California Dream Deferred
Over the past decade I fell in love in California, in more ways than one. I met my wife in Oakland ten years ago, and together we've made a home in the East Bay. But, I was made by the East Coast. It's my ancestral roots, the places I know by heart, and is home to the people I love most from my youth. Despite the pull of New York I'm not going back! The California Dream is just too special, and despite the current crisis of inequality, this great experiment in aspiration has captured my imagination.
When you are a New Yorker, you are taught that Manhattan is the center of the universe. On my own, I learned the fallacy of that narrative, the provincialism of that mindset when most of what makes New York interesting are the immigrants from across the world who come to America to make a better life for their children. My own family has our success story through our northern migration from Spanish Harlem, to the Bronx, to Westchester... classic American Dream. My Puerto Rican grandmother taught me to love this country, to work hard, and embrace the opportunities of this land. Which is why I have spent so much time fighting for another false narrative, the meritocracy at the heart of the American Dream!
In California, I found a land that writes its own rules, is even less beholden to the past than the rest of our young nation, and is the home of the most innovative aspects of our economy and society. It's sheer size and beauty are awe inspiring, and it has taught me an important lesson about legacy... dream big... be transformational... because if you don't think big enough people just don't have the time. This is the dream that animated New York City post-WWII, and is the legacy being carried out by Silicon Valley today. The ethos of the American Dream, which like it or not, is reshaping the landscape of the Bay Area and most other cosmopolitan regions of the world looking to drive innovation. And the positive side to this message is what, in addition to the love of my family, has kept me in California. The incredible agency and opportunity Silicon Valley represents, the hubris of thinking you can change the world with tech. That growth mindset, systems thinking approach, and entrepreneurial spirit are traits I admire, and hope to see more broadly shared. How do we disrupt Silicon Valley and make it more democratic? How do we increase access to capital, financial and social, so more low-income black and brown communities can launch businesses and create generational wealth? How do we make the California Dream, and therefore the American Dream, more real?
So as a transplanted Californian, in love with the spirit of the place, working to close opportunity gaps, it is difficult to see the incredible inequities of this state increase. Poor and working class folks, the middle class, are leaving the Bay Area for Stockton, Modesto and Antioch and joining the largest community of mega-commuters in the nation with 3 hour daily drives to work. Others have left the state all together, with over 1 million Californians relocating to Texas, although Denver, Portland, and even Idaho are attracting many others. It is the pull of affordability, not opportunity that is driving this exodus. And as Silicon Valley attracts talent from all over the world, highly skilled and resourced workers come to drive the innovation economy forward who have little interest in local communities they were not raised in, and can afford private housing and education choices that entrench inequality. There is so much buzz about Diversity & Inclusion, but no real business imperative to develop local talent pipelines and ensure we have a world class public education system.
The biggest challenge California faces is that it's success is too narrowly distributed, and the endless focus on innovation is too narrowly defined. Aggregating more and more terabytes of data from our smartphones in the cloud to predict and influence our consumption patterns is world changing, but not necessarily changing our world to be more inclusive and equitable. One out of four homeless people in America sleeps on California's streets, and I'm curious to see the demographic shifts in the Bay Area that come out from the 2020 census. We have large public school districts millions of dollars in debt in Oakland and West Contra Costa, and millions of teachers that will be asking for raises to keep up with inflation that budget constricted districts will be unable to afford. This, and we have the fires which remind us that all of this progress is worthless if we don't have a healthy planet.
This article was inspired by articles I have read over the past couple of years on California's dilemma...
California is Booming! Why are so many Californian's unhappy? by Connor Dougherty, NY Times, December 29, 1919
The housing crisis isn't just about affordability- it's about economic mobility too! by Patrick Sisson, Curbed, April 24, 2018
The people who move to California from other states and those who leave. by Carrie B. Reyes, ftJournal, December 27, 2017
I have spent most of my working life focused on education and college access. Only in the past 5 years did I truly open my eyes to the systemic nature of social mobility, and how the best of efforts in one sector alone cannot change the outcomes for communities looking to gain a piece of the American Dream. A great school in a segregated neighborhood and affordable housing without well paying jobs are not enough to make it in America. We have a real disconnect between our education system and workforce pathways, between our young people and the world of work that awaits them! It has inspired me to launch my own company, Working World LLC, to put my network to work in support of social impact. Our goal is to build the relationships, tell the story, and find the resources to make real social impact happen!
As we step into 2020 I hope to explore this journey and share my story alongside the champions aligned to this work. I hope we can all find a deeper purpose and reason to collaborate in the decade ahead.