoed this need for compassion as she shared a story about how Coastal Enterprises, Inc., which promotes opportunity in Maine and other rural regions, was able to help a Muslim refugee start her own business by providing business education and financial literacy assistance. “Without immigrants and refugees, our economy would be in worse shape,” Biemann said. Cunningham agreed, describing the current system’s inability to foster access to economic opportunity for marginalized and vulnerable communities. He called for finding ways to “disrupt the system as it is now because it will continue to produce unwanted results and isolate communities and segregate systems, unless we reengineer how our current operating system works.”
When asked what can be done to break down the barriers to economic opportunity, the panelists agreed that employers and community leaders are equally accountable for ensuring that they identify the current barriers and directly address them. Broadband access, childcare, transportation, and housing were among the challenges identified as key obstacles to opportunity for the American working class. Agnew also spoke to the importance of the minimum wage, explaining that Walmart’s CEO was among the first advocates for minimum wage increases.
The panel highlighted the role that all stakeholders have to play in creating equal opportunity, and the important role that business leaders need to play in these efforts. You can find out more about the other panels during the Aspen program and future events here.