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Opportunity Nation Remarks

Location: Unknown

Good afternoon. Thank you, Mark Edwards, for the important work you are doing, and for including me in today's conversation. I am honored to be with you.

We hear a lot during election seasons about American "exceptionalism." To me, what's exceptional is that we are the only Nation in human history not organized the way nations usually are: we're not organized around a common language or religion or even culture; but rather around a handful of civic ideals. And we have defined those ideals over time and through struggle as equality, opportunity and fair play. For this, more than anything else, I submit, we are the envy of the world.

Opportunity is central to the American Dream -- that notion that in this country you can imagine a better future for yourself and your family, and then reach for it. It's the Dream of pilgrims who came to the American wilderness in search of religious freedom; of immigrants who fled oppression in search of a chance to prosper; of your parents and grandparents who scraped and sacrificed so you wouldn't have to struggle as hard as they did.

It's my story, too.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the fifties and sixties, most of that time on welfare. I lived with my mother and sister, and various other relatives who came and went, in my grandparents' 2-bedroom tenement. My mother, sister and I shared one of those bedrooms and a set of bunk beds, so we'd rotate sleeping on the top bunk, the bottom bunk and the floor -- every third night on the floor. I went to big, broken, overcrowded, under-resourced, sometimes violent public schools. My guess is that the Opportunity Index for that neighborhood was in those days pretty low.

There were a lot of things we didn't have. But what we did have was a community. That was a time when every child was under the jurisdiction of every adult on the block. If you messed up in front of Mrs. Jones's house, she'd go upside your head as if you were hers -- and then call home, so you'd get it two times. There was a lot of emphasis on individual responsibility and hard work. But those adults also wanted us to understand that a community is about seeing your stake in your neighbors' dreams and struggles, as well your own.

I was influenced by my grandfather's work ethic; my mother's determination to get her GED, get off welfare and get a job; my grandmother's faith. I felt the high expectations from the old ladies in church and the teachers in our segregated schools. And though no one in my family had ever been to college when I graduated from Harvard in 1978, I know how lucky I was to be in a family where no one ever told me I couldn't.

All of that was vital for me then, just as it is for children from such neighborhoods today. But it was not enough.

When my family was broke, food stamps helped us eat. When my sister needed her teeth fixed, a subsidized dental program provided it. There were well-prepared, dedicated, fully engaged teachers, even in our dilapidated public school, who helped us imagine what it might be like to become a citizen of the world.

Individuals are responsible for the hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and mental and physical toughness necessary to excel. But a community helped me rise from the South Side of Chicago to law school, to the executive ranks of Fortune 500 corporations, and to the Massachusetts State House. And sometimes that community is called government.

I don't think that government can or should solve every problem in every person's life; but it does have a role to play in helping people help themselves. And I submit that we will never let opportunity flourish, especially for poor and marginalized children, until we stop trivializing the role of government and start focusing on what government can do and must do well. Government is just the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

This is actually not a new idea in America. Americans rarely leave what we believe is important entirely to chance. When we decided that settling the West was important, we created land grant programs and built the transcontinental railroad. When we decided that educating our children was important, we developed public schools and universities. When we decided that liberty for all was important, really important, we freed the slaves, gave women the right to vote, and sometimes even went to war. We tend to shape our own future rather than just let it happen to us. In each case, government helped create opportunity.

We built the greatest middle class in the history of the world in the second half of the Twentieth Century -- with hard work and ingenuity, as well as the GI Bill and the Interstate Highway System. A generation of Americans have lifted themselves out of poverty with the help of Pell Grants and government institutions like the University of Michigan or Florida A&M or Roxbury Community College.

My point is that a lot of current political rhetoric about government is self-defeating. It is hard to create more opportunity when many want to fundamentally undermine the tools that have successfully created opportunity in this country for centuries.

In Massachusetts, like everywhere else, we were hit hard by the global economic collapse. In state government, we cut programs and thousands of jobs. But even when the bottom was falling out of the rest of the state budget, we funded the schools at the highest levels in our history. We doubled the investment in infrastructure. We expanded our investment in innovation and research. (By the way, the Obama administration helped with each of these.) And because of these investments we are growing nearly twice as fast as the national growth rate, our innovation economy is on fire, and we are first in the nation in student achievement.

Why do this during a recession? Because if you really believe in creating opportunity, you don't tell a second grader she has to sit out the second grade until the recession is over. You don't tell someone with a great idea for a new, transformative company that those jobs can wait until the amorphous "market" feels like hiring again. It's silly to believe that government can do it all. But it's equally silly to limit the contribution government can make, and has always made, in building a stronger national or, in our case, state-wide community.

At the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, I told a story about the Orchard Gardens Elementary School in Boston. Thanks to an infusion of new ideas and tools, and a little new money, this once chronically underperforming school is in the midst of a profound transformation. In less than a year, proficiency measures at Orchard Gardens improved 70 percent. The school has gone from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state.

At the end of my visit a year and a half ago, the first grade -- led by a veteran teacher -- gathered to recite for me. After a short poem about multicultural tolerance, they recited much of the "I Have A Dream" speech. When I started to applaud, the teacher said, "not yet." Then she began to ask those 6- and 7-year olds questions: "What does "creed' mean?" "What does "nullification' mean?" "Where is Stone Mountain?" And as the hands shot up to answer her questions, I realized that she had taught the children not just to memorize but also to comprehend what they had recited.

There are some nowadays who tell us that those first-graders are on their own -- on their own to deal with their poverty; with ill-prepared young parents, maybe who speak English as a second language; with an under-resourced and all around depressed public school; with neighborhood crime and hopelessness; with no access to nutritious food and no place for their mom to cash a paycheck; with a job market that needs skills they don't have; with no way to pay for college.

But those Orchard Gardens kids should not be left on their own. If we are to be a national community, with common cause and common destiny, then we must see those children as our children, yours and mine; and among them are the future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, laborers, engineers and civic leaders we desperately need. For this country to rise, they must rise -- and we have a common stake in that.

We have a common stake in their equality so we make the schools work better for all children. We have a common stake in their opportunity, so we make ways for them to get the training and higher education they need to participate in and help shape the innovation economy of tomorrow. We have a common stake in assuring that the systems by which they are measured and held accountable are fair, that the playing field itself is level. We work for good government because good government makes these things possible. We do it because faith in the American Dream still defines what it means to be America.

The part I left out of the Orchards Gardens story when I told it at the Convention is this: This past February, twenty first-graders from Orchard Gardens arrived in Washington on what was for most of them their first flight on an airplane. They went to practice reciting the "I Have A Dream" speech one more time, this time under the towering monument honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall. Later that afternoon, they, along with their bashful principal, and their dynamic, loving teacher went to the White House to recite for the President of the United States.

Watching them run around the South Lawn, burning off nervous energy while they waited, or gawking at the unfamiliar splendor of the interiors, or asking where the bathroom is, or staring in bug-eyed disbelief when President Obama entered the Diplomatic Reception Room, they could have been any 6- or 7-year olds. And yet I am certain that they felt important that day simply because someone made them feel worthy. It was extraordinary that that someone was the president of the United States. But what matters most is that someone made them feel worthy. They could have been any 6- or 7-year-old; they should be every 6- or 7-year old.

The American Dream belongs to them, as much as to you and me. It's worth fighting for. It's worth investing in. And it's worth sharing responsibility for -- because it is still central to who we are.

Thank you.

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