Lessons in prosperity from Harlem

October 28, 2011
Author: Vicki Varela | sltrib.com

It’s 10 o’clock at night and I am weary from a long day in New York City. Can’t wait to get back to my room. But as I surface from the subway, my stomach turns. I took the wrong line, and I’m in the heart of Harlem. I don’t belong here.

That was 1978. Now 33 years later, I’m back in Harlem, walking past that same subway stop at 125th and Lenox. This time my arrival is deliberate. I’m safe and inspired. A contingent of Utahns is here under the leadership of United Way of Salt Lake. We are learning how Harlem is turning the community around. It’s about education.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is at the heart of Harlem’s long-term transformation. It’s built on a premise that education is the path out of poverty. The sponsors have built a public-private partnership that starts with a baby college for pregnant women and continues through college completion. If you’re in the Zone, the importance of education is in your face.

By changing the trajectory for thousands of children, the Harlem Children’s Zone is changing the larger community. Students are graduating from college. Many are coming home to Harlem to help the next generation.

Here in Utah, key business leaders are building our own movement: Prosperity 2020. It’s the largest coalition of business leaders and associations ever assembled to advance educational investment and innovation. Like the Harlem Children’s Zone, the premise is that education is the path to enduring prosperity. An educated population builds our economy, but equally important, our quality of life. Educated citizens vote and volunteer. They make life good for all of us.

Note some similarities between Harlem and Utah’s urban pockets. Harlem happened because of the great migration of African Americans from the South. They landed industrial jobs, but also faced generational discrimination that barred them from educational opportunities. The result: generational poverty, welfare and incarceration. Consider that the Harlem Children’s Zone spends $5,000 per child annually, while New York City spends more than $50,000 to incarcerate an inmate, and it’s easy to see that New York’s investment strategy needed to change.

Utah has growing ethnic populations — immigrants and refugees in search of a better life. In some Wasatch Front neighborhoods, ethnic populations outnumber Caucasians. But many don’t stand a chance. Utah students are packed into the most overcrowded classrooms in the nation, with the lowest expenditures per pupil. They don’t get the attention they need to learn reading and basic math. In higher education, we provide less aid to our most needy students than 48 other states. And we haven’t paid for higher education enrollment growth in many years.

Investing in at-risk students is about more than reducing risk. We are a nation of innovators. Innovation comes from diverse and well-educated teams working together — people who approach problems and opportunities differently. Look at the ethnic and academic diversity of Silicon Valley and you see that education plus diversity is the formula for innovation.

Is this about race? Racism? Absolutely not. The issue is lack of opportunity. The hard lesson of Harlem is that communities must give newcomers a better way to integrate, add their unique perspective and prosper. So here’s what Utah can learn from the Harlem Children’s Zone:

First, the public, private and nonprofit sectors and individual families must work together to get all children off to the right start. United Way of Salt Lake has the formula right. United Way invests more than $5 million every year in needy neighborhoods and creates strong partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and others. Their Community Learning Centers help whole families value education.

Government has a responsibility, too. Utah should expand the option of all-day kindergarten and invest in more teachers to develop basic literacy and math skills. More need-based tuition assistance and covering college enrollment growth are essential. These public policy initiatives get us started in the right direction.

This collective community impact can create change. Let’s create a path to success for all Utah families. Prosperity 2020: It starts with education.

Vicki Varela is helping organize the Prosperity 2020 movement. She works as a communications consultant.