For most of us, we take for granted where we grew up and don’t think twice about the impact it had on our economic outcome in life. We often think about it as a luxury but that “in the land of opportunity,” it doesn’t shape our ability to be successful. But that’s not at all what the evidence tells us.
The evidence is clear: when it comes to the probability of a child achieving economic success, neighborhoods deeply matter.
Neighborhoods are either ones of opportunity or vulnerability. They create the foundation for a child to succeed or struggle. In neighborhoods of vulnerability, there is often a lack of basic assets like safe, quality public spaces, access to quality foods, child enrichment experiences and, most importantly, access to social and financial capital.
It is these conditions that create the cause for a plethora of programs and services designed to address the needs of those in these circumstances.
However, until we invest collectively in neighborhoods, we will continue to need programs and services to address the symptoms these neighborhoods cause — symptoms like struggling schools, shortened life expectancy, low economic mobility, and slow economic development.
What would happen if we collectively, as a city, looked at the state of our neighborhoods and began to not just provide programs and services, but to invest in them and, specifically, its people, to eliminate the causes of these programs and services to begin with?
The results could be profound. We are seeing it happen already in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood. Through a resident-driven plan, collective focus and investments have been made over the past decade that are well on their way to creating a neighborhood of opportunity where growth is showing evidence of inclusion of its people.
What we need are for public and private entities, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and stakeholders to come alongside vulnerable neighborhood residents to create, with their leadership, the same thing most of us have, a neighborhood of opportunity.
It is possible, but we have to work together. Nonprofits have to stop thinking about just advancing their own programs but how their programs are part of a greater strategy.
Businesses have to stop thinking about their resources and desire to do good in siloed ways while lamenting that the need never ends.
Foundations need to come alongside communities and help them to advance their dream of opportunity for generations to come instead of just on the immediate needs or siloed projects.
Public schools need to understand that their outcomes will only improve and be sustained at the rate of the communities in which they are located.
I want my kids to grow up in a neighborhood of opportunity. So does every parent, regardless of their income. We have the resources to make this a reality.
We need to focus, work together and put neighborhoods and their residents at the front. Our city and, most importantly, its kids will be better off as a result.
Kirk Wester is a licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor and executive director of Growing Together, a community partnership designed to bring organizations and residents together for solutions that provide safe and supportive neighborhoods and schools.