Equality of Opportunity Lies in Community

Lately, I find myself attempting to answer a question that my AP Government and Politics teacher opened a class with in my senior year of high school: does equality of opportunity exist in the United States? Back then, I was the poor soul who argued yes, indeed, there is equality of opportunity. This brilliant teacher quickly shot me down pointing to the inequality of access to fundamentally important services, among other things.

I am constantly reminded of that question, and it may be that I am naïvely looking for confirmation that equality of opportunity is real and that it exists even today, when there is so much inequality. Now, more than ever, I believe there is a sufficient answer that confirms its reality.

I recently had a chance to meet a young professional woman who has done wonderfully well for herself. But, when I asked where she was from, she was hesitant and, it seemed, ashamed.

She hailed from a rough inner city area. From the very start of her life in this world, she was met with the dogged adversity and tribulations of an inner city childhood. Yet, somehow she moved onto a top university and cultivated a career at a top firm. What is there to be ashamed of? She made it. She created opportunity where, to be quite frank, it typically doesn’t exist.

And that’s when it hit me and I instantly thought, “There is no way my high school teacher could possibly rebut me now.” We may not be equal and we may never be equal when it comes to income and access to certain services. As unfortunate as that sounds, that is the nature of capitalism and our democracy. But that does not limit our equality of opportunity.

We are all born into communities that differ greatly on basic traits like socioeconomic variables and access to goods and services. Yet, within each of these communities there are people who profoundly shape our lives: family, friends, community leaders and so forth. In this shared experience, we find ourselves wanting to do better, hungry to push ourselves further than those around us. It is that fire, ignited by our place in our communities, which drives our desire to create opportunity for ourselves and move beyond. In this vein, we must be proud of our communities, no matter the pains that persist within each.

It is within these communities that equality of opportunity exists. The chance to engineer opportunity, driven by the influences of our respective communities, forms the bedrock of equality of opportunity. We are the creators of our own destiny, regardless of the obstacles and institutional adversity in our way. That is how that young woman finds herself in a top-tier career despite experiencing an undoubtedly difficult childhood in an impoverished community. That is how I find myself, as a deaf individual, graduating from Colgate University and carving a path of my own. If only I could travel back in time and waltz into that high school class confident in the answer that equality of opportunity indeed exists, if we choose to make it so.