Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Accident(s) of Birth: Opportunity Knocks

“You’ve got the world by the strings, kid. Just don’t blow it.”

-- Advice from a Caddy, Myopia Hunt Club, c. 2000

Last week, Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung wrote a terrific column on the need to engage white men in ongoing efforts to make a more inclusive, more opportunistic society—in Boston and across the country. Leung quotes Colette Phillips, President and CEO of Colette Phillips Communications, Inc. (a Boston-based public relations and marketing communications firm), who stated, “In Boston, we need to create a new normal — white men at the table. You can’t talk about inclusion and exclude.”

Phillips’ incisive and earnest sentiment is all-too-often absent from discussions about a wide variety of issues—from reproductive justice (viewed as a “woman’s” concern, rather than a central element of public health for all) to corrections/policing policy (where elected officials often seek to curry favor in communities of color, but do little to engage white voters on the same issues).

This absence is particularly notable since political parties often speak about the need to embrace a “big tent” theory of coalition politics that bridges the divide between many segments to achieve a governing consensus. Neither party has done a particularly good job at this in recent years—as both Republican Tea Partiers and Democratic purists have imposed strict litmus tests on candidates, hollowing out the middle of the American political spectrum in the process.

There is plenty more to say on that subject in later posts. However, today I want to focus on a central idea raised by Leung’s column: how people privileged by the accident of birth should approach (and use) that privilege.

A Road to Opportunity
Myopia Hunt Club, Bay Road, South Hamilton, Mass.
I’m one of those privileged souls—a paradigmatic example of a beneficiary of centuries of prejudice. Some of the factors are immediately obvious to anyone who sees me. I’m White. I’m male. I’m rich. I’m healthy.

Other factors secured to no credit of my own aren’t apparent on the surface, but also form a basis for my privileged position. I’m an American Citizen. I’m heterosexual. I grew up in a two-parent/two-income household. I had a network of people who looked out for me as I was growing up (teachers, Little League coaches, fellow congregants at the First Church of Wenham, the parents of close friends, etc.).

The caddy who offered me advice at the age of 16 was not so blessed. He grew up poor, in a single-parent home in Peabody. His mature approach to offering counsel to his naive co-caddy was evident, both from his willingness to cop to mistakes he made along the way and his steadfast effort to make sure that I didn’t let the riches that I had inherited go to my head. More importantly, by characterizing my position as one in which I had “the world by the strings,” he made it abundantly clear that the world would judge me less by the opportunities provided by Grace, and more by what I chose to do with those opportunities.

Taking advantage of opportunities is, to some degree, a straightforward proposition. Work hard. Pay attention and adhere steadfastly to First Principles. Devote your professional life to your most cherished values.

The harder part is resisting the urge to judge others by the opportunities they have/don’t have. It is telling that the Ten Commandments include a directive not to covet what others have, but do not include a similar, more affirmative edict to do your best with what you’ve been given. Whether it’s “real estate envy” in New York or jealously about the personal or professional lives of friends or colleagues that always seem one step ahead of ours, the human inclination to worry about what we lack, rather than revel in what we have, threatens our ability to seize on opportunities as they arise and undermines our capacity to work with people to solve collective problems.

In the end, no matter what your race, class, sex, or creed, we all bear the burden of not “blowing it”—of seizing on the opportunities that come our way to better the lives of our fellow citizens.

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