(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
I’ve never really resonated with the idea of the American Dream, primarily because the American Dream is so broad, encompassing and vague that it really means almost nothing at all. The American Dream is a catchphrase that is ingrained so deeply in what it means to be American that almost no one ever bothers to explain what it actually is. So when presidential hopefuls talk about the American Dream being dead, it brings up the fair question: what is the American Dream in the first place? I don’t think it’s an answer that has an easy question. The idea of economic mobility seems to be very closely tied to almost everyone’s notion of the American Dream, although if you look up the definition of the American Dream it basically encompasses every positive ideal in the book. Perhaps the sentiment that comes through the most in the varying definitions of the American Dream is that most people believe that there should be a freedom for individuals to better themselves regardless of birth or, in essence, upward mobility. Yet, statistics on upward mobility, of which there are many, all seem to suggest that it really is just a dream. If we equate the American Dream to economic mobility it really is dead. But the problem is, the American Dream isn’t dead. Most Americans believe that upward mobility is more common than it is by a margin of 23%. Perhaps the American Dream would be better named the American Delusion?
Through my time at Year Up they have preached the power of self-betterment and the ability for determination, fortitude, discipline and ambition to affect life outcomes. Essentially, Year Up preaches the American Dream to their students. Coming in with my bias against the American dream, I was skeptical. What I realized though is, for the students at Year Up, the American Dream isn’t a delusion–it actually exists. And although the students at Year Up have surely been given a phenomenal opportunity, the success of the program in terms of job placement and often almost a 100% increase in wages makes my pessimism seem petty. I continue to wonder how, if all it takes to make a low income at risk individual successful is discipline, skills training, and a support network, we are witnessing such a failure in upward mobility. Year Up doesn’t fix racism or broader social issues. It takes individuals who have had it rough and gives them skills, discipline and respect. The approach focuses on the individual to fix the broader system as a whole. This is so different from what we are taught at Duke. We are so often taught of systemic failure and overarching social issues. The failures are large and systemic so the solutions must also be large and fix the system itself, or so we are often urged to think. Yet, a system however large, is made of individuals. So during my time at Year Up, I have decided to explore this philosophy of change on the individual level and see where it takes me.