The Assumption of Greatness

I have spent a lot of this year thinking about the concept of equity.  It has been my observation that too often, disenfranchised groups internalize a limiting narrative and a sense of “less than” rather than one of possibility and optimism.

Changing that narrative is both a public and personal imperative.  In the simplest terms, when you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices success seems within reach . . .and positive action follows.  When people believe in themselves they usually act!

But telling people that there are possibilities is not enough.

Significant change must occur at an institutional and practice level.  Part of our work here at Fedcap is to ensure that each and every day we promote and embody aspirational thinking—among ourselves as well as instilling this belief in those we serve.  But equally, and maybe more importantly, we need to find a way to expand access to people who promote aspirational thinking.

In 1931, writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the terdream-the-impossible-seek-the-unknown-achieve-greatnessm “American Dream” which he defined by this statement: Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. I am convinced that it is not just those who have been left out of the American Dream who have internalized a sense of limitations.  I sometimes think it may be those of us who are doing the “serving” who also limit our aspirations for ourselves and for others.

In other words, whether we are talking about people with disabilities, people who have been subject to generational poverty, or the previously incarcerated, what “society” or “helpers” or schools believe shapes how we help and how hard we push those we serve and how we define potential. Those of us in the practice of helping, teaching, mentoring and supporting must examine our own beliefs, challenge them critically, and be ready to flip the orthodoxies we assume so that we, too, are willing and able to change. And, as our thinking changes and evolves, so will the systems with which we interact will begin to shift as well.

We all must fundamentally believe everyone can achieve greatness.  Greatness is not necessarily defined as something huge and momentous. Sometimes greatness and change can come incrementally but still yield seismic shifts. For example, the very act of having a college savings account—even less than 500.00—makes a child three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college?  Why? Because the savings account makes a young person believe that college might be possible and attainable.

I wonder what would happen if our helping systems were designed not as a safety net to catch–but as a trampoline to help people soar.  What if they were designed not merely to keep people from falling through the cracks—but to build a solid foundation for success— a legitimate pathway to greatness.  What if every system presumed and assumed greatness—for everyone?

What would that take?  What kind of rethinking, restructuring, re-imagining would be required?

What are your thoughts?  How can we shift the paradigm to assume greatness for everyone?